Arguably most people would choose a cheap divorce over an expensive divorce. The old joke goes that lawyers will fight until everyone is broke, then they settle. While there may be more than a little truth to this, you can get through your divorce without losing the shirt that is on your back. It is possible to achieve a divorce at a reasonable cost by avoiding many of the pitfalls that make a divorce expensive.
What To Keep In Mind
When contemplating your own “cheap divorce” there are a few things to keep in mind.
Where possible, spouses should try and decide these issues between themselves prior to the filing of the divorce action. The traditional model of each spouse hiring an attorney and battling things out only works for high-income individuals. With attorney’s fees typically starting over $300 per hour, legal bills will quickly mount up. A cheap divorce is typically the only option for many couples.
Are children involved?
Most of the divorce cases you hear about in the tabloids involve significant litigation over child custody. Arguments over custody can exponentially drive up the cost of a divorce. However, if you and your spouse can develop a plan that works for both of you in terms of parenting time and custody, the need to litigate these issues vanish. Reaching this agreement without lawyers will save even more.
In many states, the court will approve arrangements that are agreed upon between the parties even though that court may not typically make an award along those lines. For example, in Georgia courts do not generally award true split physical custody, where the children spend (for example) half of their time at each residence. However, where the parties agree to those terms, and the court feels that it is in the children’s best interest, the court will often make such an award.
Keep in mind that a judge will not approve an agreement that does not make sense for the child. For example, if the child has to drive three hours to school with the Father every other day, that would likely not be seen as in the child’s best interest.
You and your spouse should strive to create a visitation schedule early on that works for everyone. Once you have a few weeks under the belt, you can memorialize in writing and ask the court to adopt that as your visitation order.
In some states, a child over a certain age is allowed to elect where he or she wants to live. Unless the parent selected is unfit, the Court will adopt that finding. For example, in Georgia a child over 14 is allowed to make such an election, while a child 11-14 can have input that the judge will listen to. You may not want to put your child through that process. It is hard for a child to choose between parents. But, if the child has a clear preference, or your spouse is litigious, such an election will help you attain a cheap divorce more than any other single solution. Typically the child can meet with the judge in the judge’s office and not have to take the stand to make such an election. Some courts will accept a written affidavit from the child.
Child support becomes a sticky issue in most contested cases. Note that in many jurisdictions, there is no option to waive child support. Tables are often used to compute the appropriate amount. Disagreements over child support can derail many settlements, turning your otherwise cheap divorce into an expensive one.
Where the parenting time is split more evenly between the parties, it is often possible to lower the child support payments since the party who would normally be paying child support will be housing, feeding, and taking care of the child a significant amount of the time. Most states have child support tables that can be filled out online. The income of each party is entered in, along with expenses relating to the child that each parent spends. There is often a mechanism in the child support guidelines to lower the support amount based on how much parenting time the paying party is exercising. If you can show the judge that the child’s needs will be taken care of with a lower amount than the tables provide, the court can adopt that amount in many jurisdictions.
Money and Other Assets
During a divorce proceeding, the court will divide assets. Different states treat assets differently. It can make a huge difference how much money you will have to give your spouse depending on where you live. If you and your spouse can agree on a settlement and division of personal property and financial property before fighting out these issues with attorneys on both sides, this is often the best solution for all concerned. There are far too many couples who spend all of their money to fight over money. Of course by that point, the money is gone, so there is nothing to award.
Who is the "Guilty" party? Does anyone care?
In the old days, if you wanted a divorce, you had to prove that you had a valid reason. Most states allow for a divorce to be granted if even one of the parties wants the divorce and believes that the marriage cannot be saved. Generally this ground is known as “irreconcilable differences.” Obviously, a cheap divorce is easier now that you do not have to prove that your spouse violated a specific ground such as cruelty or infidelity. Those old grounds are still on the books in most states, but do not have to be proved. While you may want to allege grounds requiring proof such as infidelity, the best path to a cheap divorce is to assert a no fault ground that does not have to be proved. Resist the temptation to want to show the judge what a “bad person” your spouse is if there is nothing to gain from doing so.
There is also a line of thought that the "bad" person will not be awarded custody in a contested custody case. That is not the case at all anymore. While someone can be a horrible spouse, cheating and carrying on, they can still be a good parent. Don't count on cheating to win your custody case for you.
Nothing makes a cheap divorce expensive like discovery. Discovery is the process of gathering documents and sworn statements from the other party to discover admissible evidence. For example, one party might ask the other party to disclose all assets, or for a list of all persons who might have information about assets to prepare a witness list. However, you may know your spouse’s situation like a book, and the money spent to gather this information could not really be necessary. Remember though that it is important to know what the other spouse has, and if you don’t know, discovery is the best way to find out.
