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How Much Does a Divorce Really Cost in California?

Figuring out how much a divorce will cost in California, or any state for that matter, is nearly impossible to do without knowing details about your situation. Data suggests that the average cost of a divorce in California is around $17,500, but the true cost can be much higher or much lower depending on how many contested issues there are, how long it takes to reach a settlement, and what type of process is used.

For example, a divorce involving contested issues such as the division of property, child custody and support, and spousal support that requires litigation is going to be much more expensive than a divorce without any contested issues that is settled outside of court. Additionally, a divorce will often get more expensive if there are minor children involved, significant assets, or one spouse who is seeking spousal support.

Average Cost of Divorce in California

Unfortunately, data shows that the average divorce in California costs more than in any other state. The average divorce without kids is $17,500 in California, and the average divorce with kids is $26,300.

Divorce filing fees in California are relatively low. What gets expensive is paying divorce attorneys and the court for their time if you and your spouse cannot reach a settlement on your own. Typically, the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the more you will pay.

Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce Costs in California

A divorce is contested if there are issues that the spouses cannot agree on, such as property division, child custody, child support, or spousal support. An uncontested divorce means the spouses have agreed on everything themselves. They only need limited assistance from an attorney or mediator (or maybe none at all).

A contested divorce will always be more expensive than an uncontested divorce. Each issue that the spouses cannot agree on adds to the cost of a divorce. Issues that couples commonly don't agree on that can lead to expensive litigation include:

  • Child custody and child support decisions
  • Splitting financial assets like retirement accounts or investment accounts
  • Seeking spousal support or alimony
  • Businesses owned by one or both spouses

For these reasons, divorce cases without minor children, significant assets such as real estate, or businesses tend to get resolved quicker, and with less expense, than divorces involving the list above.

When Should I Pay an Attorney to Handle Something?

You are right to assume that divorce costs will increase if you hire a lawyer. However, sometimes paying for a lawyer's help is more cost-effective than leaving money on the table during your divorce or making a costly mistake.

Here are signs that you should seek an attorney's help:

  • You don't trust that your spouse will be honest and forthcoming about finances.
  • You have minor children and don't agree on parenting time or child support.
  • You get confused by or don't entirely understand the divorce self-help paperwork.
  • There is a history of domestic violence or substance abuse in your marriage. (See more about domestic violence and staying safe.)
  • You don't have a clear understanding of your finances.
  • You are worried about being able to financially support yourself after the divorce.

Additionally, handling a divorce by yourself is no easy task. Many people find that they need an attorney's help with divorce issues such as:

  • Working out a marital settlement agreement
  • Drafting and filing the necessary divorce paperwork
  • Following proper divorce procedure such as service and wait-time requirements
  • Figuring out the correct amount of child support that will be approved by the court
  • Agreeing on a parenting plan, including how much time the kids spend with each parent on a day-to-day basis as well as during the summer and on holidays

While it is certainly possible to handle a divorce by yourself from start to finish, this is not recommended by most courts unless there is very little at stake. Divorce is a legal process with complex requirements and procedures. It will have a long-lasting effect on your life and so it's important to get it right.

Hiring a lawyer doesn't automatically mean your divorce will be contested or end up in court. You can find a lawyer who is dedicated to reaching an out-of-court settlement or who you can pay to help you with only certain issues, if that's your desire.

Options That Affect the Cost of Your Georgia Divorce

You have many options when going through a divorce, many of which affect the final cost. The table below explains a few of the different options you have during divorce that can cause you to either save money or spend money, as well as the pros and cons of both scenarios.

Of course, some of these scenarios require your spouse's agreement and participation, not all of them may be available in your situation.


