First Person: How to Save Money on Divorce Legal Fees

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As an attorney who represents clients in divorce cases, I know that money is a major concern for both parties in a divorce. Most clients facing divorce are anxious about creating a workable budget once marital assets are divided. Additionally, clients often worry about how they will afford the legal fees involved in their divorce.

Below are a few tips for saving money on attorneys' fees for your divorce.

Consider Handling Your Own Divorce

Most domestic relations courts permit individuals to represent themselves in divorce or dissolution proceedings. If you are familiar with how courts work, perhaps from your job or personal prior experience with divorce, consider saving money on legal fees by representing yourself.

There are numerous do-it-yourself books that can help guide you through the process. Look for a book by a reputable publisher, such as Nolo. Find one focused on your state of residence if possible.

Be careful, though. Unless you and your spouse are seeking a simple dissolution that does not involve children or substantial marital assets, paying for an attorney's help makes sense. Also, court personnel can provide you with necessary forms, but they cannot provide you with legal advice.

If your divorce involves splitting retirement accounts, a home, or significant debts, seeking an attorney's help is a good idea. If children are part of the equation, professional representation almost always makes the most sense due to the complexities of custody arrangements, child support, and other financial support.

Do As Much of the Legwork as Possible

I encourage my clients to save money on legal fees by doing as much of the legwork as possible. If you are paying for an attorney's help, make sure he or she does not have to bill time to gather basic documents or background information.

You should deliver an organized file of all documents related to your case soon after you hire your attorney. Your lawyer should be able to give you a checklist tailored to your specific case, but this list is a good start: your marriage certificate, statements for each bank or investment account, recent pay stubs, your most recent tax returns, all records related to ownership of property (including a home or automobiles), all records related to debt (including credit cards), any life insurance policies, and any antenuptial agreement.

Gathering this material and organizing it saves your lawyer or the law office staff from spending time - and billing you - to do the same thing.

Consider Mediation

Consider using a mediator to help you and your spouse to agree on dividing assets, custody arrangements, and any spousal support.

Some clients initially balk at paying a mediator $75 to $150 per hour to help them settle their divorce. Why pay a mediator and your attorney, too?

A mediator facilitates an efficient and fair agreement of the parties. Divorce trials are expensive. It's not rare for a divorce trial to cost in excess of $10,000 in legal fees - and that's for simple cases. If you and your spouse can agree on all or most issues, you can avoid or substantially reduce this cost.

In many cases, you and your spouse can complete mediation without your attorneys present. Some attorneys dislike this, but even when attorneys attend, too, mediation can often save on litigation costs. Your attorney or your domestic relations court staff can likely recommend a reputable mediator.

Consider a Flat Fee Divorce

A growing number of attorneys will agree to represent clients in divorce cases for a flat fee - a set amount. For some clients, this can save money, especially if the divorce turns out to be long or contentious.

However, when lawyers accept cases for a flat fee, they often will limit their work to covering only certain issues (if their jurisdiction's professional rules allow it). Also, lawyers might only offer flat fees for simple, uncontested divorce or dissolution cases.

Before you hire an attorney, considering ask about the benefits and drawbacks of a flat fee arrangement.

There is no doubt about it: divorce is expensive. But by following these suggestions, you can at least make sure you get the best value for the money you spend.

Sean Cooke is an attorney who handles divorces and other family law matters in Columbus, Ohio.


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