What can you expect, when your surrogate is expecting?

Prospective parents may be willing to pay any price. But first, examine the sensitive financial questions behind hiring a legal, legitimate surrogate (by legal, we mean not a woman you found online).

What does the process cost? Who gets paid? Can you take out a home equity loan or charge credit cards? (Yes to both). The costs of surrogacy are usually about $120,000, experts advise. But like any lifetime investment, such as college or retirement, you can pay in stages.

Legalities

Pennsylvania, oddly, is one of the most progressive states on the East Coast for legal surrogacy.

Washington and New York State don't allow it, and can legally prosecute prospective parents and a surrogate. New Jersey doesn't criminalize surrogacy, but lawyers say the state views it as "against public policy," so surrogate contracts won't hold up in court.

Pennsylvania, by contrast, is a haven. Philadelphia hosts a thriving industry in surrogacy for U.S. and European couples, both heterosexual and same sex, who come here to find a gestational carrier for their bundle of joy.

"Surrogacy is generally not covered by insurance," says Tiffany Palmer, whose Jerner & Palmer law firm focuses on assisted reproduction law. Palmer strongly advises against "do-it-yourself" surrogacy. She and other lawyers hear horror stories from couples who fork over tens of thousands of dollars to strangers who then disappear with the money.

"Surrogacy can be done ethically and correctly, and is not exploitative if done right," she says. "We work with women who have separate legal counsel, who are paid appropriately for their service, and who are not financially desperate and doing it of their own free will."

Agencies

Ask for a detailed estimate of all agency expenses during the contract. Compare agencies in your area. Understand if the price quoted includes your surrogate and a separate egg donor, along with legal fees, assisted reproduction fees and adoption costs (if required).

In vitro fertilization alone can cost $15,000 to $50,000 a cycle, depending on your area and medical factors. Then you pay your egg donor, which costs about $3,000 in Southern states, versus up to $15,000 in the Northeast, says Nicole Witt, executive director of the Adoption Consultancy in Brandon, Fla.

Philadelphia lawyer TJ Henderson lists expenses and fees on her website (surrogateservicesinternational.com), from $25,000 to $35,000 for the surrogate's fee to a post-birth adoption order for $2,500.

Add-ons: the fertility clinic, surrogate life insurance and health insurance. Inclusive of everything, expect to pay about $105,000, Henderson says.

Loans

Fertility clinics often partner with lenders, including American Healthcare Lending, Springstone Financing, or Med Loan Financing. These outfits give potential parents loans valued at $50,000 to $100,000 over a few years, with interest rates from under 1 percent to nearly 25 percent annually, depending on credit scores. Figure on payments of $500 a month or more.

That loan can cover the entire process. Mortgage refinancing, home equity loans and credit cards are very common forms of financing, as well as crowd-funding campaigns.

Egg donors

Some fertility clinics offer free egg preservation (a.k.a. "freezing your eggs") for young women who donate eggs three times.

Reproductive Associates of Delaware (www.radeggdonor.com) accepts women age 21 to 30 as anonymous egg donors, who then receive free annual exams up until age 31 plus pay of $8,000.

Visit the clearinghouse site www.FertilityAuthority.com or the more donor focused EggBanxx.com, which encourages young, professional women to consider egg freezing through a network of 116 fertility doctors across the country. EggBanxx.com board member Gina Bartasi says she supports Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In movement but adds, "Lean In, but Freeze First."

Another woman is paid as the legitimate surrogate, Henderson says. Her surrogates get $2,875 a month for eight consecutive months, and egg donors $7,000 to $10,000 per cycle.

"It's fair and reasonable compensation for the pain and suffering," she says. "And it's not taxable income. There's a perception that using a surrogate is only for celebs and wealthy people. Not at all. If it's planned carefully, anyone can do it. If your agent and attorney establish legal parentage, and it's not a ridiculous person you met online, you're protected."

Online resources

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (www.asrm.org)

Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART.org)

Resolve (www.resolve.org)

The American Academy of Assisted Reproduction Technology Attorneys ensures qualified legal representation (www.aaarta.org)

Philadelphia Family Pride (www.phillyfamilypride.org)

215-854-2808

@erinarvedlund