On Wednesday I took a budget divorce case with no idea where my client’s husband was. After a little coaching we agreed she’d do the detective work on her own. A few hours later she’d tracked him down for free.
Of course that was just one step in the process, so can we really finish the divorce on a budget? Absolutely. You can save thousands in the divorce process if you know how to approach it. In some situations you can even divorce for free.
In this article I’ll show you some of your best budget divorce options, including filing for a fee waiver, developing an attorney partnership, and finding a legal service provider, totaling $50,106 in savings.
- Try To Reach An Agreement
- Use Online Divorce Tools
- Partner With An Attorney
- File For A Fee Waiver
- Find A Legal Services Provider
- Request Your Spouse Pay
Conflict leads to cost, so if you’re serious about a budget divorce find a way to compromise. While this can be painful and sometimes awkward, a sit down with your spouse to negotiate a fair plan for the children, property division, and support orders goes a long way.
Every issue that you are able to decide between yourselves is one less issue that an attorney or judge will need to decide for you. This decreases the time spent negotiating, which leads to less money spent on the divorce overall. If you can agree on all the issues, you’re able to file what is called an uncontested divorce.
Uncontested divorces occur when both spouses have agreed to each issue in the divorce. The process is streamlined, since you can prepare all the paperwork before ever filing in court and in Washington you can submit the forms by mail, saving you a trip to court. It’s certainly the ideal low cost divorce option, but you need to reach an agreement first.
If you need some help compromising, here are three low conflict property division strategies.
Ask your spouse to make two lists. The lists should include all the major assets and debts and should have an equal value. If they don’t match up exactly, use a cash payment or divide something cash based like a retirement account to balance the lists. Once your spouse is done with the lists, you choose one and they choose the other.
Third Party Appraisal:
This works best if you’re having trouble dividing smaller items like furniture and electronics. Ask someone to act as an appraiser and value each of your assets. Afterwards, take turns selecting items until you each have roughly equal shares.
Debt Focused Method:
If you’re divorcing with substantial community debt, know that creditors will often ignore a divorce decree. This means that even if the decree makes your spouse the responsible party for a debt, if they don’t pay the creditor may come to you. Therefore, it’s never a bad thing to pay down as much debt as possible during the divorce.
Often spouses agree to sell all items of value and use the proceeds to pay off the community debt. This cuts down on the amount of property left to divide and decreases moving costs, since the buyers will be moving the property. This strategy also has an added money savings benefit of reducing interest earned on the debt after divorce.
Overall, if you’re able to reach an agreement you’ve essentially saved yourself $25,810, the difference between a contested divorce ($27,310) and the average price of an uncontested divorce ($1500).
Online divorce tools can be a great resource if you’ve agreed to an uncontested divorce. What online divorce tools do best is prepare your paperwork in an efficient manner. You don’t have to poke around the web looking for the proper forms and then struggle to fill them out correctly.
A good online divorce site will simplify the process for you into three steps. First, you’ll verify that you are filing an uncontested divorce, which will allow you to create an account on the site. Second, you’ll provide all the information necessary to prepare the paperwork, typically through an online questionnaire. Last, you’ll be sent the proper forms based on your answers, along with instructions on how to file with the court.
There are a variety of options available, ranging from $150 to $1500. The cheapest sites are usually hands off, so you’ll be on your own after you receive the paperwork.
Being an attorney, I’m biased, but I wouldn’t recommend filing any paperwork from an online divorce site without asking a lawyer to review it. A court won’t scrutinize agreed paperwork too heavily, so you won’t know if there are any major mistakes until years later. Usually, you’ll find out if you return to court to make a modification or if you left something out that becomes an issue in the future.
For example, many people agree to transfer the home to their spouse, but forget to include language to refinance, so their name is never removed from the mortgage. If your spouse stops paying the mortgage, you and your credit score will be happy that you took the time to get the paperwork reviewed.
A partnership with an attorney can give you peace of mind that your divorce is done right, but keep your costs under control. A partnership will entail that you handle some elements of the divorce on your own, but have an attorney around to handle the more technical aspects. This is a superior option to the online divorce if help from an attorney fits in your budget.
