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California Divorce Costs

California Divorce Costs
October 11, 2016 Peter O'Hanlon


It’s been a few years since NetDivorce did an overview of California divorce costs.  There have been some recent trends and developments in California divorce costs.  There are some signs that California attorneys are finally beginning to fight back against online divorce websites.  That is advantageous for divorce consumers. So it’s time to do a re-cap of California divorce costs.

Bear in mind that many divorce-related costs are either not economic or they are highly specific to the individual divorce consumer’s case.  Emotional costs and indirect economic costs are impossible to quantify.

So we are talking here only about the prices paid by a divorce consumer to one or more divorce professionals in exchange for actual divorce services.  Those services may include legal advice from a lawyer (optional and case-specific), representation by a lawyer (optional and case specific), document preparation (essential), filing at court (essential but can be handled easily and without cost by the consumer), service of documents on the Respondent (essential but can be done, with minimal instruction, by any friend or relative, 18 or older, and without cost to the divorce consumer) or other ancillary divorce related services (highly optional) such as divorce/life counseling or professional serving of the documents on the Respondent.

Two California divorce costs specifically excluded here are the court filing fee (currently $435 in all counties except Riverside and San Francisco, where it is $450) and any professional process server fee (highly optional and case specific, but generally in the $45-$100 range).

California divorce costsTraditional Lawyer Representation – Contested Case:  The cost is unlimited. – How long is a piece of string? In a knock-down, drag-out Kramer-vs-Kramer style contested case where the parties will never agree on what day it is, costs are unlimited. Lawyers will take everything you’ve got, and you will deserve what’s left. If your case is one notch down on the contested scale and lawyers go to trial or can negotiate a settlement, the costs will still be huge though not unlimited.  Costs for one party only in such a case can easily be $15,000 to $50,000+. It really does depend on how much you’ve got (the lawyers will know) and what you are arguing about.  Emotion is expensive in divorce.

Mediator – Contested Case: $1500-2500+ – If your case is technically contested, but neither of you wants to kill the other and you can at least agree to hire a mediator (usually, but not always, a lawyer) and abide by his or her decision after you (or your lawyers) have presented arguments, the mediator portion of the costs can be as little as $1500-2500, depending on how many issues you are arguing. The actual cost can easily be more and again, is highly case-specific.

Traditional Lawyer Representation – Uncontested Case: $750-2000 – Avvo, the lawyer co-op advertising outfit, has set something of a benchmark for a simple lawyer-represented uncontested case at $995, without minor children of the marriage, and at $1995, with children. This is not a terrible deal, particularly if you have no minor children.  You get a qualified licensed professional lawyer in your local area who knows local courts, judges and rules. Nationwide online divorce mills will be clueless on local legal knowledge and your case will suffer greatly as a result. A lawyer must treat you ethically or face career-threatening risk from the Bar Association.  Online divorce mills are rife with fraud, deception and incompetence. There is no effective guarantee that you will ever get your case finalized through an online divorce mill. A lawyer representing you will do a full legal and economic rights checkup. You will receive no guidance whatsoever from the nationwide online divorce mills, a few of which are based in India.  They prepare your docs and after that, you are well and truly on your own.  Bear in mind that while Avvo has set a benchmark, you can definitely shop around and get lawyer representation in the $750 range without any minor children.  It’s more expensive that the average $300 fee for an online divorce mill, but you do get a LOT more for your money.

Lawyer Document Preparation – No Representation – Uncontested Case: $400-700 Unbundled services (sometimes called “limited representation”) is one of the two major developing trends in family law practice that seeks to fight back against online divorce mills. The other developing trend is virtual law practice where the lawyer will seek to keep costs down by using office-efficiencies, software that crunches large amounts of paperwork, hi-tech tools and cloud-based solutions that rival those of online divorce websites.  Unbundled and virtual often go hand in hand. These are healthy trends for both the Bar and divorce consumers.  If you want a lawyer just to prepare your docs but provide no representation (but of course be on hand, with full knowledge of your case, should it blow up into a contested case), this is your best option.  Be prepared for some limitations on phone calls and emails.  You won’t have a lawyer “on call.” However, you can buy more communications and other add-on services as they are needed. Regrettably, California lawyers seem slow to take up these trends and while fees approaching $250-300 for lawyer doc-preparation can be found in other states, you will be hard pushed for a while to find an unbundled California lawyer doing doc-prep in an uncontested divorce at $400. It’s coming, though.

