By Shawn Weber, Attorney and Mediator
In this difficult economy, I am being asked frequently how to save money on a divorce. Divorce costs can be horribly expensive and can leave both parties destitute. Additionally, there are some unscrupulous attorneys out there who will “churn” a divorce case making a fortune in legal fees, but providing no real benefit to the client. For these sharks, a win is if the attorney’s party ends up with two dollars, the opposing party has one dollar, and the attorney has all the rest.
I can’t lie to you, though; divorce can cost an arm and a leg even with the most scrupulous of lawyers. However, there are some ways to watch and protect yourself from unnecessary fees. Here are some ideas that can help you navigate the legal system without losing your shirt:
- If possible, avoid court. Litigation is extraordinarily expensive. Aside from the expense of paying your attorney to sit in court and fight it out with opposing counsel, you are paying even more for the preparation leading up to court. Discovery, motions, evidentiary objections, legal research, appraisals, file organization, etc., all cost dearly in billable hours. The formalities of court that are there to protect your due process all drive up costs. A well written trial brief can cost a client thousands. While there is no other option for many parties, litigation should be a last resort. Before hiring your attorney, ask her what her philosophy is about settlement. Instruct him to pursue settlement first. If your attorney just has knee-jerk standard operating procedures to make discovery demands, schedule depositions and file motions without first seeking to obtain evidence informally, that is a huge red flag that you are about to drop a lot of money in fees. In my practice, if a client has to go to court, I see that as a failure. It is always better if the parties can settle as much as possible with using a judge. So be tough with your attorney and demand that she pursues settlement first. If you aren’t satisfied that settlement is a priority, consider moving to another attorney who will keep your divorce costs down.
- Consider using a mediator. In mediation, the parties hire a neutral to help facilitate agreement. Mediation can be very cost effective because most of the procedure and discovery is informal. You won’t need to involve your attorney except to obtain occasional advice along the way. You and your spouse are in the driver’s seat and the attorneys are on the sidelines. A good mediator will be able to help you balance the interests of both parties and help you to find a settlement that you can live with. I always recommend that parties obtain independent legal counsel in the cases that I mediate so that all decisions can be informed. However, you are only paying the attorney for his time to advise you and not to prepare for trial. I have been mediating for years and have seen that the cost of a mediated divorce is a fraction of the divorce costs of my litigated cases. Typically, the total cost of the mediation fees for both parties is around $6500 depending on the complexity of the case, whereas in litigation, $5000 may just get you started.
- Consider Using Collaborative Divorce. In a collaborative divorce, the parties and collaboratively trained attorneys sign a stipulation that they are not going to go to court. If either party chooses to litigate, both attorneys fall out of the process. As part of their “divorce team”, parties can choose to add mental health professionals who can act as a divorce coach or a child specialist as a member of the team. In addition, parties can add a financial specialist to the team. The benefit is that all of the experts work together with the parties in a team setting to reach a settlement. The outcomes are often superior to those achieved in litigation but with lower divorce costs. Additionally, there are tremendous economies of scale in using an attorney to do legal work only, a financial specialist to do the financial work and the coach/child specialist to work on the emotional issues. You often get a better product for less money. Collaborative can be cheaper than litigation if the parties can work together. The danger, however, is that if the parties do not work well together, the case can fall out and all of the work done by the team (and their fees) would be lost. However, if the parties can be respectful and work with the team honestly to achieve a better result for their transitioning family, the results can be tremendous.
- Consider Using Limited Scope Representation. You can also choose to do a lot of the divorce work yourself and use an attorney for limited purposes. For instance, you can hire an attorney to simply advise you on a case, not as your attorney of record, while you represent yourself at court. You can also hire an attorney for purposes of negotiation only with the understanding that she will do no court work. Other options include hiring an attorney only for a particular issue, such as child support or custody. Be sure to talk to your attorney about these money saving options. You may not need an attorney for every aspect of your case. Only pay for services that you need.
While a divorce can be terribly expensive, it doesn’t have to be. Remember, you are the boss and the attorney works for you. If your attorney refuses to talk about options besides full representation, beware. Talk to your lawyer about divorce costs. If a particular discovery request is to go out or a motion is to be filed, demand to know why before the action is taken. You can direct your attorney not to take a course of action, if you don’t want to pay for it or don’t find it necessary.
At Weber Dispute Resolution, we offer all of the options described above to include mediation, collaborative practice and no-court consultation. Our philosophy is that the case is ultimately yours and you are the one to decide how you want to spend your money. We can help you decide which option makes the best sense for you and your family.