How to Get a Cheap Divorce

If you can’t afford a lawyer or think paying for one could be overkill, consider these more affordable options for your divorce.

By , Attorney (Cooley Law School)

Whether you knew it was coming or your spouse surprised you with divorce papers, ending your marriage is a stressful time. Add in worries about money, and it can be downright overwhelming. But there are options that can lower the cost of divorce.

There isn't only one way to get divorced, and the process doesn't have to involve court fights and huge legal fees. Depending on your circumstances—including the complexity of your property and finances, whether you have children at home, how much you and your spouse can cooperate, and your willingness to do some legwork—you can choose a path through divorce that will save you both money and time.

At the outset, you should know that the options discussed here aren't mutually exclusive. For instance, you can get an uncontested divorce all on your own or with the help of online divorce, mediation, or lawyers. Similarly, you can use mediation with or without an online divorce service, and with or without getting legal help.

Uncontested Divorce: Working Together to Save Money

Divorces generally fall into one of two camps: uncontested and contested. In an uncontested divorce, the spouses reach agreement on all of their divorce-related issues, so they don't have to go through all the lengthy legal battles typically involved in a contested divorce.

When we talk about uncontested divorce, we usually mean that the couple has already reached a complete divorce settlement agreement (sometimes called a "marital settlement agreement" or a "property settlement agreement") by the time they file for divorce. But couples often start out the process without an agreement and eventually settle their disputes (usually with the help of mediation, lawyers, or both) before they go to trial. That would also technically be an uncontested divorce, but it isn't what we're referring to here.

Most states offer procedures and forms for uncontested divorces that are at least somewhat easier to navigate and quicker to get through. And in some states, there are even more streamlined procedures (often called "simplified divorce" or "summary dissolution") if you meet certain qualifications, like limits on property and children.

If you're not in complete agreement with your spouse on divorce-related issues but think you might be able to work it out, you might consider getting help from a mediator (more on that below).

Do-It-Yourself Divorce Filings: The Cheapest Option

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 can take this DIY path, your only expenses will be the court fees and costs.

Finding the Divorce Forms

You can usually find your court's free divorce forms online. A search of your local court's website might turn up all the forms and 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, "courts," and "divorce" or "family law.") You can also go to the local court clerk's office 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.

Your state or county court might or might not provide a form for a settlement agreement. Sometimes, you'll need to include the provisions of the agreement in the divorce petition or another form for the proposed divorce judgment. If your county or state requires you to submit a settlement agreement for an uncontested divorce and doesn't provide a form, you might need to get help elsewhere. Some online divorce services will provide and complete these forms, and some mediators will help prepare a written document based on the agreement you reached during mediation. (More on those options below.)

Filing and Serving the Divorce Papers

Once you complete the paperwork, which will take some time, you'll need to bring the original and two copies to the courthouse to begin your case. (Some courts allow you to file your divorce papers electronically.)

You'll usually have to pay a filing fee to begin processing your divorce case. Filing fees vary by state (and sometimes by county). You can find out how much you'll need to pay by checking your local court's website or asking your local court clerk.

Generally, the spouse who files the initial paperwork must have it delivered to the other spouse through what's known as "service of process." The other spouse then usually has to file a response to the divorce petition or complaint within a certain amount of time. Some states allow you to skip one or both of these steps if the other spouse signs a waiver, or if you're filing under a streamlined procedure that allows the two of you to file the divorce petition together.

See our state articles on filing for divorce for more detailed information on the rules and procedures where you live.

Online Divorce Services: A Streamlined, Low-Cost Choice

For couples who agree on the issues in their divorce but don't have the time to hunt down and fill out all the right forms—or are concerned about making mistakes and missing requirements—an online divorce service can be an affordable alternative.

Online divorce services usually cost between $150 and $900. The total fee will depend on what the company offers, what your state allows, and the extra services you choose. Typically, these services will provide all of the state-specific divorce forms you'll need (along with instructions), with most of the forms completed based on your answers to a questionnaire.

You'll usually have to file the paperwork with the court, but some services take care of the filing for an extra fee. Also, some 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 for a fee, such as consultations with an attorney or instructions for preparing parenting plans.

Divorce Mediation: A More Affordable Middle Ground

When your attempts to work things out with your spouse have failed, you might still have an option that's less expensive than the traditional contested divorce. In divorce mediation, a trained, neutral professional meets with both of you to guide you through the process of identifying and negotiating solutions to your disagreements.

You can use mediation at any point in the divorce proceeding, right up to the eve of trial. But if you do it before you file and are able to work out a complete agreement, you can probably file for an uncontested divorce without hiring lawyers, either DIY or with an online divorce service.

Some states or judges will require you to participate in mediation after you've filed for divorce if you still have contested issues—especially if you and your spouse haven't been able to agree on custody and parenting time. When a judge has ordered you to mediate, you will usually have the option of using free or low-cost mediation services through the court, at least for one session.

Whether you go to mediation voluntarily or are required to give it a try, you can always choose a private mediator. Private mediators in contested divorces have traditionally been pricey, because it can sometimes take several mediation sessions to reach an agreement on all of the issues. And if you and your spouse have attorneys, you'll also pay their hourly fees for consulting or participating in the mediation. However, you can often save money by paying for just a few hours of mediation, either in person or online, especially if you have only a few issues to work out. (And you don't need to have an attorney present). It's almost always less expensive to work through your disagreements in mediation than to hash them out with lawyers, motions, and court hearings.

If you're able to work out some or all of your disputes, many mediators and mediation services will prepare a written document that reflects your agreement. When your settlement agreement covers all the issues in your divorce, you will typically present it at a final court hearing. In some states, you can simply submit the signed agreement along with your final paperwork and have it approved by a judge.

Limited Representation by an Attorney

You can get legal help without having an attorney represent you from start to finish in your divorce case. Instead, you might be able to work with a lawyer on an as-needed basis.

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 have reached an agreement on the issues in 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.

Handling Divorce With Legal Aid or Pro Bono Help

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.

What Can Go Wrong With a Cheap Divorce?

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.

  • Struggling with court procedures. Every court has procedural rules that you must follow. Failure to follow these rules can result in delay or even dismissal of your case. If you work with an online divorce service, it might be worth paying extra (if it's an option) to have it handle the filing and service of your paperwork. Similarly, if you're trying to handle the entire case on your own and are getting stuck or confused, it probably makes sense to pay for some help.
  • Dealing with complicated situations. Online services are usually ideal for straightforward divorces. If your divorce involves a lot of property or you anticipate hiccups in the process, an online service might not be able to get the job done. For example, if you need help valuing assets like stocks or pension plans, you might want to consult with a financial analyst or pension expert rather than agreeing to your spouse's estimates.
  • Negotiating. If you represent yourself and make a bad deal, the court won't protect you later. For example, suppose you agree to give your spouse your marital home without asking for anything in return. In most states, judges review the final settlement agreement to ensure that it's fair to both spouses and that neither forced the other into the agreement. But leaving it to the judge is dicey. If the judge—who won't be nearly as familiar with your case as a lawyer or mediator you've hired—doesn't question your agreement before finalizing it, you might miss out on valuable assets.
  • Choosing the wrong service. If you choose an online divorce or mediation service that isn't up to par, things could go wrong: The service might not deliver on its promises, the mediator might not be effective, or you might discover after using the service that you're going to need a lot more assistance to actually complete the divorce. Choosing a questionable service could result in your having to fight to get a refund or having to start the process all over again.

So What's the Best Low-Cost Divorce Option for You?

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.