Main Street Non-Lawyer-Uncontested Case: $400-800 – These are what used to be called independent paralegals.  For whatever reasons, they did not completely make the jump to online divorce. These are now the dinosaurs of divorce.  There aren’t many of them left. Their business model is flawed. They pretend that the cost efficiencies of the internet don’t exist. The result is unqualified service at attorney rates. This option is not recommended.

Boutique Online Divorce Service – Uncontested Case: $750+ – At this writing, this may be a category of one. After over 3 years of a very nice, very thin website, has sprung to life.  Wevorce is not a law firm. Wevorce is a pretentious online divorce mill.  Wevorce will prepare all of your California divorce papers for $749. NetDivorce, also not a law firm, does that for $129. The only thing listed in the Wevorce list that NetDivorce doesn’t provide is a “closure process.” At least, we don’t think we provide it. We don’t know, because Wevorce doesn’t disclose what a closure process is. NetDivorce provides a final email to tell you that you’re done and thank you very much for your business. Is that a closure process?  If so, it must be worth $620.  Up-selling alert: The wevorce website mentions very many services (“other legal, co-parenting and financial experts,” “emotional issues,” etc.) that are clearly not in the list of services for $749. We suspect a strong up-selling operation at wevorce. If you think that your divorce is extra-special and should be handled by posers, hold onto your wallet.

Big Corporation Online Divorce Service – Uncontested Case: $300 – These are unqualified non-lawyers who claim to be experts in divorce in every one of 3000+ US counties. Their average fee is $300, which is for divorce doc preparation only. Unqualified divorce doc-prep is a remarkably small product for $300. There is a huge amount of fraud in this group. Please see the Online Divorce Association of American website before proceeding in this area.

Niche Online Divorce Service – Uncontested Case: $129 with No Ups or Extras Ever – As far as we are aware, this is also a category of one – NetDivorce.  NetDivorce is a California specialist online divorce website. We handle only California divorce and we’ve been doing nothing but California divorce since June 1, 1981 (including our pre-internet version, California Legal Assistance Centers). NetDivorce is also not a law firm, but is owned and operated by a lawyer with 35+ years of experience in California divorce. He proofreads all of your docs.  Additionally, our other senior caseworker has prepared over 25,000 Marital Settlement Agreements since 1985.  Why would you pay more than $129 for a non-lawyer prepared California uncontested divorce.

DIY- Uncontested Case: $0 – This means that you download the three batches of blank forms from the court website and try to figure out how to complete them and what to do with them. This is real Do It Yourself divorce. It used to be possible in the 80’s and early 90’s.  If you think it still is, good luck.  According to a recent Insider Monkey survey, California divorce is the second most difficult in the country.  It is designed by lawyers to trip you up and send you to lawyers.  You will not succeed.  Please remember that NetDivorce only handles divorce from beginning to end.  We do not come into a case that has been filed and messed up.  However, any lawyer will.

CONCLUSIONS: If your case is going to be hotly contested, hire the most expensive lawyer you can find.  It will be worthwhile.  If your case is contested, but negotiable, find a mediator who will give you a flat fee in writing. If your case is uncontested at its beginning, but you suspect that it may not stay that way, find a lawyer to do doc-prep only for about $700. S/he will be ready if and when the case blows up, and you know that your docs are properly prepared.  Lower fees are coming in this sector. Lawyer prepared docs are a good insurance policy if the uncontested nature of your case is questionable. If your case is uncontested and will stay that way, why would you pay more than $129 for a complete California divorce, including unlimited client support, prepared by lawyer experts who handle nothing but California divorce?  If this describes your case, NetDivorce is a no-brainer.  Check out here why we are so cheap.

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