How to minimize attorney’s fees in divorce.

In eighteen years of practicing law, I have represented over a thousand divorce clients.  Bar none, every client wants to know how much the divorce is going to cost and how the financial costs can be minimized.

As each divorce is different, it is impossible to predict exactly how much a particular divorce is going to cost.  There are usually too many variables at play to give a tight estimate on what the total fees will ultimately be.

What I can do, however, is educate my clients as to how they can help minimize their own attorney’s fees and costs.  I suggest three action steps they can take.

#1 – Do the stuff your attorney asks you to do.

You will have certain “assignments” in your divorce.  Initially, you will likely be asked to fill out a client questionnaire.  You may also be asked to provide copies of certain documents, like pay check stubs, income tax returns, mortgage statements, etc.  Later on, you may be asked to provide answers or documentation in response to requests for information sought by the other side.

If you choose to undertake this work yourself, you can save a lot of money.  Do you want to track down a copy of the Warranty Deed to your house or would you like to pay my paralegal $150/hour to do so?  Would you like to do the initial draft of the answers to a formal set of questions received from the other side (called interrogatories) or would you like me to do this on your behalf at my hourly rate, which is $250/hour?  Simply put, delegating your “assignments” in the divorce will increase your attorney’s fees and costs.

Sometimes, though, there is a good reason to delegate one or more “assignments.”  Some of my clients are busy professionals, and it is more cost-effective for them to delegate their divorce “assignments” to maintain their focus and productivity at work.  Other clients are already multi-tasking as it is (work, kids, church, extended family, etc.), and cannot add another item to their expansive “to do” lists.

Many of my clients choose to delegate one or more “assignments” during their divorce.  They do so knowing, however, that their fees and costs will be higher than had they chosen to complete these items themselves.

#2 – Ask your attorney to educate you about the likely outcomes in your case and set your expectations accordingly.

Many clients come into my office with no idea of what to expect as to the outcome of their divorce.  Others have very fixed perspectives as to how their case “should” be resolved.  Regardless, it is my responsibility to educate my clients as to what they can expect from the divorce process and from the law, including the range of likely outcomes with respect to their kids, their money, and their property.

Generally speaking, no party walks away “with it all” from the divorce.  Divorce laws usually provide for some sort of sharing of the kids, the income, and the property acquired during the marriage.

This can come as quite a shock to some of my clients, especially to those clients who have a fixed perspective on how the divorce “should” be resolved.  The “should” often reflects a stated, or tacit, desire by the client to be vindicated as a part of the divorce.

But the law rarely, if ever, provides vindication in the context of divorce.  Regardless of how many vows your spouse may have broken, the law usually side-steps fault-finding, and, instead, focuses on how to move the family forward into separate households.

Moving the family forward entails parenting time schedules, budgets, and the division of income and property.  It does not usually involve admonishing one party for cheating on the other, and very seldom are there “paybacks” (in terms of getting more custody, parenting time, money or property) for breaking the vows of marriage.

So, I suggest meeting with your attorney relatively early on in your divorce to learn what the range of probable outcomes may be.  Bring an open mind to the meeting. Ask questions of your attorney.  Be prepared to hear information that may make you feel uncomfortable or disappointed or very happy.

Once fully informed, if you decide to take an approach outside the range of likely outcomes outlined by your attorney, be prepared to open up your pocketbook.  Why?  A novel approach will usually be met with resistance by the other party.  When there is disagreement as to the appropriate resolution of one or more issues in the divorce, experts (like custody evaluators, appraisers, etc.) and court appearances are often needed, both of which are time-consuming and expensive.

#3 – Tend to your emotional needs outside of the legal process.

Divorce is jam-packed with emotions – even when the divorce is consensual and uncontested.  It is a big transition, even if the marriage has been “dead” for years, and it involves “big” emotions like grief, sadness, anger, disappointment, fear, anxiety, and excitement, among many, many others.

Regardless of whether you wanted the divorce or not, the process involves letting go of all the dreams you had for your marriage and coming to terms with beginning again.  Again, “big” stuff with which to grapple.

But you are not going to grapple with these issues in your legal divorce.  The legal process lays no claim to the emotions of divorce.  Far from it.  Truth be told, the legal divorce is really just a business transaction, which involves negotiating the rights to the kids, the money, and the stuff of your marriage.

This does not stop some people from trying to get their emotional needs met through the legal process.  Most often, I see this play out in one of two ways.  The first is when one party is enraged at the other party, usually for opting to leave the marriage or for breaking the vows of marriage. The enraged party attempts to throw up legal roadblock after legal roadblock, in an attempt to make the divorce more painful (emotionally and financially) for the other party.  The second way this plays out is in a much more passive-aggressive fashion.  In this scenario, one party does not want the marriage to end, and chooses to be unresponsive in the process and uninterested in settling upon reasonable terms.

The aggressive and passive-aggressive attempts to get emotional needs met in the legal divorce drive up fees and costs.  Both attempts seek to defer the finality of divorce.  The only way to defer the finality of divorce is through disagreement.  When there is no agreement as to how much time each party spends with the kids, or how the money and property is to be shared between the parties, someone else (usually a judge) has to figure out these issues on the parties’ behalf.  This involves lots of legal paperwork, court appearances, waiting for court decisions, and, sometimes, appeals.  All of which take time.  All of which cost money.

The better use of resources is to take the emotional issues out of the legal process entirely.  The best place to address and work through the difficult emotions attendant to divorce is either in therapy or through divorce coaching.

You cannot control whether your spouse takes the emotional issues out of the legal process.  You can, however, choose the venue in which you deal with your emotions.

If you want to save money and keep your attorney’s fees and costs down, you will work with a therapist or divorce coach.  Given my experience, I suspect that every dollar spent by the client in therapy or coaching will save two, or more, dollars in the divorce proceeding.  Why?  Clients who are taking care of their emotional needs in therapy or coaching tend to need less contact and reassurance from me (which means I spend less billable time on their files) and do not to run up fees in the legal process with aggressive, or passive-aggressive, attempts to meet emotional needs.


Conclusion

Every person working with an attorney in divorce wants to know how minimize fees and costs.  In my experience, there are three ways.  The first is to comply with what your attorney asks you to do.  The second is the set your expectations in alignment with the likely outcomes of your divorce, as indicated by your attorney.  The last is to tend to your emotional needs through therapy or divorce coaching.  My clients who have applied these suggestions to their own divorce cases have spent less time and money getting divorced.