In this time of economic and global uncertainty, being careful with your finances is more important than ever. The latest official statistics show that over 40% of UK adults aged 30-59 would be unable to cover an unexpected expense of up to £850 - so with the average cost of divorce coming in at £14,561, splitting up may put you under financial as well as emotional strain.
As a team of family law experts, we are very aware that most people do not budget for the cost of consulting a divorce lawyer - it is an added strain at a very difficult time. It's understandable that when you first come in to see us - or videocall us, as we are all now doing - you will want to know how much your divorce will cost. Unfortunately, we often won't be able to give you an overall figure, because we simply don’t know how your particular dispute is going to play out. That will depend upon how complex the legal and practical issues are, how much you and your spouse will be able to agree easily and amicably, and how much intervention there will need to be, whether from lawyers or the court.
As a general rule, the more uncertainties and unknowns there are, the harder it is to estimate costs. However, there are some things that you can do to manage the unpredictability of divorce costs and make it easier to budget. Here are our three top tips:
Be clear about what you are paying
Most family lawyers charge for the work that they do on the basis of the amount of time spent on your case and the hourly rate of the member of staff doing that work. However, an alternative option is for the lawyer and client to agree to a fee proposal, where the lawyer will carry out a certain set of defined tasks, agreed in advance, for a fixed fee. For the reasons we've given above, it will often be simply impossible to do that for your whole case. However, what our team at Morton Fraser can offer is an arrangement where we agree a package of work that needs to be done to take your case to the next stage, or over a specific period of time (perhaps the next month or so).
This won't always be possible. Sometimes we need to do something very urgently to protect your position, and there simply isn't time for us to work through a fixed fee agreement with you. Also, while we try to predict as much as possible within our fixed fees, if something unexpected happens which we haven't budgeted for, we would need to charge for that work separately.
Nevertheless, increasing numbers of our clients now choose to opt for this approach rather than paying for our work on an hourly rates basis. Our clients find that this approach gives them greater certainty and clarity about what work is to be carried out, and the expected cost of that work, so they can budget for it. Working this way also means we can plan ahead for the work we will need to do for you and apply project management principles to your case - so we can run it more efficiently and effectively, and are better able to predict and manage risks before they arise.
We believe we are currently unique in offering this choice of fee options in the family law market place in Scotland. Most other firms will only offer fixed fees for very small aspects of a family law case, such as processing the divorce application at court itself, rather than in relation to resolving disputes about financial matters or children - which is the bulk of the work, rather than finalising the paperwork.
Consider the value
Our second top tip is to carefully consider the value to you of the service that you are purchasing. It's hugely important to resolve both financial and child matters when you are divorcing. For financial matters in particular, you will almost always only get one shot at doing so. The decisions you make can have long-term implications for your standard of living and/or your relationships with your children. It is vitally important to get it right. Cutting corners and saving pennies might cost you considerably more in the long run.
You need advice that you can trust, bearing in mind the importance of the end result. That advice is not always going to be the cheapest available, but you need to be sure that it is providing you with the best possible value.
Control what you can
There are some things that will affect your costs that are, unfortunately, out of your control. The first of these is the complexity of your case. Complex cases tend to be those which involve people or assets located in more than one country; complicated business arrangements; non-disclosure of assets; or new and unusual legal questions. Cases like these usually need more legal work to resolve, which means they cost more. They also tend to end up in court, which is usually more expensive than negotiation. Input from expert advisors, such as valuers, advocates and accountants, is also more likely to be needed in a complicated case. Although there might not be much you can do to reduce the complexity of your case, a good family law specialist solicitor can work with you to prioritise the aspects which need the most attention.
The second aspect that is, again unfortunately, out of your control is how your spouse will approach the case. Many people would prefer to negotiate and agree amicably than go to court. Again, a good solicitor will encourage you to do so, and to use alternative dispute resolution where appropriate. They certainly won't increase the conflict level unnecessarily. However, you can only reach an agreement if the other person also wants to agree; or at least will sit down at the negotiating table with you. If your ex-partner simply won't co-operate, your solicitor will usually need to do more work on your behalf to resolve the case and this will again increase your costs.
But, on the positive side, an aspect of your case which you can control is your own working relationship with your solicitor. In our experience, clients who tend to make the most cost-effective use of our services are those who help us to work efficiently by responding promptly and fully to requests for information and documentation, without needing repeated reminders, and who assist by collating their own documentation. Sometimes, your lawyer will ask you to provide very specific information organised in a particular way - this is usually because the law has very specific requirements about what information is needed so be sure to follow any instructions your solicitor gives in this regard carefully and accurately.
It can also be helpful to think through exactly what issues are important to you, and therefore you want to insist upon, and where you might be more inclined to make a concession or compromise. This doesn’t mean that we won't fight your case all the way if you ask us to! There are also cases where all the issues are important. However, if things get to the stage where you're asking your lawyers to write letters about who gets to keep the teaspoons, it is likely that the legal costs will start to be out of proportion to the value of the issue in dispute. And if you're one of the many people who wants to have an amicable divorce, focusing on your priorities is one way to keep conflict under control - check back next week when we'll be writing more about how you can help make that happen.
We hope this is a helpful summary of the issues that can have an impact on the cost of divorce. For more information, check out our upcoming podcast series explaining how to get divorced in the time of COVID-19. If you have any questions about any of this, please don’t hesitate to contact us or another member of the team - we are happy to help.
The content of this webpage is for information only and is not intended to be construed as legal advice and should not be treated as a substitute for specific advice. Morton Fraser LLP accepts no responsibility for the content of any third party website to which this webpage refers. Morton Fraser LLP is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.