I often have this arrangement with clients that choose to act pro se. Pro se is a Latin term and when used in a legal sense it refers to someone that is representing themselves. A pro se client will file the paperwork and manage the case, but work with me to prepare the forms and reach a fair settlement.
There are many tasks you can handle in the legal process if you’re clear that is what you want. For example, you can file the divorce forms by mail, negotiate the terms of the divorce with your spouse, and like my client we discussed earlier you can do the detective work to find your spouse if they’re missing.
If you’re on a budget find an attorney who will walk you through the steps of the divorce process and let you know what pieces you can handle on your own. As long as everyone is on the same page this can be a very productive relationship and it won’t cost you nearly as much as traditional representation.
An attorney who is open to a pro se partnership can save you thousands. Assuming you save 10 hours of billable time, you can bank $2500 in legal fees.
In order to file for divorce in King County you need to pay a filing fee of $314 to the court. However, you may be able to avoid the fee if the court approves a fee waiver request.
A court will issue a fee waiver if one of following three things is true. One, your income is at or below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. Two, your basic living expenses for things like food, shelter, and health care, are so large you are unable to pay the fee. Three, you receive one of the following forms of public assistance: TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), HEN (Housing and Essential Needs), SSI, federal poverty-related veteran’s benefits, or food stamps.
Keep in mind, the above three criteria are not the only ways to a fee waiver. If you can show compelling reasons for the waiver a court will award it. In addition, if a Qualified Legal Services Provider (see below) represents you, you should be eligible for the waiver.
If you think you’re eligible for a fee waiver you’ll need to fill out a Motion, Order, and Financial Statement. Make sure you do a thorough job with the financial statement and clearly state the reasons you are eligible for a waiver, since you’re likely to be asked those questions by a judge. When you’re ready, take the three forms to the ex parte courtroom at your local courthouse and present them for review.
If the fee waiver is granted, you’ll have saved $314. File it at the clerk’s office, along with your divorce papers.
If you need legal help and can’t afford to pay for an attorney there are many legal service providers that can help. A legal service provider is an organization that helps low income individuals with legal issues. Often they specialize in different areas of need like immigration, domestic violence or consumer protection, so you’ll need to call to make sure they work with people in need of family law help.
If you live in the Seattle area I can recommend the Union Gospel Mission’s Open Door Legal Services. While the Union Gospel Mission is focused on helping the homeless the legal clinic is open to anyone.
I’ve volunteered here quite a bit and the staff really care and will do there best to help you. Each week they have walk in hours where you can come by and speak with an attorney. If you qualify for help, you’ll be connected with a UGM attorney who will work with you throughout the divorce process.
Here are three other Washington Legal Services Providers, who can help you. The Moderate Means Program operates statewide, the KCBA offers walk-in legal clinics throughout King County and ELAP works with eligible individuals in King County’s Eastside.
Washington Moderate Means Program
King County Bar Association Neighborhood Legal Clinics
Eastside Legal Assistance Program
If you qualify for aid from a legal services provider you often can divorce at no cost. Since the average cost of divorce is $27,310, if your half of legal fees is free, you would save $13,655.
In many relationships spouses divide the household duties and one spouse takes charge of finances. I’ve seen situations where the relationship starts to break down and the spouse who’s managed the money will cut the other off. They won’t share information about finances and limit access to money.
In extreme situations a spouse may move money out of the joint account and put their spouse on a small allowance. Without access to money it’s normal to feel trapped and think you can’t afford an attorney.
If you’re experiencing this type of situation, know that the court has the power to order your spouse pay for your attorney. Once the divorce is filed, your attorney can request an advance from your spouse to cover the costs of divorce or request reimbursement for work done.
A court order to cover the legal fees of a spouse is not automatic, but it is a real possibility in the right circumstances. The court will evaluate your need for an attorney and the ability of your spouse to cover the costs.
In these scenarios, my clients have usually had very little access to the information, but do your best. Be honest with your attorney and try to gather as much financial information as you can. At the very least, you should be able to request your joint tax returns from the IRS.
It’s difficult to guess exactly how much a court will award in attorney fees. Typically a court will only award a portion of fees be covered by your spouse. Assuming half of your divorce costs are paid by your spouse, you’ve saved $6827.
No matter your financial situation there is legal help available. You shouldn’t feel like you have to go through divorce alone.