This Is Exactly Why Traditional Divorce Costs So Much

(Hint: It’s not because your ex is a jerk.)

We don’t get married thinking we’ll get divorced. (At least I hope not.) But it happens. A lot. And that’s OK. Not every relationship lasts 50 years. But who would ever expect that their divorce would cost more than their lavish wedding? More than the caterer, venue, table centerpieces, and dress? But it does, most of the time.

Bottom line: Divorce is expensive. A recent article from USA Today reports that the average cost of divorce in California with children involved is $26,300.[1] Per person. (Really.) And most other states don’t fall too far behind — with a New York divorce totaling $25,600 and divorce in Delaware costing consumers on average $24,300. Attorney fees are so high that there are several financial institutions that focus solely on funding divorce litigation. Divorcees all over the country (and in the United Kingdom and Australia) report that they spent more on their divorce than they actually received in their settlement.

But why? Do people who once loved each other enough to buy a home, have kids, commit their lives to one another really hate each other so much now that they are willing to commit every last penny (and then some) to screwing over their spouse? Sometimes. But the truth is — and this may surprise you given how the larger media loves to hone in on the most contentious celebrity divorces — not usually. There are certainly exceptions but most people (gasp) don’t actually want a miserable, high conflict, ugly, and expensive divorce. Whether they wanted the divorce or not, they want to focus more on their next chapter, as opposed to reliving all the horrible or heartbreaking things that went wrong in the past.

“I Do” to “I Don’t”

So, what the heck happens between “I do” and “I don’t” that makes divorce one of the most expensive endeavors any of us will ever experience in a lifetime? Well, did you see the 2019 movie drama Marriage Story? It’s about a couple that were headed toward a lovely amicable divorce , gracefully navigating from “we” to “me” when bam — lawyers jumped in and hijacked the narrative, turning an otherwise graceful relationship exit into an all-out war. And while Marriage Story was accurate in so many ways — it doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, I wish it was the whole story. If that were the case (that some lawyers are just greedier than others), well that would be something we could fix. Maybe not overnight, but we could definitely move in that direction by exposing the villains and educating consumers.

But unfortunately, the entire divorce system is part of the problem. And it’s just not something that can be easily fixed. Let me explain.

Most marriages are significant in length. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average marriage lasts eight years.[2] So, a relationship of nearly a decade is not going to be unwound in a few days. Divorce is a process. A marathon not a sprint. And in the U.S., marriage is a serious financial contract — one that has profound implications, and as we dissolve this contract, it can be tricky and fraught with emotional triggers. This is my way of saying that some cost and conflict are inevitable in divorce. But it certainly doesn’t need to rise to the level of an all-out war. War is expensive and in divorce, no one wins.

The Heart of the Matter

So, let’s get to the heart (sorry) of the matter. Why is divorce so damn expensive?

Well, the system is stacked against us. All of us. It’s complicated, outdated, and inefficient, which is both time consuming and potentially very costly. No, this is not some conspiracy theory. This is just how it is:

1. The divorce system encourages fighting.

At its core, divorce is a lawsuit: X versus Y. And lawsuits are fights. Even the pleadings (the formal documents that frame the issues) say X versus Y. The notion of you against your ex is present every step of the way. And the divorce system itself offers very little guidance or resources geared at conflict resolution or alternative ways to resolve issues. If you’ve consulted a lawyer, explained your case and tried to resolve things out of court, you may feel like  litigation is your only option.

Furthermore, law is confusing and often contrary to the way people handled financials and other affairs during marriage. So, it requires a steep education process — and that’s only if you have the time or energy. It puts people who don’t have the space to educate themselves at a disadvantage, which often invokes fear. And fear leads people to do irrational things — like hire the most aggressive lawyer in town. You know, the one with a home page photo of a kid in the middle and each parent on either side pulling the child in opposite directions. Yeah, you know the one.

