The Cost of Getting Divorced – a Comparison

My aim with this series of posts is to demonstrate how powerful an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to your divorce can be.

For you, your family and yes, even your ex.

The benefits of the collaborative approach are easy to discuss – any alternative path through your divorce that comes with less conflict, more support and better outcomes is worth exploring.

That it can also be more timely than the more traditional, litigated option – while giving you greater agency and control over the process – is just gilding the lily!

Such glowing descriptions of the process can make it sound like quite the unicorn.

And if you asked anybody what such a unicorn might cost, they’re going to expect it to be expensive.

After all, unicorn’s ain’t cheap!


This unicorn may not be cheap – but it’s probably not as expensive as you might think.

“Divorce is Expensive”

Divorce has a well-earned reputation for being dreadfully expensive. In fact, most financial advisers will agree that a traditional divorce is one of the five most effective ways to destroy a family’s wealth.

(The list goes: divorce, death of an uninsured breadwinner, owning a horse, buying a boat, lendng family money**).

But why is it so expensive? Is it the process itself, or is there something else that drives these six-figure divorces?

Well, while the process itself has some significant fixed fees, the short answer is that there’s something else that makes it so expensive: how you and your ex handle the conflict.

Conflict = Cost

If you imagine your divorce as a straight path you’re walking along (or a river you’re paddling down), then the costs two amicable people will incur as they walk directly down that path are the baseline.

The bare minimum costs, if you will.

However, these costs escalate as soon as you stray off that path.

Perhaps you can’t agree on how you’re going to juggle custody of the kids. You need to step off the path, bring in the lawyers and start working through the options.

That adds cost to the baseline.

Say the disagreement escalates and you’re just shouting at each other without listening.

That will add time, and inevitably, cost.

The longer this goes, the more it’s going to cost.

Then it’s on to the next potential arena – finances and property.

Then another one – timing. Then another – their new partner.

And on it goes. With every step off the path, every discussion, every letter, every lamentation to your family lawyer adding to your final bill.

To the point where, by some estimates, the average bill for a litigated divorce is $100,000 each*.

And the primary cause for this horrendous cost is how you and your ex (while acknowledging this is one of the times when it doesn’t take two to tango up the bill) handle the inevitable conflicts.

But, as you know by now, there is another way.

But a Team Like That Must Be Expensive?

As we’ve discussed before, an interdisciplinary collaborative divorce provides you and your ex with a team of professionals to help you navigate the process.

This team is made up of:

  • Two lawyers

  • A psychologist, or communications consultant

  • A financial neutral

Then, in the most successful collaborations I’ve been involved in, you will also have a dedicated case manager to help you work through the process.

The most cost-conscious readers will have winced to see that many potential fee channels listed in the one team.

Because, after all, each of the professionals involved comes with a fee. And these fees can add up – will add up – to a not insignificant amount.

However, while the number of dollars may climb, the other consideration is the value you’re getting for that cost – which we’ll return to in a bit.

How, Then How Much

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to keep this post focused on the differences between a traditional, litigated divorce and a team-based collaborative one.

There’s a broad spectrum of options for you to use for your own divorce, as we’ve discussed before, but this is the most illustrative comparison.

One of the key distinctions between the two methods is how they’re charged.

Again, we’re going to work with generalities here because there are fixed fee litigation lawyers, and hourly-based collaborative practices.

But, a litigated divorce is generally charged on an hourly basis, while a collaborative divorce is often based on an fixed fee.

Which makes sense – it’s impossible to know just how a litigated divorce is going to play out, so fixing the fee in advance can be extremely difficult.

Your matter might take 20 hours, but another couple’s might take 200 hours. It’s challenging to have a fixed, off-the-shelf, price with that level of variability.

One clear benefit of hourly fees is their simplicity – take the hours of work put into your case so far, multiply it by your lawyer’s fee and you have your fee.

20 hours at $660 an hour is $13,200.

200 hours at $660 an hour is $132,000.

  And so on.

Why Staying on the Path Matters

This very simplicity should also highlight the link between how you’re walking the path of your divorce – your approach to conflict, that is – and how much it’s going to cost.

More conflict means more hours, which means a higher cost.

