Divorce is expensive. Couples who argue throughout the divorce process will discover very quickly that legal fees and court costs add up at an alarming rate. That said, there are ways that even the most troubled couples can reduce costs during a divorce, but, both parties will need to set aside expectations and pride before using any of the divorce alternatives.
One of the easiest ways to save money is to avoid the divorce process altogether. In some cases, couples may be able to salvage their marriage, which would eliminate the need to file for divorce. If there’s a possibility you and your spouse can reconcile your relationship, it’s a good idea to participate in counseling individually, and together as a couple. Depending on your insurance company, seeking help with a professional may not cost you anything.
Mediation is a voluntary process that couples can use to avoid court and resolve disagreements during the divorce process. During mediation, a neutral third-party—or, mediator—will help to structure a conversation between you and your spouse, and hopefully help you reach an agreement on property and debt division, custody and visitation, and support issues. Mediators can’t make decisions, so if you and your spouse can’t agree on a particular topic, you’ll need to utilize other divorce alternatives or ask a judge for help.
Some states require couples to participate in mediation before the court schedules a hearing with the judge. Although this is an additional step in the divorce process, in most cases, couples can save thousands of dollars in legal fees by attending the meeting with good faith and an open mind. In the states where the court doesn’t require mediation, couples may have to pay the mediator, but the fee will be much less than the cost of a contested divorce.
Collaborative divorce is like mediation in that the goal is for the couple to reach an agreement without asking the court to schedule lengthy hearings. However, collaborative divorce differs from mediation because both spouses hire individual attorneys to represent their interests in the divorce. Collaborative attorneys should be well-versed in the art of divorce negotiations and should be prepared to work overtime to ensure that the couple’s divorce resolves without judicial intervention. Additionally, couples should be prepared to hire a team of professionals to aid negotiations in the divorce. Although not every couple will utilize every member of the collaborative team, most will benefit from retaining a divorce coach, financial adviser, and child specialist.
At the beginning of a collaborative divorce, both spouses (and attorneys) sign a no-court agreement that allows the attorneys to withdraw (leave) from the case if the couple can’t settle their disputes in the divorce. Although collaborative divorce can save you a significant amount of money, it’s critical to understand that if your negotiations fail, hiring a new legal team can cost an extraordinary amount of money. The key to a successful collaborative divorce is to be on the same page as your spouse before you agree to move forward.
Couples with excellent communication skills and the desire to move through the divorce process quickly can file for an uncontested divorce. The process begins when you submit a petition for divorce with your local court. Most states have a mandatory waiting period ranging from 30 days to six months, and during that time you and your spouse should resolve all issues relating to your divorce, including how you’ll divide debt, who will keep the marital home, and whether you’ll share custody of your minor children. Once you and your spouse agree, you can present a marital settlement agreement to the judge, who will approve it if it’s fair to both parties.
While uncontested divorce is less expensive than a conventional divorce, there are still costs. You may need to hire an attorney before you sign the final agreement, plus you’re responsible for the filing fees and any other court costs associated with your request. Additionally, property division in divorce can be complicated, so if you or your spouse owns a 401k or separate retirement accounts, you may need to hire a specialist to value and divide the accounts.
It’s a tale as old as time: couples argue, one spouse has enough, and someone files for divorce. But what if divorce isn’t the right path for your relationship? For couples whose religion forbids divorce, or in situations where there’s still a chance you can reconcile your marriage, couples may consider a legal separation. Some states allow a court-sanctioned legal separation, meaning the couple files a formal request, decides the same divorce-related issues, and sign an agreement stating they will abide by the court order. But, at the end of the proceedings, legally separated couples are still legally married.
Although a legal separation may be right for your relationship, it’s important to understand that it may not reduce your costs enough to justify it in the long run. Legal separation may be less expensive in the beginning, but if you and your spouse decide the end the separation with divorce, some states require you to start the divorce process from the beginning, which can be very expensive. So, be sure you’re confident that a legal separation is right for you before you file.
One inexpensive divorce alternative is a trial separation, which allows couples to take a break from each other while testing the waters of a legal separation or divorce and without court intervention. The court doesn’t monitor or order trial separations, so there are no court fees associated with this alternative. However, if you and your spouse would like to create an agreement that lists the terms of your trial separation, like who will live in the marital home and pay child support, you may want to hire an attorney to review the agreement before you sign it, which means you’ll need to open your wallet, at least a little.
Remember, the court won’t enforce your trial separation agreement, but, if you’d like to minimize miscommunication in the future, a written contract may be in your best interest.