Freedom from a bad marriage has taken an untold emotional toll on Christopher Higashi and his three young children. More measurable is the hefty $50,000 to $60,000 in legal expenses he’s paid so far.
“It is a very costly and financially draining process,” says the York Region resident who “tried everything, literally” to fix his six-year marriage before exiting it three years ago.
“Sometimes I just cry,” the devoted dad says of the impact on his kids, now aged 4, 6 and 8. Selling the family home “wasn’t a smooth process,” he adds.
He’s now their sole provider — with a little help from paternal grandparents — juggling their needs and schedules around his professional responsibilities as a real estate agent while their mom gets training for a new career.
With four in 10 marriages ending in divorce, countless Canadians can empathize with Higashi. This time of year is especially ripe for rifts as the emotional detritus of the holidays and the desire for a fresh start intersect.
Calling it quits can carry a price tag ranging from manageable to painful, with the main costs typically including lawyers’ fees, court filing fees, transcripts and documents, and experts such as tax advisers and real estate appraisers.
An uncontested divorce, in which spouses hash everything out themselves, costs about $1,300 in lawyer’s fees in Ontario, according to a survey by “Canadian Lawyer” magazine.
In fact, keeping things amicable can drive costs down more than 80 per cent, according to Shulman Law Firm in Toronto. But exes who can’t see eye-to-eye on support payments or who gets the dog could pay top dollar to untie the knot.
How much? Laura Paris won’t even hazard a guess.
“There’s no way to estimate the cost because you don’t know where the other side is going,” says Paris, a family lawyer with Shulman. Battling it out in court can push the tab to “endless tens of thousands,” she warns.
Paris says legal fees range from about $200 an hour for a newly minted solo practitioner to between $300 and $650 an hour, depending on the lawyer’s experience and size of firm.
Shulman offers a free 30-minute consultation then charges a retainer of $2,500 to $5,000 to get the ball rolling, says Paris, who notes that a client’s attitude can help determine the final tally.
Forget about righting marital wrongs or seeking payback for cheating — that’s “a recipe for wasted money,” she advises. Put personal issues aside and look at the situation from a legal perspective instead.
Common-law cases can get complicated — and more costly — because the law isn’t cut-and-dried when it comes to rights and entitlement, she notes.
For all warring partners, she recommends hiring a mediator for $100 to $300 an hour to resolve issues before bringing lawyers into the picture.
But some items shouldn’t serve as fodder for feuds, especially when the meter’s running, according to family lawyer Russell Alexander, who’s based in Lindsay, Ont.
“It doesn’t make any sense to pay for a lawyer’s time arguing over a $300 Bateman print of a wolf,” says Alexander, who has spent 20 years witnessing verbal tug-of-wars over everything from vacuum cleaners to stained couches.
Pet ownership is another flashpoint, particularly among couples without children, adds the founder and senior partner of Russell Alexander Family Lawyers. His second book, “Everything You Wanted to Know About Divorce,” hits shelves early this year.
Alexander also warns about the fallout from dirty tricks such as hiding assets or providing inaccurate financial statements during the stage known as discovery.
For Higashi, the learning curve has been steep and bumpy. “I didn’t know where to turn or who to ask,” he says of his estrangement.
He recalls his first mistake: Hiring a pricey lawyer who charged him $10,000 for two meetings and a raft of paperwork.
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But he subsequently saved money and time by hiring a mediator to negotiate a separation agreement, including child support and custody issues. That cost between $12,000 and $15,000.
He hired a second lawyer to handle other issues, including residual money matters. While the divorce isn’t yet final, Higashi says he and his ex have a solid separation agreement that they both stick to.
Having sold family homes due to breakups and realizing there were other “vulnerable” people in need of information, he founded a support group two years ago.
Between 10 and 20 people usually show up for the Milton Divorce and Separation Support Group’s monthly meetings, according to Higashi.
A team of professionals, whose expertise ranges from family law and personal finance to mortgages and marriage counselling, offers free advice on a different topic at each meeting.
Six smart ways to keep divorce costs under control
The amount you pay for separation or divorce can be reduced with these tips from family lawyers Laura Paris and Russell Alexander:
- Try reaching an agreement with your partner by using a neutral third party such as a mediator or arbitrator.
- Obtain and organize documents, tax returns and financial statements yourself.
- Provide all the documents required in a timely fashion to avoid repeated court appearances.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff, like the value of furnishings. “Just go get yourself a new couch,” says Alexander.
- Don’t waste money and time fighting your lawyer. She or he knows the law better than you do.