A contested divorce occurs when the spouses cannot agree on any or all of the terms of their split, from grounds for divorce to alimony, child-related issues, property division, or anything else. Thus, if the spouses do not have a written agreement, they have to rely on a trial or a judge's decision to determine the final outcome of their divorce.
A contested divorce is considered the most complicated and expensive way to dissolve a marriage. However, the specific costs are usually not well understood. The thing is that due to the unpredictability of contested divorces, the costs can vary greatly.
So, let's consider the main stages of a contested divorce process in California, along with the most important factors affecting its length and cost.
Contested Divorce With Children
Generally, making child custody arrangements is the main factor complicating a divorce. Decisions about children, including physical and legal custody, visitation, and child support, must be discussed responsibly and thus, require significant time and effort.
In California, either parent can be awarded custody of the child, or the parents can have joint (shared) custody.
California courts encourage the spouses to agree on the above child-related issues out of court and create their Parenting Plan, which the judge approves in most cases as long as it is in the child's best interests. However, if the spouses are not willing to negotiate, they can ask the court to decide for them.
In such a contested custody case, the judge first may require the divorcing parents to have a consultation with a mediator from Family Court Services. Besides, the spouses can be ordered to take a parenting class.
If the spouses cannot reach a final agreement through mediation, the case goes to court to be reviewed. Thus, the judge will make a decision about child custody at a court hearing after evaluating the following factors:
- The child's age;
- The child's health, safety, and welfare;
- The child's relationship with each parent;
- Each parent's physical health, their emotional and mental stability;
- Each parent's willingness and ability to meet the child's needs;
- The child's ties to their school, home, and community;
- Any history of domestic violence or substance abuse.
As for child support, the amount of money the court orders a non-custodial parent to pay monthly to support their child should be estimated based on California Child Support Guidelines. The calculation considers each parent's income and earning capacity, the number of kids, current custody arrangement, etc.
In a contested divorce, spouses typically hire separate lawyers to advocate their interests in the court. Therefore, the number of court hearings needed to settle all their disputes is hard to predict. These crucial decisions require more time than in an uncontested case.
So, given that divorce attorneys usually charge per hour, child custody battles and any related costs, for example, therapy fees, etc., add to the overall cost of the divorce.
In California, the average overall cost of divorce with children is $26,500, including legal fees, mandatory court filing fees ($435), and parenting class fees ($40 to $100).
Divorce costs in a particular case mainly depend on the length of the process. The longer it takes to finalize the divorce, the higher the lawyer fees.
Contested Divorce Without Children
Starting a contested divorce without kids in California is the same as an uncontested case without minors. The first step is completing a Petition, Summons, and other initial divorce paperwork. Next, the filing spouse (the plaintiff) must pay a $435 court filing fee and serve the other spouse with copies of divorce papers according to the California Rules of Civil Procedure. If the defendant disagrees with anything stated in the Petition, they file their response.
From that point, the divorce is contested. So, either party can request an order with the court and bring the case to hearings or a trial until it’s finalized.
A contested divorce without children typically involves fewer expenses, as the spouses might have fewer issues they need to resolve during the divorce proceeding. Thus, the average cost of divorce without children is $17,100 in California, compared to $26,500 for couples with kids.
Again, it all depends on the circumstances of a particular case.
For example, hiring a family law attorney may not be enough if the spouses have marital property, real estate, debts, family business, joint retirement accounts, or if either spouse is seeking alimony, etc.
Depending on what additional assistance is required, the spouses can also engage a forensic accountant (about $4,000), a real estate appraiser ($300-$500), a business valuation expert (valuing a simple business start from $5,000), or any other professional.
Contested Divorce Attorney Cost
Attorney fees typically make up a large portion of the total cost of a contested divorce and are directly related to the length of the process.
In California, lawyers' fees are significantly higher than in most other US states due to the higher taxes and cost of living. An attorney's hourly rate can start from about $200 per hour and reach $1000 or more per hour. The average hourly rate is about $350.
To reduce the divorce costs, the spouses should act reasonably and not allow themselves to be ruled by emotions not to drag conflicts out.
Even if one spouse contests the case, there might be at least some part of the process partners can do without legal assistance but through negotiations.
So keep a clear head and just make a list of things you can compromise on and think about where you can get some free information about the issues needed to be resolved. For example, you can visit the California courts website and read a self-help guide for self-represented litigants.
Even though a DIY divorce is not recommended in contested cases, you can still learn a lot of helpful information and be well-prepared for your first meeting with a divorce lawyer to make it more effective and cost-saving.
Contested Divorce Online
Online divorce is an affordable (starting from $139) and straightforward way to prepare all the required divorce forms without leaving home. Typically, the user completes a questionnaire on the online divorce website concerning their case details and completes the selected forms following step-by-step guidance.
This option helps avoid paperwork hassles and ensures that you don't miss any of the necessary documents. In addition, the forms provided by such websites are customized according to the state's family laws and particular county's requirements.
Although most standard online divorce services are suitable for uncontested cases only, some top-notch providers have special service packages for a contested divorce, including online lawyer consultation.