Reasonable Doubt: How Much Does a Divorce Cost?

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      One of the first and most common questions I get asked as a family lawyer is “how much will my divorce cost in legal fees?” This is an important question that should be asked at the start and throughout the divorce process. The answer most lawyers will give, however, is rarely satisfactory to the person asking it because, other than in the simplest cases, the answer is: it will depend on many factors, some within your control and some completely out of your control.

      If the parties are only looking to get a divorce and do not have children or any other issues such as spousal support or property- and debt-division issues, the legal fees and court-filing fees combined will generally cost between $1,000 to $1,500. There are, however, many resources online that assist divorcing parties with making the divorce application on their own, which would save their legal fees altogether.

      For parties with more complicated cases that involve children, child and spousal support, or property- and debt-division issues, there are a myriad of factors that will impact how much legal fees they end up spending. These factors include:

      The lawyer’s hourly rate  Most family lawyers charge by the hour. The hourly rate of family lawyers in B.C. range approximately between $200 to $650. The rate is generally in accordance with how many years the lawyer has been practising law because lawyers typically increase their rate every year or two. A lawyer with an hourly rate of $200 typically has around one to three years of experience, whereas a lawyer with an hourly rate of closer to $650 will have over 30 years of experience.

      The number and types of issues  Generally, the more issues there are to be resolved between the parties, the more time will need to be spent to address all of them. These include the division of property and debt, children-related matters such as guardianship and parenting schedules, child support, and spousal support. In some cases, experts such as business valuators, property appraisers, pension actuaries, psychologists will need to be hired to provide expert reports, which adds to the cost of the legal proceedings. For example, a psychologist report assessing the views and needs of the child in relation to guardianship and parenting time, which is usually necessary for complicated or high-conflict “custody battles”, costs between $10,000 to $16,000. The more complicated the issues are, the higher the legal fees will tend to be.

      The parties’ willingness to work toward a resolution  The biggest unknown in the equation is the actions—or, rather, the reactions—of the other party. If the separation is amicable and the parties are willing to compromise and work toward a fair resolution, their legal fees will be minimized. Whereas if the parties, or even just one party, insists on fighting about every issue, the legal fees could be astronomical, costing the parties each well over $100,000 from beginning to end. Going to court guarantees that the parties will spend significant legal fees. Even a two-hour court application will cost $10,000 or more for the lawyer’s time to prepare for the application and go to court. A five-day trial can cost between $30,000 to $50,000. Even in cases where the parties are far apart on most issues, they can save significant legal costs by being willing to try alternatives to court, such as mediation or arbitration.

      Client’s organization and Involvement  A party who is proactive with having a good understanding and record of their financial situation throughout their relationship and after the breakup, who keeps their paperwork and records organized, and is clear with their communications with their lawyer will save significant legal fees. This is because by having the relevant information (i.e., a list of assets and debts, bank statements, income-tax documents, corporate financial statements, children’s-expenses receipts, etcetera) organized and available for the lawyer, the lawyer will not have to spend time sorting through and trying to make sense of information and documents or spend time requesting more information from their client and/or the other party.

      While some of these factors discussed are outside of one’s control, there are many things you can do to minimize your legal fees. Some of the most significant ways to do so include:

      Hiring the right lawyer for you and your situation  Some people might erroneously assume that choosing a lawyer with the lowest hourly rate would save them the most money. However, this is usually not the case. A lawyer with little experience can take much longer to complete the work or arrive at a solution as compared to a lawyer with more experience. The less experienced lawyer who has an hourly rate of $200 could end up spending three times longer to do the same work as a more experienced lawyer with a hourly rate of $300.

      On the other hand, some people assume that choosing a lawyer with the highest hourly rate would give them the highest guarantee of success and be worth the high cost. This is also not always the case. If the issues involved are not extremely complicated, it would not make sense to hire a lawyer with 30 years of experience when a lawyer with five years of experience can easily provide the same level of service and expertise at a lower rate. Also, just because a lawyer is more senior does not mean they have more experience dealing with all issues in family law. For example, there are some senior lawyers who choose to take on very few custody cases, whereas there are some intermediate-level lawyers with extensive experience with those types of cases.  

