If you and your spouse intend to part ways permanently, divorce doesn't have to be costly. In fact, you can get free legal advice from a variety of nonprofit programs and pro bono organizations in your area. But before you seek free legal advice, educate yourself about your state's divorce laws.
Know Your State's Laws
Each state has its own body of law that governs divorce and issues of child custody and child support. These statutes will educate you on your state's residency requirements--how long you or your spouse must have lived in the state to file a divorce. Some states require only a brief residency. Other states require a year of residency (e.g., Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York).
Your state's laws will also tell you on which grounds you can file for divorce. While all states have some type of no-fault ground on which to file, some states make it more difficult for you and your spouse to get a divorce by imposing mandatory separation requirements for a no-fault divorce. For example, Illinois requires a minimum separation period of 6 months, and in New York, it's a year.
Your state's laws will also contain statutes that spell out what courts consider during the divorce process. When you read your state's statutes, pay close attention to the words "must" and "shall." This is authoritative language and makes application of a particular statute mandatory. For example, courts are required to take certain factors into consideration when determining what's in the best interest of your child. However, if you note the words "may" or "can," this is permissive language. These statutes give courts permission to consider additional factors at their discretion. This applies not only to child custody, but also to issues of marital property division, spousal support (alimony) and child support. Every state will have a formula for calculating child support contained within its statutes.
You can get an idea of what your state's statutes look like by accessing the link divorcesource.com (see Resources). However, because state law is ever-changing and subtly modified after each legislative session, it's a better idea to purchase a copy of the most recently codified version of your state's divorce laws. If you don't have access to a bookstore that specializes in legal texts (or if your library doesn't keep updated versions of your state's laws), these books can be purchased online.
Pro Bono Programs
Free and low-cost legal advice can be procured through a pro bono program or legal aid clinic in your city, where services are provided by attorneys who volunteer their time. However, in most cases, you must show financial need to use these services. As more and more couples move toward "assisted" and pro se divorces (where couples act as their own legal counsel), pro bono services come in handy. Couples can draft their own divorce petitions, property settlements, child custody agreements, and other required legal documents and have them looked over by an attorney before they are filed with the court. This guided method not only cuts down on cost, it allows couples who have come to a "meeting of the minds" on all matters to work together to obtain their divorce.
Where You Shouldn't Get Free Legal Advice
The Internet offers a veritable array of "free legal advice" forums, as well as a host of articles written about divorce. However, keep in mind these two things: divorce law is unique to each state, and it is always changing and evolving. Some online advice is dated, or it can be applied only in general terms. So while you might discover that courts in your state will always do what's in the best interest of your child when making custody determinations (this applies to all states), you won't know how they arrive at their decision, given the specific laws of your particular state.
The best free advice that you can get on divorce is found within your own scope of knowledge. Know your state's divorce laws, and make sure they are current. Find a pro bono program in your area and speak with an attorney face-to-face. The wrong free advice can end up costing you more.