Gavel and Money


Justin M. Crozier Oct. 3, 2017

Well, this is a challenging subject to tackle, so it’s long.  I’m sorry for that.  I’m trying to answer some complex questions, so I hope you forgive me! 

I plan on doing a few of these “How much should I pay my “X” lawyer?” because there is a lot of mixed information out there.  My plan is to explain the different ways that attorneys charge for these cases so you have the information you need to decide.  Some of the information here is my opinion, some of this is based off research and statistics, some is based off me taking that research and drawing some conclusions.

The second thing I would like to mention is that what you pay your lawyer is not the total cost you should expect to pay for a divorce.  The additional costs can really make your case much more expensive.  With those caveats, let us begin!


Alright, the reality is that there are a ton of different ways that you can pay your lawyer and different ways that they will decide what is an appropriate cost.  In a divorce there are two basic ways that lawyers will charge you, Fixed (or Flat) Fees and Hourly Billing.

Fixed Fees

The less common method is fixed fees.  The idea of a fixed fee is the lawyer tells you the total divorce is going to cost a certain amount and then you pay it.  Done, that is all.  You may pay filing fees, you may pay for your expert witnesses, and you may pay for depositions.  However, the cost of the lawyer is set.  This gives you, the client, certainty.  You don’t have to worry about getting bills later or being surprised by the monthly invoice.  The good thing about a fixed fee is you know what the cost is.  The bad thing is if it is a simple case, you might pay a little more for this than if you went with an hourly rate.

The basic theory here is that you are not paying for your lawyer’s time, you are paying for the value they provide.  You want to get a divorce, you want to get a fair result, and you want to get it done with solid advice and guidance.  They give you that, and the time is less important than the result.

Most lawyers that charge a fixed fee on a divorce do it on uncontested matters, meaning you and your soon-to-be ex have agreed on all the terms. The lawyer is going to help you clean up the loose bits and make sure everything gets done quickly and correctly.  I’ve seen lawyers charge as little as $1,000 for this, and on the high-end I’ve seen around $5,000.  I’m biased (because I do offer this service), but I would be worried that if you pay someone $1,000 that they are going to be very slow and essentially just ignore you and never finish the thing, or there will be tons of mistakes.  On the other hand, I think $5,000 is a touch on the pricey side.  Though, if they are paying a lot of attention to you and really giving you a quality product it might be worth it.

An attorney might charge a fixed fee on a contested case.  It is much less common because of how complicated these cases can be.  I have seen contested case that are resolved easily and I have seen contested cases that are resolved only after trial.  Obviously, going to trial is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor.  It involves a lot of work and a lot of dedication as an attorney.  Due to the complexity the fee on this can vary widely.

To give you an idea of what to expect, I’ll explain what I think you might see on fixed rate contested divorces.  There isn’t a lot of pricing available in Missouri, and none really in Kansas City, but I have found some in other states that was informative.  The low end of the price on contested, fixed fee divorces is around $12,000.  The high end, while somewhat shocking even to me, is north of $125,000.

This pricing is based on a few factors: are there kids involved?  Is there a business?  Are the assets of the family greater than $1.5 million?  And a lot of other issues.

Some attorneys will make you pay those prices up front, some people will pay them on an ongoing basis until the total is paid, or in chunks at different points in the litigation.

Personally, I like fixed fees.  I hate talking with people about fees and telling them they need to make a payment, so this is kind of a good way to go (in my mind).

Hourly Billing

Hourly billing is, by a huge margin, the way most attorneys will bill their cases.  Part of the reason for that is the Missouri Supreme Court issued an ethical opinion that makes moving money on fixed rates very challenging, so attorneys tend toward hourly billing to make life easier on themselves.  The upside for you is that you can see exactly what the lawyer is doing, you know what you are paying for, and if your case is easy you may pay less than on a fixed fee.

The following is based off the Missouri Bar Association bi-annual attorney report in 2015.  In Missouri, the hourly rate of attorneys, across the entire state, varies from $125/hour up to around $750/hour.  The average hourly rate in Missouri is $265/hour and $285/hour in Kansas City.  Retainers (or an advance payment on fees, technically) will be from $1,500 up to $20,000.  The average is around $4,500.  Attorneys will then send a monthly, or semi-monthly, bill where they show you what work they are doing and how much it is costing you.  They move the money you paid from a trust account into their operating account once it is earned.