Plus, this is before we factor in other costs like paralegals, junior lawyers, court appearances and barristers.

An Alternative – Fixed Fees

The alternative, and one frequently used in interdisciplinary collaborative cases, is using a fixed fee approach.

The advantage of this is obviously clarity for both of you at the start of the process.

The downside is that the upfront, fixed fee for the whole process is a lot higher than somebody’s hourly rate, so the comparison can seem a bit jarring. Seeing a quote for $50,000 is a lot harder on the eyes than $660 per hour.

And using a fixed fee approach only really works when the process is predictable, stable and clear.

Which, I’m happy to say, interdisciplinary collaborative practice most definitely is.

How Much

This predictability is because the collaborative side is built around fixed steps of the process:

And each step involves different amounts of work from the professionals. This work, remember, is all geared to helping you and your ex walk that straight path as quickly and confidently as possible.

So, after the initial intake process, your team will decide:

  • How much work is required of each professional

  • What type of work is required

  • A rough timeline of the work

  • The value to you and your family of this approach.

Your Case Manager will then prepare a quote for your consideration, which tallies up the costs of the process and work involved.

When you engage with the process, those costs are then payable upon the conclusion of each step.

Given the unique complexities of each case, no two fees are the same. But, as an example, here’s an average of the total fees payable based on the last five collaborations I’ve been involved:

The minimum fee, for a case that was financially simple but emotionally complex, was $12,000.

The maximum fee, for a case that had high complexity on the financial side, and moderate emotional complexities, was $60,000.

Not small numbers but remember this is the cost for both parties.

So, if we accept that the average litigated divorce is going to cost around $100,000 per person (so $200,000 for a couple) then it makes for a stark comparison.

And I’m yet to meet a family that wouldn’t be better off by keeping $140,000 in their own pocket.

Cost is What You Pay; Value is What You Get

Let’s step away from the arithmetic of the costs and examine the other side of the ledger – what you’re getting for your money.

A litigated process is about protecting, and advancing, your position and entitlements. This can be a combative and drawn-out process, taxing your financial and emotional resources over years.

In the worst cases, it can resemble the slow grind of trench warfare – progressing inch by slow, expensive inch against an intractable enemy.

Sometimes, this type of warfare is, sadly, necessary. But often it’s not. So the value side of the equation isn’t really balancing out the high costs you’re incurring.

And the costs we’re discussing here are just for your lawyers.

I haven’t included the costs you’ll incur in managing your mental health – the psychologist, therapist or counsellor.

The cost of the divorce coaches you’ll need to help you know what to ask, and when.

The costs – financial and emotional – of protecting your kids health through it all as well.

Your lawyer is there to advance your best legal position; they’re not there to manage and protect your mental and physical health.

Leaving you paying more for less support.

The Value of Collaborative Divorce

Contrast this to the holistic approach of an interdisciplinary collaborative divorce:

  • A dedicated psychological expert to support you both through the process, who works with you both to reduce the highs and soften the lows of the process.

    Which, in turn, takes the heat out of the conflict.

    Which, remember, directly impacts your fees.

  • You have a neutral financial expert to help with the minutiae of the Discovery process.

    To help you both be clear on the family finances and take away that corrosive insecurity that comes with being in the dark about money.

  • You have two committed, open-minded and communicative lawyers to protect your interests.

    But always with a clear eye to what’s in the best interests of you and your family.

  • Finally, you have an experienced case manager doing the administrative heavy lifting throughout the process.

    An unknowable portion of the stress of the divorce process comes from simply wondering where you are in the process – a great case manager takes most of that stress away.

To summarise – you’re likely to pay less for more support via a collaborative process.

And that’s paying less money, sure. But also with less stress. Less worry. Less conflict.

With more clarity. More time. More confidence.

And that costs less than an average litigated divorce??

*You’ll have noticed that I’ve focused on the financial costs of the process pretty well exclusively in this piece.

This doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of the other, more serious, costs a drawn-out process can have – on your mental health and that of your family, of your security, and of the mental health of the professionals helping you.

And for sources on this admittedly rubbery figure: try here, here and here.

** Completely subjective and made-up list of events. Except for the horse bit. Horses are expensive.

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