How to File for Divorce With No Money

By Teo Spengler - Updated October 25, 2018
Sad woman sitting on a sofa

Divorce and money seem to repel each other like two north poles of magnets. For any but the most wealthy, divorce means less money to go around, especially for the parent with custody of kids. But the divorce itself can also set you back a pretty penny, between filing fees, court costs and paying the lawyer's bill. Is there a way to file for divorce without digging yourself into debt? There is. You can avoid filing fees if you are poor, and the divorce itself needn't cost much either if you and your spouse agree to be reasonable about the situation.

The Costly Steps of a Divorce

Getting a divorce can cost as much as buying a car, or even more. But you won't find a divorce dealer like a car dealer who names a price, bargains down a little and then finances it for you. Rather, a divorce is a series of steps, each of which can prove costly, or not, depending on your situation and how you handle it.

The major, out-of-pocket costs of a divorce include paying an attorney to prepare the opening forms, filing fees, service of the divorce forms on a spouse, and finally the attorney fees for the divorce battle. If you and your spouse don't have any money, it makes sense for you to work together to find a low-cost or no-cost alternative at every step of the way.

Filling Out the Divorce Petition

The very best (and perhaps only) way to arrange for a no-cost or low-cost divorce involves cooperation with your spouse. The extent of the cooperation required depends largely on how many kids you have and how many assets you have. If you and your spouse don't have any children and have no assets, the odds are that your divorce will be quite straightforward, each walking away with empty pockets to make a new start. If you have minor children, you'll skate through without spending big bucks only by compromising early on child custody and child support issues.

Assuming you aren't ready to launch WWIII in divorce court, you can consider getting and filling out the initial forms yourself. These will include a Dissolution or Divorce Petition and a Summons, plus whatever other forms are required by your local court or due to your circumstances (like minor kids.) The more kids you have and the more assets you have, the most complex your filing will be.

In any event, you can get the forms you need from the website of the court where you intend to file for divorce. This will usually be the county in which you are living. Make certain you have lived in the county and state long enough to meet whatever residency requirements are in place.

Visit the court website, then go to the "Self Help" section of the divorce or family law court. Many courts offer online forms you can either fill out online and print, or forms you can download and then fill out. Sometimes all of the forms you may need for divorce come together in a packet and, if so, this is the way to go. Get the instructions for these forms, as well. Note that the forms you need will likely differ depending on whether you have minor children or not, and whether you are seeking family support.

If you don't feel comfortable downloading forms from the internet, head over to the courthouse. If you are lucky, your court may have a Family Law Facilitator, or someone who can help you find the forms you need and give you general guidance about how to fill them out. Otherwise, use any self-help material the court offers online and follow the instructions. Provide accurate, complete answers and sign and date the petition.

All states offer no-fault divorce based on irreconcilable differences or something similar. While a few have only no-fault divorces, other states allow a spouse to ask for a fault divorce, in which you accuse your spouse of doing bad things, like adultery or abuse, and cite that as the grounds for divorce. No-faults are usually cheaper and less ugly than fault divorces, but if you aren't sure what to do, you can ask for advice at your local legal aid agency.

Fee-Waivers for Divorce Filings

You file, you pay. The court system in most states is partially financed by those who use it, and anyone who files a lawsuit or responds to one must pay a fee. The fees vary enormously, but all seem fairly heft. They head into the stratosphere in places like California, where fees for each party's filing come in at over $400. That means that for a divorcing couple, you'll need nearly $1,000 just to file the opening salvo in court.

But if you are truly low-income, most courts offer you a hand. You can apply for a fee waiver by establishing to the court's satisfaction that you are indigent or poor by your state's standards. If you jump through all of the procedural hoops, it is very likely that you can get all of your court fees waived.

How to do it? You head back to the website of the divorce court. Locate the fee waiver forms and print them, together with the instructions if they are separate. To get the court to waive the fees, you must prove you don't have much money, including proof of your income and assets. Fill out the information and provide the backup documentation specified, often tax forms and bank statements.

Generally, you file for the fee waiver and the divorce at the same time. That means you take the papers into the court clerk. The fee waiver may need to be notarized, so don't sign it before you get to court. Often the court clerks can notarize the forms for you when you file them. The court will review the forms and make a determination on the fee waiver. If it is approved, your divorce case proceeds.

Service on Your Spouse

You must have a copy of the petition for divorce and the summons "legally served" on your spouse, which means personally handed to him by someone other than yourself. Often a divorcing person pays a process server to do this, but it costs money.

If you have worked out an agreement together to keep costs down, your spouse can simply sign an acknowledgement that he received the papers and waives any other type of service. Otherwise, ask a friend or family member to hand him the papers, then sign a Proof of Service affidavit for the court, swearing how and when the service took place.

Avoiding the Divorce Battle

It is pretty hard to represent yourself in a heated divorce battle. If your spouse wants to battle for full custody or to try to get you to pay alimony for life, you probably are going to need an attorney. But it doesn't have to be this way. The best bet for a low-income couple to get through the divorce cheaply is to arrive at a settlement between spouses. The settlement must include a parenting plan (custody/visitation agreement) and child support agreement. Once the agreement is done, you write it up, both of you sign it, then you present it to the court.

If you don't have any minor children or assets, there may be an even simpler option. Your spouse can simply agree not to contest the divorce petition. This assures that the court will grant it.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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