The average cost of a divorce, nationwide, is $7,300, with about $5,000 of that being attorney’s fees.  The average cost of a trial nationwide is $22,000 with $17,600 of that being attorney’s fees.

These cases are still broken into contested and uncontested cases, as far as complexity goes.  Uncontested cases, obviously, are less complicated.  I can’t tell you the average cost in Missouri on an uncontested case (it isn’t broken down that way) but my average bill is about $3,500.  I have definitely had cases resolve for around $1,800 on the low and over $5,000 on the high end.  It depends on how much my client contacts me, if the opposing party has an attorney, if we do discovery, and a few other things.  I would say there are fewer $1,800 cases than there are $5,000 cases by a slight margin.

If you have a contested case, I would expect to spend more than $7,000 on an attorney.  If you go to trial I would expect to spend no less than $15,000 on an attorney.  Before you decide to go the contested route, make sure you want to dedicate that kind of cash to the divorce.  If you can resolve it in an uncontested manner you will be much happier and wealthier.

Why Does Divorce Cost So Much?

Well that is a great question, and I’m glad I thought to ask it.

The reason is the kind of work that goes into it.  I’ll do my best to break it down here, but I am sure I’m going to miss some things.

First, you must meet and collect information.  Some attorneys charge for this, some don’t.  After you have the necessary information, you have to put all of that into a “Petition for Dissolution of Marriage,” or the divorce filing.  The petition is typically 6-10 pages long and can take several hours to draft.  Once the petition is ready, you must file it (filing fees) and you need to get it served (private process server).  All that takes time and costs money.

Whether you have kids or not, you have to file an asset and debt statement (how much money and debt do you have?), an income and expense form (how much are you earning and how are you spending your money?) and a property division plan (as little as 5 pages to as much as…. “However, much property and debt you have” pages, maybe 20).

If you have children you need to file a parenting plan, which can be 15-20 pages, a Form 14 for child support (which takes a bit of work), and a few other documents dealing with the kids. 

That all happens whether you go contested or uncontested.  So, we are talking about at least 50 pages of documents and all the time it takes to research that stuff, write that stuff, meet with you to correct that stuff, correct it, and file it.

If the case is contested, you will be doing discovery (often in uncontested, too).  Discovery is writing up a bunch of requests to get the other side to tell you what they have, what they make each year, and whole bunch of other stuff.  If it is a challenging case then you may do A LOT of discovery.  This is a very expensive process.  It could be hundreds of pages of documents, hours of reading and writing, and a lot of arguing with another attorney.

During discovery you might do a deposition or two.  A 2-hour deposition normally requires 4 to 6 hours of preparation, paying for a court reporter, and a few other costs as well.  So, if you have 2 depositions, 2 hours each, you are going to be paying for 16 hours of attorney’s fees ($4,560 on average).

Trial is similar, you can expect an attorney to spend 2-3 hours of prep for each 1 hour of trial.  A 1-day (8 hours) trial would cost you around $9,120 on average in attorney fees for just the trial, not the other earlier work.

What are the Other Costs I Pay in a Divorce?

Well, aren’t you full of good questions today. 

The other costs are typically the following (I will keep it short):

1.      Filing Fees:  in Jackson County, Missouri, that is currently $144.

2.      Process server:  you can get the sheriff to do it for about $25 most places or you can get a private process server for between $50-$100.  You get what you pay for.

3.      Mediator:  in Missouri if you have a contested case you are going to do mediation.  It will cost between $200 and $500 for 2 hours (each party pays that much).

4.      Experts:  if you need an accountant to testify about how they hide money it will cost you, if you need a therapist to discuss how they are crazy it will cost you.  Depending on the expert, how much they work on the case, and whether they testify, you might pay from less than $500 to over $10,000.  Normally, you hire an expert to testify to what they think might happen in the future.

5.      Investigators:  kind of like experts in that they can testify and do work for you to make the case better.  Typically, they are charging by the hour and they are getting normal life details instead of giving their opinion about what could happen.  They can cost a $200 to over $5,000.

Okay, I think I have about exhausted this subject.  I doubt anyone has read this far, but I feel good for having done it.  If you have any questions, please let me know.  This is a complicated issue, I could honestly keep discussing it for a while.

Thanks for reading!

Good luck out there.