No one wants to pay thousands of dollars to lawyers and expert witnesses just to end their marriage. Having your marriage break down is hard enough without facing a hefty attorney fee at the end of the day. You can’t always control how much litigation costs, but here are some tips to keep divorce costs down.
Every dollar you or your spouse spends on attorney fees and other divorce costs comes out of the “marital estate”. That’s the money the two of you have accumulated during your marriage that will be divided by the court. In complex or high-conflict situations, paying tow lawyers, mediators, expert witnesses, and other costs can quickly eat up the reserves you will need to start fresh once the divorce is final. Rather than paying your lawyer more for the same result, here are some tips to keep divorce costs down.
Resolve What You Can Early
Uncontested divorces — where the parties agree on how to divide custody, property, and other issues — are always cheaper than high-conflict cases. They raise fewer issues and require less work for lawyers, and that translates into lower divorce costs. Certainly, lawyers can help you negotiate the terms of a settlement, and can help you understand what is fair. But not every case needs a full day of mediation or extensive litigation.
If you want to skim some money off the top of your attorney fees, talk to your spouse early — even before the divorce is filed — to see what you do agree on. That way you can set those issues aside and spend your time and money focusing on the real problems.
There is really no reason to pay process servers to deliver divorce papers in most cases. A process server can cost anywhere from $50 to $150 dollars. But service of process just means that someone can vouch for the other party receiving the papers.
This can even be done by the other party signing an Acknowledgment of Service. That doesn’t mean the other party is giving up any rights. All it means is they agree they got the papers, so they know the case has been filed. Don’t waste money and cause yourself embarrassment by refusing service just so the other side has to hire a process server. Sign the Acknowledgment and save the money for more important things.
Discovery is the process of asking questions and gathering documents to support a lawsuit. In the case of divorce, most of those documents are things like:
- Bank statements,
- 401k balances,
- Mortgage notes,
- Tax returns,
- Credit card statements.
Most of these documents are available to both spouses online, or even laying around the house. Sure, sometimes one or both spouses have separate bank accounts the other doesn’t have access to. But for the most part, you can gather the information you need without the lawyers’ help.
Discovery costs can add up quickly. You have to pay your lawyer to draft the requests, then your spouse has to pay his or her attorney to prepare responses. There are also subpoenas to be prepared and document production fees when attorneys get records from banks or other financial institutions directly.
You can keep divorce costs low by doing your own discovery. Spend the time to gather the most recent copies of all your account statements, tax returns, and other important papers. Ask your lawyer for a list of what he or she will need and start crossing them off. The more you can do yourself, the less you will have to pay the attorney for.
Be Smart About Attorney Time
Most people don’t think about the amount of time they spend talking to their attorneys about the little things. Many law firms, including this one, don’t charge for a quick phone call or simple email. But if the minutes start to add up, so will your bill.
You can keep divorce costs down by being smart about how you spend time with your attorney. Create a list of questions that can all be addressed at once. You may even want to send the list ahead of time in case some can be resolved without a call or visit. Do take the time to be sure you understand the answers, but don’t take a lot of extra time just trying to remember the questions.
Don’t Antagonize Your Spouse
One of the biggest mistakes divorcing spouses make is using their attorney as a tool to get revenge or antagonize their soon-to-be-ex-spouse. Not only will frequent phone calls and emails between attorneys drive up the bill directly, it will also increase the likelihood that you will face extra motions, discovery demands, and hearings. All of that adds up to a much bigger attorney fee than necessary.
Hire a Lawyer Early, Not After It Gets Bad
Many spouses figure the best way to keep divorce costs down is just to do it themselves. They may try to skip the lawyer altogether. But if you wait to hire an attorney until tempers are high and mistakes have been made, it may cost you more to undo what has already been done, legally and emotionally.
If you are worried about the cost of attorney fees, tell your lawyer at the initial consultation. There may be options, such as limited scope representation, that can help you minimize the lawyer’s involvement while still making sure your divorce is done right the first time.
Divorce is emotional by nature. But it doesn’t have to be expensive. You and your spouse can help keep divorce costs down by separating that emotion from the business of dissolving the marriage and by asking your lawyer what you can do yourself.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a divorce attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps clients looking to dissolve their marriage without spending all their assets on lawyers. If you need help with your divorce, contact Schmidt & Long for a free initial consultation.