Almost any family law attorney can describe a case wherein a couple spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle issues of asset division, alimony, child support, and custody. In other less costly instances, the money spent still far outstripped the value of the issues at stake. In one case, a father wanted to set his child support obligation $200 per month lower than the state guideline. When the mother balked and mediation did not resolve the matter, the father took it to litigation. The Judge subsequently ruled in the father’s favor, saving the father approximately $16,000 between then and when their child turned 18. Their legal fees, however, totaled $65,000. Not a financially smart way for either parent to resolve this impasse.
Not every divorce costs $65,000 to settle one matter, but it is not uncommon for everyday couples with modest financial estates to pony up $15,000 to $20,000 in lawyers’ fees to settle what could have been an uncontested divorce. Can couples reach agreements and get divorced without draining their accounts? In a word, yes. But it takes common sense, a commitment to fair-minded agreements, and a willingness to set aside emotional payback as the goal.
First, divorcing couples must remember not to let the tail wag the dog. They, not the lawyers, decide how the divorce will proceed: contentiously (with the associated legal expense) or civilly (which leaves little for a lawyer to do but fill in the documents). In fact, couples who are the most committed to saving money and time, settle their divorce without any lawyers at all by using an online divorce service that provides the information and guidance they need to reach fair agreements and complete the necessary documents—at a reasonable cost.
Whether a couple uses lawyers or does their divorce on their own, here are five frequent mistakes that can drive up the cost.
- Being dishonest about financial matters, including withholding information. When one spouse learns that the other is not providing complete, accurate financial information, mistrust poisons every subsequent discussion. Lawyers have solutions when this occurs: depositions, discovery, and testimony. These tactics are effective, but expensive, time consuming, and intrusive. Don’t kid yourself: Hiding or misrepresenting assets is likely to cost you more in the long run than being transparent from the outset.
- Using lawyers to settle inconsequential issues. It’s important that couples avoid heedless concessions just to get divorced. But do you really want lawyers, at their hourly rate, to go back and forth about who will take the children to and from soccer practice or how the kitchen utensils will be divided? They didn’t go to law school to settle such trivial issues; and it’s not what you had in mind when you originally hired them.
- Being stubborn and inflexible. When emotions run hot, it’s easy to dig in one’s heels to make a point: “I won’t be pushed around.” But make sure your heels aren’t digging too deep a hole. Spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to make your spouse responsible for the cost of summer camp is not the best use of community assets.
- Seeking vengeance, rather than a legal settlement. Divorce is first and foremost, a legal process with a legal outcome. When couples decide to use that process for non-legal purposes, such as to get revenge or publicly humiliate the other, the divorce will get very messy and very expensive, very fast. Interestingly, research in this area has found that getting revenge feels very good for a very short period of time; then it doesn’t feel good at all.
- Refusing to communicate in a civil manner. A divorce requires couples and their representatives to communicate: information exchanged, requests conveyed, proposals submitted, trade-offs suggested, offers accepted. This process becomes terribly difficult and inefficient when straightforward communication is replaced by argument and conflict. The goal of divorce is to reach a legal agreement, not to replay everything that went wrong in the marriage.