You have come to the realization that your marriage isn't working and are considering a divorce. It's a stressful time, filled with emotional and financial worries.

On the financial side, probably the biggest expense of divorce is the attorney's fees. The good news is that there are simple strategies for keeping them low.

Handle Your Divorce without a Lawyer

Many divorcing couples don't hire lawyers. In California, Arizona and several other states, more than 60% of filers handle their own divorces. In 50% of the divorces filed in Florida, at least one spouse goes it alone.

It's definitely worth considering if your marriage has been brief, you have little or no property, and have no children or agree on who will have custody. It can work if you and your spouse have fairly equal financial knowledge and a commitment to getting through this with the least amount of damage.

If, on the other hand, your finances are complex and include military pensions and benefits, a family-owned business or marital property that's hard to value or hard to divide, you'll probably need an attorney. (You may also need to consult an accountant, appraiser or other financial professional.) Also, if your marriage has a history of dishonesty or abuse, using an attorney may be essential to a fair outcome.

If you go it alone, your savings will be substantial. Hiring an attorney costs at least $1,500 to $5,000 per spouse for uncomplicated cases, and usually more. When lawyers are used, the average cost of a divorce in large urban areas is about $18,000 per spouse.

Advertised low rates are almost always misleading. The quoted fee is for very simple, uncontested divorces; if there's any complication at all, the fee rises dramatically.

You'll also probably get a better result if you handle things yourself: less post-divorce conflict, better compliance with agreements, and better cooperation about children. When lawyers are involved, a simple case with agreements already reached and with good will between spouses can quickly turn into a complex one full of mistrust, emotional damage, and big lawyers' bills.

Hire a Lawyer as a Coach

Even if you handle your own divorce, there may be times when you need help from an attorney. However, instead of turning the whole case over to a lawyer, you may be able to buy advice by the hour to help you over rough spots. Using lawyers as self-help law "coaches" is the coming trend; it lets you buy the expertise you need and avoid the paper-shuffling and lawyers' attitudes you don't.

Hire a Typing Service

Non-lawyer typing services operate in many states to help with the paperwork of a divorce. For a reasonable fee, these non-lawyer businesses will take the information you give them and prepare and file divorce papers. They won't give you legal advice.

Separate Emotions from Economics

Try to keep your emotions separate from the legal and financial issues of your divorce. Remember that anything that leads to a contested divorce will cost you more -- much more -- in the long run. Lawsuits are not only expensive, but also unpredictable; you could lose more than you should.

Consider Mediation

If you and your spouse don't agree on important issues, such as the division of property or child custody or support, you can still handle your own divorce, by resolving your disputes through mediation.

Mediators help both spouses resolve their problems themselves. Mediation is especially advantageous with couples who will have an ongoing relationship after the divorce, such as parents of young children.

Some mediators are family counselors, some attorneys. Attorneys generally charge $125 an hour and up. Other mediators charge less; some have a sliding scale based on ability to pay.

Typically, mediation is faster and cheaper than using lawyers. For example, ten two-hour mediation sessions at $150 an hour would cost $3,000. A two-day trial with all the trimmings -- depositions, motions, settlement conferences and the rest -- would probably cost $25,000 and produce the same or a worse result.

Consider Arbitration

Another option is arbitration. It's useful when most issues have been decided but spouses are still hung up on critical points such as alimony or the value of a business. (Some states prohibit the arbitration of child support or child custody.)

Both spouses go before an arbitrator (often a retired judge) and present their case, with or without attorneys. The arbitrator's decision is just as valid as if a judge had made it. Compared to a court battle, there is money to be saved in most cases.

Working with Lawyers: Keeping Fees Down

  • Interview several lawyers and ask how you can keep costs down. If you like a lawyer but the fee is too high, ask for a reduction.
  • Get a written agreement about fees and retainers. It's required by law in some states; required or not, it's a good idea.
  • Do some work yourself. Gather documents, file papers and make photocopies. (Some lawyers charge up to 50 cents per page to make copies of documents you provide!)
  • Make sure junior lawyers or paralegals, who bill at lower rates, will do routine tasks.
  • Limit the lawyers. If a junior lawyer is sitting in on a meeting, make it clear at the outset that you will pay for only one lawyer.
  • Ask your attorney to use regular mail rather than fax or overnight delivery when possible. Remember, the cost is passed on to you.
  • Consolidate your phone calls. Most lawyers bill in six-minute or quarter-hour segments. So rather than calling three times and talking four minutes each, you'll save money by bunching your questions and calling just once.
  • Question the bill if something doesn't seem right.
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