2. The divorce system is procedurally confusing.

No matter how organized or on top of things you may be in your regular life, there is no easy way to get through divorce. First of all, self-help resources are woefully inadequate and not set up to help the thousands of people who need it. Before the COVID-19 health crisis (and presumably after), most counties required people to get help in person, which meant they had to take time off work and sometimes travel long distances (especially if at the far end of a large county) to ask questions about the divorce procedure. Moreover, the assistance offered is often minimal. It might entail help with identifying forms and filling them out but no legal advice or strategy is given.

But more vexing than that is the procedure is insanely complicated. Many states don’t have uniform forms for divorce. And it is often made worse by counties that have rules that contradict state rules. For example, a form or pleading that is “optional” in one county might be mandatory in another. Or, some states have a waiting period before you can get divorced and the waiting period isn’t triggered until you properly “serve” (the delivery of legal documents) on your spouse. But how do you properly serve? That’s another procedure in itself to figure out. Or what about the fact that a judgment that says a 401(k) is divided equally doesn’t actually divide retirement. You’d need to know that a separate complicated document called a qualified domestic relations order needs to be filed, served, and brought to the financial institution holding the retirement account before it can be effectuated.

3. Legal regulations stifle independence and discourage innovation.

Most states only allow lawyers (or paralegals and assistants working under the supervision of lawyers) to provide help with legal documents and forms. The trouble is not everyone needs a lawyer or can afford to pay one. In fact, 85% of all divorces include at least one party who is self-represented. So, many people who can’t afford a lawyer turn to do-it-yourself (DIY) services.

The problem with many DIY services is that they do no more than provide you with forms, leaving you to figure out the rest. But the forms are complex and confusing and written in legalese (i.e., complicated and unfamiliar legal language that can leave your head spinning). Courts frequently reject documents for failure to prepare the correct forms (or fill them out completely) or for not being able to enforce a term in the document (e.g., child support or custody) because the contract was not specific enough or didn’t say what the filer thought it said (e.g., spouse unknowingly waived financial support). Moreover, forms are worthless if a person doesn’t know where to file them or how to coordinate service. Plus, consumer-facing areas of law like divorce require participation of the court and navigating the clerks and courts is an art form. While it might not necessarily be rocket science, it is an acquired skill.

Navigating the 20+ forms often required for a California divorce, trying to understand how and when to file and serve (deliver) each document, and negotiating with the spouse is a lot to take care of. So, many people just give up, which leaves them vulnerable to the consequences of not filing for divorce properly. In the end, somebody who thought they were going to save time and money by taking care of the divorce legwork themselves has to hire a lawyer anyway to help sort out the mess.

Legal regulations also do not encourage innovation, which could make the process easier and help lower the costs of divorce. For instance, nonlawyers are restricted from owning any part of law firms or investing in them. It limits opportunities for new ideas or outside insights as lawyers are forced to not only practice law full time but also run companies. Many attorneys are less likely to think outside the box if they have to invest their own money and time (something they are already short of). Lack of innovation keeps the old, inefficient practices in place.

4. Lawyers can complicate the divorce process.

Lawyers often have a bad rap. There are plenty of jerk lawyers out there who ramp up cases just to get as many dollars as possible. Because of that stigma, consumers often fear them and what they might do to create conflict where there wasn’t any before.

Even lawyers with good intentions can be quite paternalistic, pushing their clients into what they think is best for them instead of really hearing their clients’ needs and goals. Some clients, for example, want to make concessions they would otherwise not make for the sake of keeping their relationship somewhat amicable. After all, co-parenting is a lifelong endeavor and it will be easier on everybody to keep things with their ex as peaceful as possible. They can’t do that if their spouse hates them.

Some lawyers let their egos get in the way of doing what’s best for the client. They may have a personality conflict with the other lawyer or feel triggered by a client’s relationship with their ex (e.g., if they are being controlled or manipulated). They may connect to it personally because they’ve been through something similar and so they let their emotions take over instead of letting their clients guide them. This isn’t to say lawyers shouldn’t advocate for their clients but they must do it after carefully considering strategy and their clients’ “need to haves” versus their “must haves.”

