There are lots of products offering DIY divorces, and many divorce lawyers who are happy to do it for you. How can you save money and still be successful?
Most people expect divorce to be a difficult process. But may aren’t prepared for how much it can cost. Pursuing a DIY divorce could save you money…and might save you a few headaches too. DIY divorces aren’t for everyone though, so it’s important to understand if it’s right for you. Either way, learning how to control the costs of divorce without sacraficing your legal rights is a key piece of the puzzle.
There are a lot of products offering Do-It-Yourself (“DIY”) divorces, and most state courts are equipped to handle pro se litigants (that’s the Latin term for someone who is representing themselves in a legal case). But should you do it yourself?
Is a DIY divorce right for you?
The divorce process manages the separation of a family’s assets, parenting responsibilities, and income. A do-it-yourself divorce is usually appropriate where both parties agree on most of these issues. Often, a longer marriage means more assets, greater income disparity, and possible differences in opinion on parenting. In theses cases, it’s less likely that the divorce can be handled without an attorney.
Doing it yourself means that you could be giving up rights that you don’t think are important now but may become incredibly important later, like retirement benefits or alimony. Divorce lawyers are trained to envision virtually every way that an agreement can go wrong—and help devise a solution so it never becomes a problem.
DIY divorce may not be right for you if your partner has a history of abuse or other controlling behaviors, or there is another type of power imbalance. If you do not feel empowered to assert your rights, or feel bullied into accepting your spouse’s version of the divorce, it’s time to call an attorney.
How can you DIY your divorce?
Every state has different laws about divorce and custody. For this reason, doing your own divorce requires that you use the legal forms of your state and follow your state’s instructions. Each state also has its own unique rules about how assets are divided, how child support is calculated, and other issues.
Fortunately, most states have high quality Legal Aid websites that provide information about divorce and custody, and many states provide instructions and forms online on the court’s websites or in the court clerk’s office. Go to LawHelp.org to find your state’s Legal Aid website.
You can also purchase assistance from several online services that offer templates you can tailor to your specific circumstances. These services specifically state that they do not offer legal advice. You will have to do your own legal research.
The biggest area to exercise caution when doing your divorce yourself is in the Separation Agreement. The Separation Agreement is where the parties spell out how the assets and debts are divided, the amount of support, and the parenting plan for any minor children. The challenge for DIY-ers is to be specific enough in the agreement, such that the parties avoid miscommunication and ambiguity in the future.
Divorce attorneys add their wisdom from experience and draft agreements that cover the common pitfalls of Separation Agreements. Thankfully, you may be able to hire an attorney simply to draft the Separation Agreement, and handle the rest of the process yourself.
How much does a divorce cost?
The cost for a divorce can range from $0 to six figures.
Even couples who file a joint petition (a divorce where the parties agree to everything and file the paperwork together) will need to pay $100 or more in court fees.
Someone who truly cannot afford even the court fees can request an indigency waiver. Most states require that the filing party receives some sort of government assistance before approving the fee waiver.
In addition to court costs, there are the costs and fees associated with dividing the marital assets. Selling and refinancing real estate each have their own costs and fees. Dividing retirement assets requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO,” for short), and even divorce lawyers hire specialists to manage this process (my preferred specialist charges $500). Couples who have assets or minor children should have their Separation Agreement reviewed by an attorney, which can cost from $500—$2,000 (or more).
Some lawyers now offer “unbundled” legal services (discrete legal tasks, typically in an advisory capacity) and charge flat rates up front for their services. Reviewing a Separation Agreement is some of the best money a frugal couple can spend on their divorce. Ethics rules require separate attorneys for each party.
Most lawyers charge an hourly rate, from $200 to $600 an hour—and higher. The more contentious the case, the more you will pay your attorney. It’s important to evaluate whether it’s worth paying your attorney $300 an hour to fight over a $500 television.
How can you save money if you hire an attorney?
There are several ways to keep your attorney’s fees under control. Here are a few:
- Get Organized: You will need to provide your attorney with certain financial documents. You will save yourself a lot of money in attorney’s fees if you compile and organize them yourself, instead of asking your attorney to do it for you.
- Be Reasonable: Listen to your attorney’s assessment of a likely outcome for your case and adjust your expectations. There are no guarantees for contested divorces (divorce actions where the parties do not agree), but your attorney has the wisdom to give you a range of possible outcomes.
- Communicate Wisely: Divorce lawyers charge in 6, 10, or 15-minute increments every time they pick up the phone or read an email. Stay in communication, but resist the urge to ask the same questions over and over. If necessary, write down your attorney’s answer and refer to it before you pick up the phone again.
It’s normal to struggle with one or more of these, and lawyers don’t mind charging for these services. Those on a tight budget, however, may want to keep these tendencies in check.
You can save money on your divorce. It may require a larger investment in the short term, but saving money in the long run is just one way to help make sure you land on your feet.
Rebecca G. Neale is licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and New York, and admitted to the Massachusetts District Court and New York’s Third Department. She has years of experience advocating for clients in the courtroom and the conference room, and enjoys helping people navigate some of the most difficult chapters of their lives.
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While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner professional.