The more money involved and the more details on which there are disagreements, the more the divorce can end up costing. As famed comedian Chris Rock, who went through a 2-year divorce process ending in 2016, jokes: “I had to pay for a lawyer to divorce me. That's like hiring a hitman to kill you."
Joking aside, divorce doesn’t have to break the bank. The cheapest way to get a divorce is to have an “uncontested divorce” where you and your spouse agree on all the details or, failing that, to avoid a trial. If a trial is unavoidable, then there are still ways to cut down on the costs.
1. Try to compromise with your spouse
If you have to get a divorce, then in an ideal world it’ll be an uncontested divorce where you and your spouse agree on all the major details. We know this isn’t always possible, but if there is any chance of it happening—then it’s worth trying to reach a compromise.
Major issues in a divorce include division of assets, division of debts, custody of children (and pets), child visitation rights, and alimony. Child support is usually determined by state-specific guidelines, although it helps if you and your spouse are on the same page about this issue too.
If—and it’s a big if—you and your spouse do manage to agree on all the issues, then you can avoid lawyers altogether and potentially save thousands of dollars.
2. If the divorce is uncontested, use an online divorce service
Online divorce sites produce divorce forms for you to file in court, based on information you provide in a short questionnaire. These services are only really suitable if the divorce is uncontested. It costs only $150-$500 to use an online divorce service. Add the court filing fees and it is possible to complete a divorce for less than $1,000.
3. If the divorce is contested, try a mediator (before getting an attorney)
If you’re unable to come to an agreement with your spouse, then consider mediation (also known as alternative dispute resolution). Mediators cost money, but not even close to as much as a trial. You may be surprised at just how many of the details of your divorce a trained and licensed mediator can get you and your spouse to agree on.
4. Reach agreement on as many details as possible
A partial agreement with your spouse is better than no agreement at all. The longer a court case drags on, the more it will cost you in lawyer fees and other associated costs. While it is preferable to avoid a trial, it’s also better to go into court with one unresolved issue than 3 or 4.
5. If you must use a lawyer, shop around
If you end up in a divorce trial, your lawyer could end up costing as much as a small car. You wouldn’t buy a car without shopping around first, and you shouldn’t hire a lawyer without comparing a few options either.
Most divorce attorneys provide a free initial consultation. This is a good time to ask them about their experience, find out what type of clients they typically represent, and inquire about their fees. Divorce attorney fees typically comprise an hourly fee plus a retainer. Fees are sometimes negotiable.
6. Be organized
Even if you get a great deal for a top divorce attorney, you’re still going to be paying that hourly fee. So, each time you need to consult with your attorney, prepare as much as possible in advance. That way, you ensure your attorney only focuses on the things you are paying them to focus on—helping them to do their job better and reducing your bills in the long run.
7. Don’t use your lawyer for non-lawyer purposes
Continuing from our previous point, don’t waste your lawyer’s time with things outside their field of expertise. Not to be mean, but if you need to speak to someone about the emotional aspects of your divorce, lean on a friend or hire a therapist. Your lawyer might seem nice (and many of them are!), but they are still your lawyer and they will charge you for every billable hour they can.
8. Don’t switch lawyers mid-divorce
If you follow point #5 and do your due diligence, then you shouldn’t need to switch lawyers mid-divorce. Changing to another lawyer partway through the divorce process will only add to your costs. Your new lawyer will have to spend time going over your case before being able to help you—and that adds up to more billable hours.
9. Review your bills
Each time you receive a bill from your attorney, go over it carefully to see what each charge is for. If you have any questions or you’re unsure of any charges, reach out to your attorney right away. Don’t wait until your divorce is finalized to review bills, because there’s just no knowing how long the process will take.
10. Be aware of the tax implications
It’s not all that rare for someone to win a divorce trial only to be hit with exorbitant taxes on the assets they now own outright. Before fighting out a divorce in court, hire a tax professional to go through the implications of all the possible outcomes. Consulting a tax specialist will carry a fee, but it could save you money in the long run.
You don’t have to pay absolute top dollar
The difference between a cheap divorce and an expensive one can be many thousands of dollars. If the divorce is contested then large fees may be unavoidable. However, with a little preparation and patience, you should still be able to significantly reduce the overall bill.