California is a community property state, which means that any property or debt accumulated during a marriage or a registered partnership belongs to both partners. Children are the responsibility of both partners. Pets, cars, credit card bills, mortgages, investment properties – all are community property if they were acquired during the marriage. The more property a couple has, the more paperwork they’ll have, which means the more costly the divorce.
If both partners are committed to doing the extensive paperwork involved themselves, they can obtain a divorce in California for under $500. When lawyers get involved, the cost can run into the thousands.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Evaluate the situation first. If a pre- or post-nuptial agreement regarding assets, property or anything of financial value was signed, the partners should probably meet with an attorney first before proceeding with a self-help divorce.
Getting a Summary Dissolution
If the couple has been married for less than five years, they can apply for a “Summary Dissolution.” This is the least expensive and quickest path to divorce in California, and it can be obtained for under $500. The paperwork is extensive, and both parties must be diligent in filling out all the forms completely to avoid having the judgment returned as incomplete.
Other conditions apply to getting a summary dissolution, including:
- No children are involved in the divorce.
- They cannot own any property jointly.
- They cannot have a lease for one year or more.
- $6,000 is the maximum amount of debt allowed for both parties combined.
- Community property is valued at less than $41,000.
- No spousal support is being requested.
- An agreement has been reached and signed as to the division of property.
The process takes six months and one day to be finalized after the Petition for a Summary Dissolution has been filed.
Cost of an Uncontested Divorce
If the couple does not qualify for a summary dissolution, their next choice for an inexpensive divorce is an “uncontested divorce.” This is the least complicated divorce when there is little property to split and both parties agree to the division of the assets and debt. Avoiding litigation is the smartest way to keep divorce costs down. A simple, uncontested divorce in California should cost less than $500, but both parties must be in agreement as to whom walks away with what.
Resolving financial issues before putting pen to paper is the key to filing for an uncontested divorce. A spouse who is hiding assets, is abusive, or one who is using the divorce for revenge is not a candidate for an uncontested divorce.
Preparing the Paperwork for an Uncontested Divorce
The paperwork for an uncontested divorce is available at the county courthouse or online. The next hurdle is to have the divorce papers served on the other party. One person files the papers; the other receives the paperwork either by hand, mail or through the sheriff’s department, and signs for them. The cost of a process server runs around $50.
When a lawyer gets involved in filing paperwork for an uncontested divorce, the fee can go up to $5,000, depending on the attorney’s hourly fees.
Finalizing an Uncontested Divorce
Although all issues have been agreed upon by both parties, a judge must sign off on the terms before declaring the divorce final. In the meantime, both partners are financially responsible for maintaining the assets and servicing the debt. The uncontested divorce won’t be finalized until six months and one day have passed since the papers were filed.
Considering Children When Divorcing
The California courts look to what is best for the children when rendering custody. The level of hostility that the parents have toward each other affects that decision and may hamper a joint custody decision. This is when the uncontested divorce evolves into a contested divorce. Lawyers may need to intercede, and this raises the cost of the divorce.
When Lawyers Get Involved
The moment a lawyer gets involved in a divorce is when the costs begin to skyrocket. Even in an uncontested divorce in which the details have been agreed upon, a lawyer’s advice may cost upwards of $1,000. In California, that cost begins around $3,500.
Attorney fees in California can cost upwards of $650 per hour, depending on the complexity of the divorce. A retainer is paid before the attorney looks at or hears any details of the pending divorce.
An advertisement in the newspaper may offer a quick divorce for only a few hundred dollars, but don’t be lured into that attorney’s office. Hourly charges for telephone calls, emails, making photocopies, postage, time spent filing paperwork ‒ all are added to the base cost and up the investment to several thousand dollars.
"Limited Scope" Assistance from an Attorney
However, if the couple feels more comfortable having a lawyer review their decisions before filing the paperwork, consider hiring him as a “limited scope” attorney. The cost is considerably lower, depending on the lawyer and what he charges per hour. Those hourly fees generally range from $150 to $650.
Mediation, Collaboration vs. Litigation
Once the partners and their respective attorneys enter a courtroom – cha-ching! The dollars start adding up. Keeping emotions in check and maintaining a level head mean each partner will walk away from the divorce with more money. Mediators are a viable alternative to standing in front of a judge.
The two partners meet and hash out the terms of the divorce, with a neutral third party, a mediator, guiding the discussion and decisions. The goal is to leave the room with an agreed-upon directive regarding the terms of the divorce. Mediators charge between $100‒$300 per hour, and mediation usually takes several hours or may run into days.
Another way to avoid the expense of the courtroom is to involve a collaborator. The couple and their attorney meet, and the details of the divorce are laid out in search of an agreement. The longer and more difficult the meeting, the more costly it becomes as they are now paying the attorney’s hourly rate. It’s still less costly than going in front of a judge.
Bringing in Outside Professionals
Divorce costs skyrocket when outside professionals are retained. This usually happens when children and custody are involved. Child psychologists evaluate the home environment, the living conditions at both parents’ homes and the children’s relationship with each parent.
Child support, custody and visitation are recommended by the psychologist, but both parties must agree before the divorce can progress out of court. A county-employed child psychologist may charge a minimum of $1,000, while a private psychologist may cost upwards of $10,000.
When one party suspects the other is hiding assets, a forensic accountant is brought in to evaluate the financial assets of both partners. Pension plans, a stock portfolio, life insurance and its equity, IRAs, and division of investment properties are all evaluated. The average cost of a forensic accountant is $5,000.
Tell It to the Judge
Be prepared to spend upwards of $20,000 for a divorce that’s adjudicated in front of a judge. The more complex and contentious the divorce, the more costly it becomes, with the majority of the fees going to the attorneys. If you’re one step away from going to court, consider settling out of court. Expect those costs to run upwards of $15,000, but you’ll avoid the hourly fees that your attorney charges.
Although community property is cut and dried in California, complications arise when either party works part-time in another state, inheritance funds are involved, monies earned before the marriage are co-mingled with funds earned post-marriage, patents are pending, or royalties and residuals are on the table. High-stakes finances are involved, which means a lawyer who specializes in divorce is, in the end, the least expensive cost of the divorce.