Save Money

Spend Money

Do-It-Yourself or Hire a Professional Do-It-Yourself: You handle the entire divorce by yourself, from negotiating a settlement agreement to completing court forms and filing the forms with the court.
  • Pros: You save the most amount of money with this route. The California judiciary has a self-help resource you can use for assistance.
  • Cons: You could easily get overwhelmed and end up making a costly mistake or not getting a fair outcome. This is a risky option unless you don't have children or much martial property.
Hiring a Divorce Professional: From mediators to custody and financial evaluators to attorneys, there are many professionals available to help you with your divorce.
  • Pros: You will benefit from the knowledge and expertise of someone who has been through the process many times before and can help you avoid common mistakes and pitfalls.
  • Cons: It can be expensive to pay for a divorce professional's help, which is not easy to do if you are already strapped for cash. Consider looking for free and low-cost family law help if this is the case.
Settlement or Litigation Reaching an Out-of-Court Settlement: Out-of-court options, also known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR), can be used to settle any disputed issues in your case without having to get the court involved.
  • Pros: Out-of-court settlement processes such are mediation are a less expensive alternative to litigation and allow you to stay in control of the outcome instead of handing the decision-making power over to a judge.
  • Cons: Sometimes people need a judge to intervene in their divorce cases when there is a power imbalance, domestic violence or substance abuse, or the divorcing couple simply can't reach an agreement.

Note: Sometimes mediation is required by the court (especially in cases with children).

Litigating in Court: Litigation refers to using the court system to resolve any divorce issues you cannot settle on your own. A judge makes the final decision, which is legally binding unless you file an appeal and another judge reverses the decision.
  • Pros: A judge can listen to both sides of the matter and make an unbiased decision. Getting the court involved may be necessary if you and your spouse cannot agree on your own, or there are issues like domestic violence or substance abuse involved.
  • Cons: Litigation is what makes divorce expensive. Litigation also means you turn over the decision-making power to the judge, who doesn't know you or your family very well.
Representing Yourself or Being Represented by a Lawyer Pro-Se: Anyone can choose to represent themselves or appear "pro se" in a divorce proceeding. That means you appear in court without an attorney to represent you.
  • Pros: Paying a lawyer is the most expensive aspect of a divorce, so you will definitely save on the cost of divorce by cutting out attorney fees.
  • Cons: It can be extremely difficult to represent yourself in a contested divorce, especially if your spouse has a lawyer. Divorce litigation is a formal court process that can be difficult for non-lawyers to navigate, and you risk not getting a fair outcome.
Legal Representation: Most people choose to have a lawyer represent them in a contested divorce.
  • Pros: Hiring a lawyer to represent you in your contested divorce means you have an advocate on your side to protect your rights, negotiate on your behalf, and guide you through the divorce process.
  • Cons: Lawyers can be expensive and the costs can add up quickly depending on how many issues need to be resolved in your case. Some lawyers are settlement-focused, while others like to litigate. Make sure you get a lawyer that will take the approach you want.
Hiring a Part-Time Lawyer or Hiring a Full-Time Lawyer Limited-Scope Legal Representation: Many people don't realize that it's possible to hire a lawyer for only certain aspects of your divorce, such as negotiating a settlement, attending a hearing, or drafting divorce papers.
  • Pros: Paying a lawyer to help you with only some aspects of your divorce is much less expensive than paying for full-scope legal representation.
  • Cons: You do not have the benefit of having a lawyer "on call" to help you with anything that could come up over the course of your divorce.
Full-Scope Legal Representation: This is the traditional attorney-client relationship that most people choose during a divorce.
  • Pros: If you can afford it, most people prefer to have a lawyer help them with every aspect of their divorce. Your lawyer will get to know you and your case very well and will be able to better advocate for you.
  • Cons: Hiring a lawyer to represent you in the entirety of your divorce can get very expensive, and there may be things you could handle on your own to save money.
Sticking to Legal Issues or Taking a Holistic Approach Legal Process: Most people focus only on the legal and financial aspects of their divorce, instead of getting into more therapeutic processes.
  • Pros: If you stick to the legal and financial issues, you can always address any therapeutic needs on your own.
  • Cons: You could miss out on forming a solid foundation from which you can better co-parent with your spouse.
Holistic Approach: Collaborative Law is a divorce process that takes a more holistic approach by focusing on the well-being of the family. It often involves professionals such as financial, mental health, and child specialists.
  • Pros: Taking a holistic approach to divorce allows all members of the family to better heal and move forward. It helps the parties stay focused on their children and treat each other with respect.
  • Cons: Although it is an out-of-court process, Collaborative Law can be expensive if there are lawyers and specialists involved.

How Much Are Divorce Filing Fees in California?

In California, the filing fee for divorce is $435. This must be paid when the divorce is originally filed with the court, which starts the divorce process. Both parties will need to pay the filing fee if they both file pleadings with the court. In the case of uncontested divorce, usually only one filing fee is necessary.