Lastly, sometimes attorneys do not appropriately manage their clients’ expectations. They lead their clients into believing that they are entitled to something “under the law” when there is no basis for that expectation. This isn’t to say that people should avoid lawyers but working with an attorney can have its challenges — and with challenges come increased costs and inefficiencies.

5. The legal system is unreasonably inefficient.

For the most part, lawyers get paid by the hour. If they get to bill clients for every phone call or court appearance, what is the incentive to resolve conflict or prepare forms efficiently? The problem stems from our legal education in which we get (for the most part) zero help on how to run a business and/or how to run an efficient case. For instance, having to show up at court just to obtain a child custody mediation date or a date for a settlement conference is highly inefficient. These activities not only cost time (a client having to take work vacation or find childcare) but also hundreds of dollars in legal fees to have a lawyer show up and do nothing substantive.

Courts do not have enough resources to help the millions of people who need legal help. They are decades behind in terms of technology. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, it was very rare (if ever) to hear about a virtual court hearing. Most counties in California don’t have e-filing and if they do, it is often managed by a third-party that charges a premium for its services.

Navigating Divorce Differently

All of these factors make for an expensive divorce. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At Hello Divorce, we have cut the average cost of divorce from $26,300 per person to $1,500 per couple with 92% of our paid customers successfully navigating the divorce process using our system. Our system (called Divorce Navigator) is a first-of-its-kind divorce platform (and app) that integrates impact-thinking design and form-generating software from Documate to guide users step by step through the divorce process.

How does it work? First, a user completes a guided interview containing questions designed to elicit the best responses. The platform uses artificial intelligence and conditional logic to ask users only the questions (sans legalese) that they need to answer to populate the forms that apply to their divorce and are most likely to be accepted by the county clerks. Divorce Navigator also includes guidance for filing and/or serving legal documents as well as the option to have us do this for you. All users also have on-demand access to experienced (and kind) flat-fee lawyers to review, coach, and help determine if full representation is in the client’s best interest, especially when a lot is at stake. And for extra support, Divorce Navigator includes free tools and resources such as flow charts, tutorial videos, wellness posts from influencers in the legal coaching and therapy space, and self-care checklists. The best part? The service costs $99 per month, which can be upgraded, downgraded, or canceled at any time.

Anyone can use Divorce Navigator and it works even if the other spouse doesn’t use it. It also works if people have full representation through an attorney. They can use the platform to prepare all of the forms on their own and then share them with lawyer to review — helping to keep the cost of legal representation down.

How do we do it? We cut costs tremendously by implementing smart and easy-to-use tech combined with legal document assistants (LDAs) who handle all of the procedural stuff. In California, these LDAs can work outside of the supervision of lawyers because they don’t offer legal advice; they simply help ensure the forms say what the client wants them to say and are filed correctly. If clients need or want legal advice, they have access to lawyers in increments of 30 minutes or more.

Only a handful of states allow LDAs or some variation thereof. For instance, Arizona permits legal document preparers to assist consumers not represented by an attorney with document preparation. And up until early June, Washington had a program for limited license legal technicians who could help with certain family law matters. However, the Washington Supreme Court unexpectedly canceled the program, which now makes it difficult to bring the Hello Divorce model to Washington. The program certainly wasn’t perfect — unlike the LDA program in California it was overregulated — but it gave consumers access to affordable and empathetic legal help. While some states are making headway in changing these regulations, a vast majority of states don’t allow for this type of assistance — which makes the Hello Divorce platform unique.

Divorce doesn’t have to be a scary beast. With the right tools, it’s possible to keep your divorce moving forward efficiently and affordably — so that you can focus on beginning your next chapter.

Ready to save $1000’s, protect your future and stay out of court? Schedule your FREE 15 minute planning call NOW.

Learn more about our options here.

[1] Hristina Bynes, “The cost of divorce: How much do you pay to get divorced in California vs. Colorado?” USA Today, January 21, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/01/21/divorce-how-much-it-costs-to-get-divorced-in-every-state/41010675/

[2] Rose M. Kreider and Renee Ellis, “Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2009,” U.S. Census Bureau, May 2011.

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