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How much does a Massachusetts divorce really cost?

One can easily find divorce lawyers advertising services for as little as $299, $100 or even $99. These kinds of fees, if they really exist, are only for people who have already agreed on everything, have no children and no property such as a house or vehicle, bank accounts, retirement accounts or other assets. Most people will pay a lot more than this to get a divorce.

But exactly how much will it cost? Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to state a figure because there are so many variables, except in cases that fit the scenario above. One rule of thumb is that it costs as much to divorce as it cost to get married in the first place. Of course, if you had a very small, informal wedding, that cost is probably going to be less than the cost of your divorce. However, it's one way of looking at it.

Let's dig deeper into the cost of divorce. What are the big expenses?

Legal fees are usually the biggest cost of divorce. These can vary enormously, even if you don't fit into the no-children, no-property category. If you have children and properly but have agreed on everything before each of you has called a lawyer, your costs are going to be much less than those couples who have the same number of children, the same incomes and the same amount of property as you, BUT are fighting about everything.

The cost of asking attorneys to help resolve questions such as who gets the kids at Thanksgiving in three years or which one of you gets to keep the family dog can be shockingly high. Attorneys in Massachusetts, especially in bill at higher rates than attorneys nationally. According to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the average partner in a Boston law firm charged $598.69 per hour in 2012; associates billed at $388.21. If this gives you sticker shock, be glad you are not in New York, where rates are much higher.

This does not mean that every family law attorney will charge you this for a divorce. Outside of rates are less. There are some law firms who have payment plans or who charge flat fees for divorces, even in matters where some issues are contested.

The cost of divorce is not limited to attorney's fees. There are also court costs, the cost of parent education classes, the expense of copying documents, hiring expert witness in child custody and financial disputes and mediation costs. If you end up selling property such as the marital home, you will need to pay for the cost of recording the deed, additional attorney's fees, the agent's commission and other expenses associated with real estate transactions.

In other words, divorce can be very expensive. How can you keep the costs down? An article last year in the Huffington Post outlined some of the ways you prevent divorce from leaving you feeling that you are one pay check away from homelessness. Here are some of the suggestions:

--Don't drag it out. The longer it takes for your divorce to become final, the more you will pay. The less you fight, the easier it will be to act fast and get it over with. Fighting costs money.

--Use mediation if possible to resolve differences - it's usually less expensive than arguing in court or at an attorney's conference table.

--Find an attorney who has a creative approach to billing such as a flat-fee arrangement or one who accepts payments over time. Even if you can't keep the total cost down, you won't have to pay it all at once if you can stretch out your payments.

Of course, the best way to keep the cost of divorce down is to have a pre-nuptial agreement that details matters such as property division and other frequently-contested issues. Unfortunately, you can't turn the clock back and get a pre-nup just before calling the divorce lawyer.

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