In my work as a divorce attorney I get asked all the time how much a divorce costs. I have come to believe that such a question is a sign that someone is missing the whole point of a divorce. First, the person is trying to put a dollar value on the process of divorce without considering the total value of the process. Second, the question fails to register the cost of staying in the marriage. Third, the dollar cost of a divorce cannot be accurately computed based on simple factors like cost per document. Finally, the cost of a divorce is affected by factors outside the control of an attorney.

What does a lawyer sell? Documents? Emails? Legal arguments? The answer is none of the above. A lawyer sells change. When a person goes to a lawyer for help, it’s because something has gone wrong in the person’s life, and the person wants to mitigate the damage or avoid it all together. The lawyer helps in that process. The lawyer helps change the direction of the client’s life to a more desirable destination. So how much does the change cost? The more important question is how much is the change WORTH, or how much VALUE does a lawyer produce for the client?

The second problem with asking the cost of a divorce is the client has usually failed to consider the cost of staying in the marriage. In the same way people often avoid going to the dentist until a toothache is too painful to bear any longer, many people delay visiting a divorce lawyer until their marriage is pure agony. No one who goes to the dentist with an agonizing toothache asks about the cost of pulling the tooth; the cost is irrelevant compared to the relief sought. If the marriage is agony, then why ask the cost of the divorce? At least before asking what a divorce costs, the client should consider the cost of staying in a miserable marriage. Clearly there is financial cost, but there are also less tangible costs like the emotional toll on the client, the effect of the marriage on the children, the living expenses that may be more than a divorced person would incur, etc. Staying in a miserable marriage has its own costs that should not be ignored.

Third, all the documents, hearings, emails, research and other items a client sees on his or her invoice are merely line items to help quantify the lawyer’s work. Assigning a cost to each line item is inaccurate. I’ll give a brief example. I recently finished a client’s divorce, and at one point a few days before trial I spent over three hours creating a ledger sheet with three columns, one for the total household assets and liabilities, one for my client’s share of the assets and liabilities and one for the opposing party’s share of the assets and liabilities. With this simple chart, I was able to show the opposing attorney that my client’s settlement offer was a good one. The opposing party accepted my client’s offer, and my client saved hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of assets in the division of the marital estate. My simple chart was a two page document that cost my client three hours of my fee to create, but the value of that one document far outweighed the cost. The cost of any given piece of a lawyer’s work is likely not nearly as accurate of a measuring stick as the value of the piece of work.

Finally, the client should realize that some of the absolute dollar costs of a divorce are not something the lawyer can control. I have determined that some processes have a fixed cost, such as filing fees with the court, the cost of depositions, the cost of mediation, and more. But there are other processes in a divorce that I have no control over. For example, some judges are harder convince than others. Some opposing attorneys are easy to work with to reach settlement, while some won’t do any negotiating until they meet you in the courthouse, which costs more money. Sometimes the opposing party drives up the cost of the divorce because he or she wants to go to court about everything. I have also had my own clients drive up the cost of the divorce because they made decisions that caused more drama between the parties, which induced the other spouses to fight harder. There are many more examples, but when a person asks a lawyer how much a divorce costs, there is really no way to predict the total cost.

Keep in mind some divorces are really simple. For example I have had numerous cases where both husband and wife wanted a speedy divorce, and they agreed on all of the terms of the decree. Those divorces are easy, emotionally liberating, and inexpensive. There are also ways to keep the cost of a divorce as low as possible by avoiding behaviors that provoke the opposing spouse into more litigation and drama. For example, I have seen an amicable divorce turn into a total calamity when my client started dating someone new before the decree was finalized; the other spouse hired an aggressive attorney and stopped cooperating in settlement efforts, costing my client thousands of dollars he could have saved by waiting to date until after the divorce.

When it comes to divorce, there are many costs involved, some financial, and others mental, emotional, and physical. But there are also benefits. So when you ask your attorney about the cost of a divorce understand there is no right answer. Instead, try to keep in mind the value of the divorce as a whole and the value of the processes during the proceedings.