      The most cost-effective choice would be to try to choose a lawyer that fits the difficulty level and the expertise needed for your case. For example, if you and your ex have few assets, no children, and only require assistance with getting a divorce, then it would make sense to hire a junior lawyer with a low hourly rate. On the other hand, if there are high-conflict custody issues or the parties own corporations or significant assets, it could be much more cost effective to hire a lawyer with more years of experience who has handled many cases involving exactly those issues. In the initial consultation with a lawyer, therefore, it is important to ask the lawyer about their experience working on cases with issues similar to yours.

      Be organized and do as much work on your own as you can  Since you are paying a lawyer by the hour, you do not want the lawyer spending time sorting through your documents to try to make sense of things. In most cases, it is helpful and saves everyone time at the start if you prepare a timeline of significant events, a list of all assets and debts, collect your income-tax and bank documents, a list of your goals, concerns, and questions, and, if your lawyer asks you to fill out a questionnaire, fill it out with as many details as possible.

      Be efficient and organized with your communications with your lawyer  Since family lawyers typically charge by the hour, you will save legal fees by being prudent and organized in the way you communicate with your lawyer. It is helpful to know how exactly your lawyer records and bills his or her time. Most lawyers record and bill their time in six-minute increments, which is one-tenth of an hour. This means that nothing costs less than six minutes of the lawyer’s time. If the lawyer’s hourly rate is $200, then every six minutes or less they spend on a task costs $20. A two-minute phone call would cost the same as a six-minute phone call. For example, if you send your $200-per-hour lawyer 10 separate e-mails that each takes the lawyer only three minutes to read, this would cost you $200 in total. Whereas, if you had put all your questions into one longer e-mail that takes the lawyer 30 minutes to read, this would only cost you $100. Unless there is some reason why you must make many short phone calls or send many short e-mails, it will be much more cost-effective if you are organized and plan out your e-mails or phone calls/meetings. It is also helpful to organize and write out the questions or issues you want to discuss with your lawyer prior to phone calls or meetings so you do not spend time discussing issues that are not as important, only to have to schedule another time to discuss the issues you forgot to mention.

      Constantly do cost-benefit analyses  All too often, parties get lost in their emotions. This is understandable and expected when a relationship breaks down. However, by focusing on trying to “win” or get back at their ex, parties inevitably spend much more time and money on their divorce proceedings. I have seen parties spend over $5,000 in legal fees fighting over household items that cost a quarter of that to replace. If cost-effectiveness is important to you, make sure you hire a lawyer who cares about that too and will push you to do a cost-benefit analysis with every step. Before you decide to pursue something, especially if you need to go to court for it, work with your lawyer to do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that you understand the cost, the chance of success, and why you are pursuing it. Beware that there are situations where your best-case scenario in court could still end up being less than your legal fees.

      Know about alternative options: unbundled legal services  If you do not have the financial means to hire a lawyer, there are other ways of getting the legal advice you need. For example, there are free clinics offered by Access Probono for lower-income individuals, and there are family-law duty counsels at many courthouses. More family lawyers are now offering unbundled legal services, which is where a lawyer works on and only charges you for specific tasks or a specific amount of time that is agreed to in advance instead of representing you for your entire case from beginning to end. Services provided could include helping you prepare a court document, helping you find legal cases to support your court application, or helping you prepare for mediation or for trial.

      So, how much does a divorce cost? “It depends” or “anywhere between $1,000 to $100,000-plus” might be the shortest answers you’ll get from a family lawyer. However, that should not stop you from constantly evaluating how you, your lawyer, and your ex-spouse can find ways to ensure your hard-earned money is well spent.

      A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

      *Resources for preparing your own divorce application: https://familylaw.lss.bc.ca/guides/divorce/

      https://justice.gov.bc.ca/divorce

      Nancy Chen is a family lawyer at Catalyst Legal LLP and can be reached here. If you have topics that you’d like her to cover or if you have a general question for a lawyer, you are welcome to contact her. 

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