Whether you knew it was coming or your spouse surprised you with divorce papers, ending your marriage is a stressful time. Add in financial concerns about the divorce process, and it can be downright overwhelming.
One of the most daunting aspects of any divorce is figuring out how to pay for it. You do have options to reduce your costs, though, especially if you're willing to take on some of the tasks involved with getting divorced.
Divorces generally fall into one of two camps: uncontested and contested. In an uncontested divorce, the spouses have reached agreement on all of their divorce-related issues. In a contested divorce, the spouses aren't able to agree on many—if any—of the issues that must be resolved to complete the divorce.
Most states offer streamlined procedures for uncontested divorces. (Depending on the state you live in, an uncontested divorce might be called a "simplified divorce" or a "summary dissolution.") If you and your spouse are in basic agreement about the issues in your case, you might be able to take advantage of your state's uncontested divorce procedures to save money and reach a quicker resolution.
If you're not in complete agreement with your spouse on divorce-related issues but think you might be able to work it out, consider mediation, which we discuss below.
When your divorce is uncontested and you're looking to save money, you might consider preparing and filing all of the necessary paperwork on your own, without assistance from an attorney. If you're able to DIY your divorce, your only expenses will be the court fees and costs.
You can usually DIY your divorce by getting ahold of your court's free divorce forms. A search of your local court's website might provide you with everything you need (including instructions). If your local court's website doesn't have the forms you need, check the main website for all of the courts in your state (you can usually find the relevant site by searching for your state's name and "courts"). You can also visit the courthouse in person if you can't find what you're looking for online.
Court clerks can't give you legal advice, but most will help you find the paperwork you need. Many courts provide free divorce packets in person (or online); others maintain self-help centers where you can pick up the necessary forms for filing for divorce and instructions on submitting them. In some courts, you might even be able to meet with a family law facilitator—a court staff member whose job is to assist people who are representing themselves in a divorce.
One form that your county or state might not provide is a settlement agreement—the document where you write out your custody plan (if you have kids), whether one spouse will pay alimony, and how you'll divide your property. If your county or state requires you to submit a settlement agreement for an uncontested divorce, you might need to get one through an online divorce service (more on this below).
Once you complete the paperwork, which will take some time, you'll need to bring multiple copies to the courthouse to begin your case. Some courts allow you to efile your divorce papers, and a few actually require it (for example, you must efile your divorce forms in Illinois unless you get an exemption from efiling).
Most courts require you to pay a filing fee to begin processing your divorce case. You have to pay the fee whether you hire a lawyer, find the court forms online for free, or pay a company to help you with the forms. Filing fees vary by state, and you can determine how much you'll need to pay by checking your local court's website or asking your local court clerk.
For couples who agree on most of the issues in their divorce and who don't want to DIY the entire process, using an online divorce service can be an affordable alternative.
Online divorce services usually cost between $150 and $900—the total fee depends on which services you purchase. At a minimum, these services provide all the state-specific divorce forms that you'll need, along with step-by-step instructions. Some online divorce services offer a professional review of your documents to ensure you've filled them out correctly.
Once you complete the documents, you can print your paperwork and file it with the court (alternatively, some services will do this for an extra fee). Some services guarantee that you'll get your money back if the court doesn't accept your paperwork.
If you need help beyond filing your paperwork, many online divorce services offer additional assistance, such as consultations with an attorney or instructions for preparing parenting plans, for a fee.
When your attempts to work things out with your spouse have failed, you might still have an option that is less expensive than battling it out in court: mediation.
If you can work out all the terms of your divorce in a mediation, all you need to do is put the details in a formal contract—typically called a "marital settlement agreement"—and present it to the judge. Many mediators and mediation services will prepare the marital settlement agreement for you. In most cases, you'll only need to attend a single court hearing for the judge to finalize your case.
Many couples who are going through a contested divorce in court first try mediation in an effort to save money. In fact, most courts order couples to at least attempt mediation before they will issue divorce orders.
Spouses who have been ordered to mediate usually have the option of using a free (or low-cost) court-appointed mediator or a private mediator. Private mediators in contested divorces have traditionally been pricey, because the mediation sessions can last for days, with the parties paying for attorneys to be in attendance. Today, you can often save money by paying for just a few hours of mediation, either in person or online (and you don't need to have an attorney present). Participating in a formal mediation to work through disagreements is almost always cheaper than hashing out the disputes through court motions and hearings.
It's not always necessary to hire an attorney to represent you from start to finish in a divorce case: You might be able to work with a lawyer on an as-needed basis to save money.
For example, if you've filled out the divorce forms you found on your court's website, you might consider making an appointment with an attorney to go over the paperwork and explain the divorce process to you before you file. Or, if you and your spouse agree on the terms of your divorce, you can hire an attorney to draft or review your marital settlement agreement before you submit it to the court.
Hiring an attorney to assist you in a limited way is far less expensive than having full representation for the duration of your divorce, and paying for an hour or two of a lawyer's time can help you avoid costly mistakes.
If you qualify for assistance, your state's legal aid service might be able to provide you with free information, step-by-step instructions, and court forms. Some legal aid organizations provide attorneys to assist clients throughout their divorces, especially in cases where there is an extreme need—for example, when there is spousal or child abuse. Alternatively, your local legal aid organization might be able to set you up with an attorney who is willing to handle your case pro bono (for free). You can also contact your local state bar association for a referral to local attorneys who might take your case pro bono.
For more information, read up on legal aid and pro bono representation, and how to find it.
Using an affordable online divorce service or handling your divorce on your own works out for plenty of people. But every case is different, and going the low-cost route sometimes brings risk. Here are some situations where you might need to consult an attorney.
To save money on your divorce, you're probably going to have to do your homework and handle at least some of the work on your own. You'll want to research which of the above options are available to you and find out how much they cost. You'll also need to evaluate how much time you're willing and able to devote to DIY'ing some or all of the process. You should also think about how confident you are in your ability to DIY your case or parts of it. It's then up to you to weigh these considerations against your personal financial situation, and make the call.