If you are low-income, you may be able to qualify for a fee waiver.

Other legal fees that may come up in your divorce include:

  • A service fee that you pay to the sheriff's department process server that serves the divorce petition on your spouse
  • A fee to complete a court-ordered co-parenting class, if one is required in your case
  • Copy fees to obtain your divorce judgment

In California, it is possible to have your divorce court fees waived if you cannot afford them by asking for what is called a "fee waiver." You may qualify for a fee waiver if:

  • You receive public benefits;
  • Your household income is below a certain threshold; or
  • The court otherwise decides you cannot afford to pay the court fees.

Simply fill out the Request to Waive Court Fees and turn in a copy to the court clerk in your county.

How Much Does a Divorce Lawyer Cost in California?

Most California family law attorneys charge by the hour at an hourly rate of $300 or more, based on their experience. Usually, family law attorneys require new clients to put down a large retainer of several thousand dollars before they begin working on the case. Money is then drawn from the retainer monthly as the attorney bills for their work. Most California divorce lawyers accept credit cards, and some offer payment plans.

As an alternative to billing hourly, some attorneys take divorce cases for a flat fee. Others provide limited-scope representation, which means they charge a flat fee (sometimes an hourly fee) to help you with only certain aspects of your divorce. This is less expensive than hiring an attorney to help you with all aspects of your divorce.

Before choosing a lawyer, it's important to do your research. Find a lawyer who has experience handling any unique issues that are involved in your case, such as a business or a special needs child. You also want to make sure you like the approach the lawyer takes in divorce cases. For example, some lawyers are settlement-focused while others enjoy litigating.

One way to keep attorney fees in check is to avoid treating your lawyer like a therapist. Keep in mind that attorneys bill for the time, so the longer each phone call lasts, the more you will pay. You can also ask your lawyer if you can take on some of the legwork involved in the case — such as document preparation or making copies — to reduce costs.

If you are low income, it may be possible to find a lawyer who will represent you pro bono, or at no cost. The California judiciary has a website that helps people find free and low-cost attorneys.

Can I File for Divorce in California Without a Lawyer?

Yes, you can file for divorce without a lawyer in California. In most situations, it is preferable to have a lawyer on your side, especially if there are any contested issues, but a lawyer is not required to obtain a divorce. Even if your case ends up going to trial, you can represent yourself "pro se," though this is not recommended. The California judiciary has a self-help website for people representing themselves in divorce or separation.

Keep in mind that you can ask a lawyer to help you with certain aspects of your divorce. This is called limited-scope representation. For example, you could pay a lawyer a flat fee to review your divorce agreement or attend a hearing with you.

How Long Will a Divorce Take in California?

Typically, a divorce in California takes eight to 20 months from start to finish, though some take much less or much more time. The average length of time to complete a divorce in California is 15 months, from the day the divorce is filed to the day the divorce is granted. Divorce cases take a few months longer, on average, if there are children involved.

How long your divorce will take depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • How many "contested" issues there are in your case, or how many issues you and your spouse disagree on
  • Whether you have significant assets or a business
  • Whether one of you is seeking spousal support
  • Whether both of you want the divorce and are ready to move on (one spouse can stall the process)
  • How responsive you and your spouse are
  • Whether the court's calendar is backed up
  • How busy you, your spouse, and your respective attorneys are

If you and your spouse can agree on all issues, also known as an uncontested divorce, then the process can move quickly. However, California has a mandatory waiting period of six months. That means that even if you agree on everything and turn your paperwork into the court and the judge approves your divorce in a short time, six months have to pass from the day you started the case before the divorce can become official.

On the other hand, some divorce cases can end up taking years (and costing tens of thousands of dollars) if issues are highly-contested and a long court battle ensues. The saga can continue if one spouse decides to appeal a judge's decision.

Getting Help With a California Divorce

If you are ready to move forward with a divorce, it's a good idea to at least meet with a lawyer to walk through the process and discuss potential issues that could arise in your case. A California divorce lawyer in your area can help you explore all of your options and discuss ways to save money while protecting your interests.

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  • Divorces are tough and a lawyer can seek the best outcome
  • A lawyer can help protect your children's interests
  • Divorce lawyers can secure alimony, visitation rights, and property division

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