A divorce can be as costly as it is stressful, especially if you must go to court to resolve disputes over assets shared with your spouse. End up fighting over everything you own, and your attorneys may be the only ones who emerge from the conflict as winners.
If a divorce can’t be avoided, there are practical ways to reduce expenses. Following are steps that can help you to walk away from your marriage without huge attorney bills.
1. Have realistic goals when you start the divorce process
Create a list of the things you hope to achieve in the divorce and share the list with your attorney. A good attorney can help you decide what to realistically expect from a settlement, says New York City attorney Gabriella Dylan Formosa.
“At your initial consult, be wary of an attorney who promises you the world, or assures you (that) he or she can get you whatever you’re asking for,” Formosa says. “Guarantees in the matrimonial world are few and far between, so promises like this signal that your attorney isn’t realistic. This could translate into large fees spent fighting for things that aren’t worth fighting for.”
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2. Try to resolve problems and stay together
Trying to resolve disputes is a good alternative for people who believe they can save their marriage, since even a friendly divorce can be costly.
If your marriage can be salvaged, counseling may make sense, says Pam Mirehouse, a certified divorce and health coach in Ontario, Canada. “I believe working things out is always worth a try if both parties are willing,” she says.
3. Consider mediation
You may be able to save money in a divorce by using mediation to resolve disputes with a spouse. This route can eliminate delays and risks that often come with litigation, says Jeffrey J. Kash, an attorney based in Pennsylvania.
Mediators don’t make decisions. Rather, they help you and your partner figure out what is for the best. Attorney and author Alexis Moore says mediation can be an “amazing tool” for saving money.
4. Explore do-it-yourself divorce
It’s possible to complete the divorce process without the help of an attorney or a mediator. This works best for people who have no disputes over assets or the custody of children.
“Many people go through the divorce process without legal counsel, and that can make a lot of sense in simple, straightforward divorces with few assets and debts and few disputes about parenting issues,” says Denver attorney Margot Freedman Alicks.
She recommends hiring an attorney to give your legal forms “a quick once-over” before you file them. That way, you’ll make sure you haven’t made any mistakes.
The do-it-yourself route isn’t a good choice for people with assets to divide or child custody issues, says Formosa, the NYC attorney. “If you have assets or children, you will want to speak with an attorney and draft a comprehensive agreement which divides your property and details how you will share time with your children,” she says.
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5. Shop for attorneys who offer free consultations
Legal expenses in a divorce can be considerable. You’ll save money when shopping for a divorce attorney if you interview lawyers who offer free consultations. Chat with several attorneys to find one you can work well with.
6. Understand what your attorney plans to charge
Most disputes between attorneys and clients are over fees, according to the Nolo legal issues website. Expenses add up quickly during a divorce case. Having a written fee agreement will help you understand how you will be billed.
The agreement should include what you will pay for the time of paralegals and legal assistants, as well as for your attorney. Be sure it includes the costs of copying documents and other expenses. If you don’t understand something about your charges, ask questions right away. This will help you avoid misunderstandings.
7. Don’t insist on working with a law firm’s partners
You may believe a partner in a law firm is more knowledgeable than an attorney who is an associate, but much of the work involved in putting together a divorce case is routine. Formosa recommends working with associates as much as possible, since their hourly rates generally are cheaper. If your initial consultation is with a partner, she suggests asking to work with an associate capable of handling the day-to-day needs of your case.
8. Be organized and efficient when you meet with an attorney
When it comes to working with an attorney, time is money. The more efficient and organized you are, the faster and less expensive your meetings with your attorney will be. Walking into a law office “with all your ducks in a row” will reduce your expenses, says Mirehouse.
The more you can do on your own, the less you will pay in legal fees. “For example, the first step in most litigated divorces is completing something called a statement of net worth,” she says. “This is a breakdown of your assets and liabilities as well as a monthly budget. Creating the budget can be very daunting for clients who are unorganized, and they often pass this task on to their attorneys.”
9. Make a list of all marital assets
Reduce the amount of time your attorney spends searching for marital assets by creating an accurate list to which he or she can refer. A list will make sure no properties in your spouse’s possession are overlooked. Even though your partner may be the primary user of a new car or boat, you are entitled to an equitable distribution of wealth.
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10. Find an attorney with whom you can communicate
If you and your lawyer don’t get along or communicate well, you are starting the divorce process at a disadvantage.
“It’s very important to find an attorney who has good communication skills,” says Formosa, who also advises you find an attorney with whom you feel comfortable talking. “Divorce is a very personal thing,” she says. “If you hide things from your attorney because you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, they won’t be able to litigate your case as effectively. This could cost you money down the line.”
11. Respond quickly to attorney requests
If your attorney asks you for information, such as a financial document, provide it promptly.
This will speed the divorce process and ultimately save you money. Remember that your attorney likely will charge you for the time spent on every text message, email or telephone call. By helping your attorney, you’re helping yourself.
12. Don’t take emotional issues to your attorney
Don’t forget that your attorney’s relationship with you isn’t personal.
Your attorney may be very supportive, but it will cost you dearly if you spend billable hours discussing emotional issues that have little to do with your divorce case. You are likely to be charged for all of the time you spend talking about problems. Kash recommends taking your personal issues to a mental-health counselor.
13. Carefully review all legal bills
Alicks, the Denver attorney, urges you to review your legal bills. An honest mistake about how much time was spent working on your case could cost you hundreds of dollars. She recommends checking each bill as it comes in and getting back to your attorney promptly with any questions.
14. Disclose all of your assets
When it comes to disclosing assets, honesty is the best policy. If you try to hide assets from your spouse during a divorce, you might regret it.
If the court finds out, the deception likely will hurt your case. The judge will have broad discretion in imposing penalties. You also could be charged with a crime, says Mirehouse.
15. Pick your battles
Nobody gets everything they want in a divorce settlement. There typically is a lot of compromise. If you insist on going to battle over every dispute, your legal fees will be higher.
“Pick your battles,” says Alicks. “In a divorce, where emotions are high, it is tempting to pay lawyers to fight for every last lamp and piece of cutlery.”
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