Depending on the statistics you choose to believe, the average American divorce costs between $15,000 - $30,000, most of which goes for legal fees. High-end, high-profile, and litigated divorces (i.e. those which go all the way through trial and beyond) can cost hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars.
What do you do if you don’t want to spend every dime you have saved, and a good portion of what you still haven’t even earned yet on legal fees in your divorce? Here are 10 tips to help you keep your assets in your own hands.
1. Settle as much as you can yourself. The more you do, the less your lawyer has to do. Any issue you can resolve directly with your spouse is one less issue for your lawyer to have to fight about.
2. Use a mediator. If you and your spouse can’t talk directly without the conversation disintegrating into an argument, try using a mediator. A mediator is an independent, neutral third party whose job is to help you and your spouse reach an agreement yourselves, outside of court. The mediator writes up your agreement and that becomes the basis for your final court documents. Mediation is much faster, cheaper and more private than fighting about your issues in court.
3. Use Collaborative Law. Collaborative law is another divorce alternative to fighting in court. In Collaborative Law, you and your spouse, with the help of attorneys who are specially trained in Collaborative Law, sit down in a conference room and try to resolve your case in a way that meets everyone’s needs. Depending upon your case, you may be assisted by a neutral financial professional, a divorce coach and/or a child specialist. Each of those professionals works within their area of expertise to help you and your spouse settle your case in the way that is best for all of you. Collaborative Law is not as inexpensive as mediation, but it is definitely less expensive than fighting in court. What’s more, because the lawyers tend to be the most expensive professionals, using coaches and financial planners to do some of the work also tends to save you money.
4. Provide your lawyer with the information s/he needs. One of the most expensive parts of any divorce case is what the lawyers refer to as "discovery." In "discovery" the lawyers use various legal tools – interrogatories (written questions), document production requests, depositions (oral question and answer sessions) and subpoenas to obtain information. The less your lawyer has to dig for information, the more money you save in legal fees. Of course, if your spouse hides information, you still have a problem. But that leads to the next point, which is ...
5. Do Your Homework. Open your mail. Go through your financial files and make copies of all of your records, preferably before anyone has filed for divorce. If your spouse has taken all of the paperwork from the house, try to get copies of your records directly from providers. You can get copies of your bank statements directly from the bank. You can get credit card statements directly from the card issuer. You can always run your own credit report. Even if your spouse is trying to hide information, you are not helpless. There are still things that you can do to get some information yourself.
6. Get organized. There is a huge difference with providing your attorney with a completed spread sheet showing your assets, debts, income and expenses, and dumping a pile of unsorted bills, old paycheck stubs, and random 401(k) statements on your lawyer’s desk. You don’t want to have to pay your lawyer (or even your lawyer’s assistant) to do work that you could have easily done yourself.
7. Get educated. The more you understand how the divorce process works, the less you have to spend to have your lawyer explain it to you. The more you understand the basics of your finances, the more organized and informed you will be, and the more you will save in legal fees. The more you get your own emotions under control, the more you will be able to think rationally and take the actions that will get you results, rather than those that will make you feel better in the moment, but will only cause more problems (and cost more money) in the long run.
8. Don’t use your lawyer as a therapist. If you call your lawyer every time your spouse threatens to leave you penniless, or tells you he is going to get sole custody because you are a lousy parent, or tells you a bunch of other nonsense designed specifically to intimidate you and make you crazy, you are going to end up with a whopper of a legal bill! Yes, if your spouse is threatening you with physical harm, or is threatening to steal the children, or is stalking you, then you need to call your lawyer immediately.
But, if your spouse is just trash-talking, or engaging in behavior that isn’t legally significant but makes you crazy, you are going to get more mileage (at a lot lower cost) out of talking to a therapist or a divorce coach than you are by calling your lawyer.
9. Be Reasonable. If you insist on getting every last penny from your spouse, don’t be surprised if both of you have a lot less pennies left at the end of the fight. Yes, your spouse is probably going to want to give you less than what you think you deserve in your divorce. But remember, everything has a cost. If your fight over $5,000 costs you $10,000 in attorney’s fees, even if you win, you have lost.
10. Stay out of court. Going to court is an enormous money suck. Not only does it take your lawyer time to go to court, but it takes time to prepare to go to court and to keep going to court time after time – because rarely is anything decided in just one court appearance.
Getting divorced is expensive. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. But it doesn’t have to be financially devastating. If you take the time to learn how the divorce process works, and you use these tips, you may be able to get through your divorce without giving everything you own to your divorce lawyer.