Family Law

10 Ways to Keep Costs Down in Your Divorce

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
Tips and tricks you can use to reduce the cost of your divorce and leave you in better financial shape when the divorce is done.

Here are a few ways to reduce costs in your divorce.

1. Use Unbundled Legal Services

In many states, you can hire a lawyer who will handle part, but not all, of your divorce. For example, you can hire a lawyer to write a memorandum of law for you, or to draft a settlement agreement. This type of lawyer stands in sharp contrast to a traditional divorce lawyer, who handles a case from beginning to end at a much greater cost. To find out if unbundled legal services are available in your state, contact your state’s bar association.

2. If you hire a traditional divorce lawyer, limit your use of the attorney.

It's important for you to understand how your attorney plans to charge you in your divorce. Most divorce lawyers usually ask for a retainer before starting on a case. A retainer is a lump sum of money that the attorney will draw on as tasks in your case are completed. If the retainer is depleted, you’ll have to pay as you go. Be smart when you use your lawyer. If you can complete a simple task by yourself, like mailing a certified letter, or if you can find the answer to a question by looking at an official online source—say, by reading a page from a state court website—do it yourself. If you ask your attorney to do this work for you, every phone call and email will come at a cost.

3. Consider a Do-It-Yourself Divorce

If you and your spouse are still on good terms and you’re able to sit down together and work through thorny issues regarding your finances and your children (if you have any), you might be able to handle the divorce without involving lawyers. Contact your local courthouse or law library and ask if they have the papers that self-represented parties (meaning, you and your spouse) would need to complete, and also inquire about how to get your case scheduled on a judge’s calendar when you’re done with the formal paperwork.

4. Use Collaborative Lawyers

If you and your spouse get along relatively well but have some disagreements about major issues, collaborative law might be a good solution. Collaborative law is a relatively new method to divorce. You and your spouse will start by signing a collaborative law agreement in which you agree that you will both behave respectfully, will provide full disclosure of all facts, and agree to use “allied professionals” for the problematic areas of the divorce. “Allied professionals” are legal, psychological, financial, or social professionals who evaluate your divorce-relates issues and offer their opinion as to a fair resolution. Using collaborative law is a great way to keep your case out of court and avoid expensive litigation.

5. Negotiate

Sometimes when spouses are overly-emotional about their divorce, they become contentious and may even refuse to negotiate or insist on litigating issues when they know the judge is almost certainly going to rule against them. This has the effect of causing the divorce to drag on and cost everyone unnecessary time and money. Be open to negotiating with your spouse and your spouse’s lawyer. No one wins 100% of a divorce case: There has to be give-and-take between spouses. Keep an open mind and be willing to surrender on some issues in order to get other, more important things back.

6. Prioritize

After you’ve had a little bit of time to absorb the fact that you’re going to divorce, sit down and make a list of your priorities. What’s important to you? What’s not? This will help you whether you negotiate, use a collaborative lawyer, or work the case out some other way. Don’t be afraid to revise your priorities as the case progresses and you win some battles, but lose others.

7. Narrow the Issues

When you look at your list of priorities, think about what issues you and your spouse can resolve amicably. Try to settle those issues with your spouse. It’s a waste of your time and money to go to court and ask a judge to make a decision on an issue you and your spouse mostly agree about anyway. If there are issues that you absolutely know you can’t agree on, be prepared to take those to court. The point is to narrow down the disputes to only the most insoluble dilemmas.

8. Keep Meticulous Records

It’s a fact of life: facts and documents are often misplaced, through no one’s fault. Keep binders that contain all official correspondence, court orders, research, and your personal notes. Make sure you don’t omit anything, and that way you won’t have to pay for duplicates, and you may avoid problems getting your evidence admitted in court.

9. Indigency

If you meet certain poverty levels that are laid out in your state’s laws, you won’t have to pay to file or serve documents, or you’ll only pay a reduced price. Make sure to contact your courthouse clerks or your local law library to get the forms that will allow a judge to check whether you're eligible for indigency status.

10. Learn Everything You Can About Your State’s Divorce Laws

The more you know, the less you’ll have to pay a lawyer and the less time you’ll have to spend in court. Most states have judicial branch websites and statutory websites which have “self-service” sections designed to educate the public about divorce and to provide forms you might need. Learn everything you can when it’s free!

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