The Average Cost of a Custody Dispute
By Beverly Bird
Divorce almost invariably costs money – sometimes a lot. If a custody dispute is part of the proceedings, you can expect additional costs. Several expenses typically crop up, which you and your spouse would avoid if you agreed to a custody arrangement on your own. Average costs depend a great deal on where you live. Professional fees in one area can be higher than those in others, but the services you'll require are pretty consistent across the board.
States often require divorcing parents to attend mediation if they can't agree to a parenting plan on their own. This is usually the first step when custody is contested – the court won't rule until you've exhausted every option for avoiding trial. In mediation, a trained third party works with you and your spouse to help you negotiate a workable middle ground for custody and visitation terms. In some states, such as New Jersey, this service is free. In others, such as Maryland, the court may waive the fee under certain circumstances. If the court doesn't order mediation and you want to attempt it on your own, you'll have to pay for it yourself. Mediators might charge by the hour, or they may set a flat fee for a number of sessions. You can typically find the cost for court-ordered mediation by checking your state's website.
If mediation fails and you must go to trial, the court may order a custody evaluation. In this situation, a trained professional meets with you, your children, and your child's other parent. He may also interview third parties, such as your children's teachers, physicians, or extended family members. He then makes a report to the court, which may include a custody recommendation. The court isn't bound by the evaluator's opinion, but the judge can use it for guidance when making his decision. One California county caps this expense at $1,200, but if the evaluator favors you as the custodial parent and you want him to testify in court, this will cost you an additional $100 an hour for his time. Evaluations can get pricey. For example, in Virginia, they can run as high as $6,500 for complex cases. No matter where you live, you can probably count on a custody evaluation being a major expense.
Guardian Ad Litem
Some states, such as New Hampshire, will appoint a guardian ad litem to represent your children's interests if your divorce involves a custody dispute. This is in lieu of requiring a custody evaluation, but you must still pay for the expert's time. New Hampshire limits this cost to $1,000, but the guardian ad litem can file a motion with the court to ask for more money if your dispute is particularly complicated. Some states require that you pay for both a custody evaluation and a guardian ad litem, as the guardian is assigned to represent your children's best interests in the proceeding and acts more as an attorney than an evaluator.
If you hire an attorney to represent you in your divorce, he will undoubtedly have to invest more hours if custody is disputed. Uncontested divorces – those where spouses agree on everything, including a parenting plan – can cost as little as $2,500 in some areas. Attorney fees for a contested divorce can jump to as much as $50,000 if the battle is particularly heated, or even more than this if you also have a lot of financial issues in dispute. Some states, such as Maryland, require that each party hire an attorney for court-ordered mediation. If you find that you need professional help, you will need to add the costs of your divorce lawyer to the other court-ordered requirements involved in the custody dispute.
- Maryland State Bar Association: Divorce and Custody Mediation
- Meislik & Meislik: Steps to a Divorce
- Superior Court of California, County of Calaveras: Child Custody Evaluations
- Forensic Psychologist Associates: Information About the Custody Evaluation Process (PDF)
- New Hampshire Government Administrative Services: Guardian ad Litem Section
- Edwards & Cherney: How Much Does a Divorce Cost?
- Teller Law Firm: What is an Uncontested Divorce and How Much Does it Cost?
- Washington Courts: Guardian ad Litem (GAL)
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.