Action Plan For A Cheap Divorce
1) No Money, No Kids, No Assets = Easy! If you have no children and no assets to divide, you can probably do the divorce yourself. Forms are often available at the Courthouse. Many Family Courts have classes for people who want to represent themselves in no-fault/uncontested divorces. Many attorneys will advertise reasonable prices online to handle your divorce at a low cost where there is nothing disputed between the parties. For example, review the Google adwords links that likely appear with this article to get a gauge of what people charge in your area. Often, a few hundred dollars is worth the convenience of someone handling the details for you.
2) Ballpark What Your Outcome Would Be For an "Expensive Divorce." If you have assets to divide or know that you will have a custody battle, do not fear. The reason that most cases settle is that attorneys who try divorce cases know that generally if certain facts are established, the court will rule in a particular way. For example, if one spouse is often out of town on business, that spouse probably would not be granted primary physical custody. Or, if both spouses are working and have careers, alimony would likely not be on the table.
Many attorneys will meet with you for a low cost or free for a 30 minute consultation. Attorneys who are aggressively seeking new clients may be more willing to offer you such a meeting. You may want to look at some of the Google adwords links on this page. An excellent tactic is to go to these meetings with your spouse so that you both hear the same predictions. Once a consensus is reached, a settlement can be easily reached. (Note that if you meet with an attorney together, that attorney would likely be disqualified from representing either of you individually at a later date. Some states may bar an attorney from meeting with both parties.)
When you meet with the attorney, give a short and to the point description of your situation, and the attorney should be able to tell you generally what you might expect at trial. Make sure that the firm you speak with handles primarily family law matters. If you invest a couple hundred dollars and speak to a few attorneys, you can get a good picture of where your case should settle, or wind up after a trial. This is an excellent recipe for a cheap divorce where all issues are settled quickly, instead of fought over for a year or more. Your spouse could repeat the same process.
3) Learn By Seeing! If you are handling your case yourself, or want to see how cases are decided, simply arrange to attend some divorce hearings in your area. These are generally open to the public, other than high profile cases. Contact your local county clerk at your courthouse for information on the upcoming family law calendar dates. This one exercise will remove fear of the unknown. In most cases, where the parties have agreed to the final terms, the divorce proceeding will be very quick and no attorney will be needed at the hearing.
4) A la Carte Services: If you meet individually with an attorney, ask if he or she can or will provide “a la carte” services. This means that the attorney would perform particular tasks for you, but not fully represent you in court and in dealings with your spouse. Some jurisdictions do not allow attorneys to provide limited service for clients, while others do. Examples of a la carte services might be preparing a pleading, giving advice on a settlement proposal, or reviewing discovery responses.
Here is how this might benefit you. You might reach a settlement with your spouse and pay an attorney a few hundred dollars to review the settlement and make any changes. You will save money over the traditional legal services model. While that is not a free divorce, it can make for a cheap divorce.
5) Go undercover! Most jurisdictions do not “seal” divorce files. This means that anyone can examine the pleadings and other papers filed in the case. High profile cases are typically sealed, but that is typically the exception to the rule. If you can search under the name of an attorney and pull up cases they are listed on, you can simply pull closed cases and look at all of the legal work that has gone into the file. Others paid thousands for that legal work, but you can get it for the cost of a copy. Or, if you go to court, and parties announce that they have reached a settlement, you can look up the case in those people’s names and see their settlement. If two attorneys battled it out for terms, you can bet that the final agreement will be fair to both parties, and can serve as a good model for you. You will have access to various motions, responses to motions, and parenting plans.
6) Go to your law library! Contrary to popular belief, most lawyers research the law by looking in authoritative texts for their jurisdictions. For example, Westlaw publishes these books for many jurisdictions in the U.S. Go to your local law library at your courthouse, and ask for books on divorce. These will contain a clear discussion of the law in your jurisdiction.
7) Help Online: Many companies produce forms for divorce that are available online. Your own courthouse, or legal aid websites may also contain forms you can use free of charge, or for the cost of the copies.
Who Needs and Expensive Divorce
The point of this article is hardly to put divorce lawyers out of business. Divorce lawyers, and I have practiced family law for many years, serve a necessary function. Often, couples cannot agree. If each wants custody, that will need to be battled out. If there are assets to be divided, and for whatever reason a reasonable settlement cannot be reached, the traditional path is often necessary. Or, if forensic accounting will need to come into play to value businesses, professional counsel is necessary. However, for the bulk of middle america, hiring an attorney is out of reach, and a cheap divorce is necessary. You can do it yourself, and following this advice will help you to do so.
The Final Word
The traditional model of each spouse hiring a lawyer, and having those lawyers battle is the most expensive way to get a divorce. To get a “cheap divorce,” and save your money and sanity, the parties reaching an agreement on the issues without lawyers or with minimal involvement from lawyers can really help. If you have no money to haggle over, and there are no children, your divorce will be very cheap indeed. Forms are available online, and often from your own courthouse. And, for a few hundred dollars, you can often have someone handle the entire process for you. If you can, talk to a few lawyers to give you an opinion of what is “fair.” This will go a long way in building your confidence to handle most of your divorce yourself.