Though attorneys have a reputation for wanting to fight in court, a survey of recently-divorced parents found that cases in which divorcing parents have attorneys are more likely to settle out of court. They were the most likely to end with parents sharing physical custody, as well.
The study also found that low-income parents were less likely than other parents to have an attorney or receive joint custody. In addition, these parents tended to have worse ongoing relationships with their former spouses, and their children tended not to adjust as well.
Why Are Divorced Parents With Attorneys More Likely to Settle Out of Court?
The survey questioned 1,000 U.S. adults who finalized a divorce involving child custody in the past two years. It was conducted in July by Custody X Change, which offers parents a web app for managing custody via parenting plans, calendars, expense tracking and more.
“It seems that when both parents have attorneys, the attorneys encourage their clients to reach a co-parenting agreement rather than go to trial,” said Ben Coltrin, Custody X Change co-founder and president. “That’s important for parents to consider as they decide whether to hire a lawyer.”
Coltrin added that more research is needed to show cause and effect between any factors in the study. Still, he said, “the information is enlightening because data on child custody cases is hard to come by.”
Attorneys and Custody Outcomes
Having both parents represented by an attorney racked up costs. In such cases, survey respondents reported spending a median of $18,000 on the divorce and custody process — more than twice the median they spent (nearly $8,000) when they were the only represented parent, and 36 times the median they spent ($500) when neither parent was represented.
However, the increased price tag came with advantages. Eighty-six percent of cases with both parents represented reached a settlement, which courts and legal experts consider the ideal outcome for most families. On the other hand, only 63 percent of cases with one attorney and 71 percent of cases with no attorneys reached settlement.
Two-attorney cases also resulted in joint physical custody at the highest rate — 82 percent. Cases with one parent represented and cases with neither parent represented both ended in joint custody about 70 percent of the time. This is meaningful because child experts consider joint physical custody — in which a child spends significant time with each parent — best for children, except in rare instances.
More Data on Legal Represenation For:
|Respondents who had attorneys
|Respondents who didn’t have attorneys
|74% extremely or moderately satisfied with case outcome
|59% extremely or moderately satisfied with case outcome
|86% college-educated (including technical college)
|67% college-educated (including technical college)
Having only one parent represented was tied to unique challenges.
These cases were the least likely to settle.
They also took a median of one year to finalize (from the start of negotiations to the issuance of final orders), compared to a seven-month median for cases with two attorneys and a six-month median for cases with no attorney representation.
Interestingly, single-attorney cases cost respondents several thousand dollars regardless of which parent had the attorney. Respondents still spent a median of almost $6,000 on the legal process if only their former spouse had an attorney.
Incomes and Custody Outcomes
The Custody X Change study also showed that parents with low incomes face unique challenges in divorce and custody cases.
Just 65 percent of these parents had an attorney, while 84 percent of other parents did.
Similarly, 68 percent of low-income parents received joint physical custody — less than the 81 percent for respondents with medium or high income levels.
Thirty percent of low-income parents reported getting along with their former spouse extremely or very well now, compared to 48 percent for other income levels.
The lower relationship rating may be tied to the fact that fewer low-income parents used alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods, such as divorce mediation. Most ADR methods focus on helping parents communicate with each other. Overall, parents who used ADR were almost twice as likely to rate their relationship highly following the divorce.
Disparity extended to children of low-income parents. Only 43 percent of respondents with a low income said their kids adjusted extremely or very well following the divorce, while 61 percent of other parents said so.
More Data on Income
|Middle- or high-income respondents
|82% used alternative dispute resolution methods (e.g., mediation)
|97% used alternative dispute resolution methods (e.g., mediation)
|Median time of 6 months
|Median time of 9 months
|$4,500 median cost
|$16,320 median cost
Though middle- and high-income parents had little variation between them, 12 percent more high-income parents said their kids adjusted extremely or very well (68 percent versus 56 percent).
Other Divorce and Custody Findings
Overall, 79 percent of survey respondents had an attorney. Seventy percent of those people were satisfied with their attorney.
Most parents seemed pleased with their experience. Just more than half of parents gave the legal process a positive rating (“better than I ever imagined” or “good”), and roughly the same amount said their kids adjusted extremely or very well. Over 70 percent of respondents were extremely or moderately satisfied with their case outcome.
The median time to resolve a case was eight months, from the start of negotiations to the final ruling. The median cost was $12,000. This included fees paid to attorneys, mediators and the court, but not child support, spousal support or division of assets.
In total, 79 percent of respondents reached a custody settlement. These parents reported less dissatisfaction with their case outcome and less maladjustment by their children.
More Data on Settlements
|Median time of 7 months
|Median time of 13 months
|13% extremely or moderately dissatisfied with case outcome
|26% extremely or moderately dissatisfied with case outcome
|14% of kids adjusted not well at all or only slightly well
|27% of kids adjusted not well at all or only slightly well
Of the 78 percent of all cases that resulted in joint physical custody, nearly half had parents split their time with the children evenly.
The vast majority of cases (93 percent) tried an alternative method of dispute resolution — often more than one. Slightly more than half of all respondents used mediation. Other popular methods included parenting coordination, cooperative law and collaborative law (47 percent, 46 percent and 42 percent respectively). Thirty-five percent of parents used arbitration.
Custody X Change regularly does studies on divorce and custody topics, such as a comparison of child support payments by state.
*Many courts require parents in custody cases to attempt ADR unless the case has a settlement ready or involves domestic violence. The proportion of parents who settled without ADR was around 70 percent whether or not respondents had a low income. This suggests that reasons for opting out of ADR were similar between the two groups.
An original version of this article appeared here.