It's funny how you are showered with gifts when you marry, but you are pretty much on your own when you divorce. Yet divorces can be much more expensive than marriages which require only a city license, and even more so than big white weddings with a reception at the country club. If you sense your marriage is heading south, it's always wise to build up a divorce fund to get you through, but sometimes that just isn't possible. There are steps you can take to handle your divorce on the cheap, and it all starts with learning something about the process.
How to Get a Divorce
You don't need to be a brain surgeon to walk your way through the divorce process in your state. On the other hand, you do need to take the time to understand the procedure and the things a court is concerned about. In a marriage, two become one, but in a divorce, one is divided once again into two. That means that everything built up in the marriage must be chopped into two pieces by agreement of the parties or an order of the court.
First, did you and your spouse acquire anything during the marriage, either assets or debts? If not, you don't have to worry about property division. If so, you need to understand how property is divided in a divorce in your state. A minority of states, mostly in the West, have community property laws. These laws treat all property a spouse brings into a marriage as belonging to that spouse. But all money earned during the marriage and everything bought with those funds belong to both spouses equally and is assigned 50/50 if the marriage is dissolved. Other states use an equitable division system in which marital property is supposed to be distributed fairly between the spouses, but not necessarily equally.
The second big issue in a divorce is kids. If you don't have any minor kids, your divorce is much easier. If you do, you'll need a parenting plan, setting out both who will make the legal decisions for the kids, as well as defining physical custody issues. That involves who will have the kids, and when.
Essentially, you begin a divorce case by filing a petition for dissolution, also called a complaint for divorce. You get the documents served on (personally handed to) your spouse. At that point, you can file a written agreement between spouses setting out the terms of the divorce, or, in the alternative, prepare for trial. In the latter case, you basically ask the court to adjudicate the issues. Needless to say, this alternative is more expensive.
Divorce Assistance for Low Income People
States differ as to their divorce procedure and their court costs, and the circumstances of divorcing couples differ. If you have a big estate, minor kids and a spouse who is ready to battle to the death, a divorce can take a long time and cost a lot. If you have no kids and few assets, it can be cheap and quick.
Here are the major expenses in a divorce: paying someone to fill in your opening papers, paying court filing fees, paying someone to serve your spouse and paying an attorney to adjudicate your issues before the court. Attorney fees are by far the biggest expense, but all these items can cost money that you might not have or want to spend. In many circumstances, you can reduce or eliminate those fees if you are willing to work at it.
Many courts have self-help websites that allow you to download all the forms you require to file a divorce. Some also offer assistance in filling out the forms, especially useful if you are seeing divorce assistance for a low income household. Making use of these, you probably can prepare the initial filing yourself. If you are indigent or very low-income, file a form to have court fees waived, together with supporting documentation. Then arrange for a friend to hand the papers to your spouse rather than paying a process server.
Getting Free or Cheap Divorce Mediation
You've heard it before, but here it is again: it is far cheaper, less ugly and more productive to compromise with your spouse about divorce issues. If you are ready to do that but your spouse isn't talking compromise, you can both probably profit by using mediation services run by trained mediators.
What is a mediator? A mediator is a neutral person trained in family law in your state. He listens to each person's position, then offers information on the law in the area and what he believes the court will do. For example, if you live in a community property state, he would walk you through what property a court would likely order divided between the two parties. He tries to get you to settle your differences and come to an agreement.
In some courts, mediators are free to those going through a divorce with kids. Sometimes a court requires a couple to go through mediation to resolve custody issues. There may also be agencies that offer low-cost mediation for low-income families in your area, so ask at the court.
Finding a Free Family Law Attorney
What remains to be hammered out is how to keep down the attorney costs when you haven't been able to resolve matters and a nasty divorce battle lies ahead. It is really tough to handle a divorce yourself if your spouse has an attorney and a desire to fight. While you may hope for a free family law attorney, this may not be easy to come by. But available, low-cost divorce assistance all depends on where you are located.
For example, every superior court in California has legal help available in family law. Many employ family law facilitators, experienced family law attorneys who work for the superior court to help parents and children for free. While a family law facilitator is not your attorney, she is an attorney who can guide you through the process. She can show you how to figure out which court forms you need and help you get them, assist you in filling out the forms, including calculating support amounts, and put you in touch with other agencies and services to assist you in a divorce. Note that the attorney-client privilege does not apply to your conversations with the family law facilitator, and that she may also work to assist your spouse. But the good thing is, in California, a family law facilitator is free. It does not matter how much money you have or you make.
If you prefer having your very own attorney, the court may be able to supply a list of legal firms willing to provide low-income lawyers for this type of case. If not, ask at your state bar association. The court may also direct you to legal aid agencies that provide attorneys to low-income individuals. Or, it might help you find nonprofit, public interest organizations to assist you. These groups sometimes have staff lawyers who might be able to handle your case.
Another option, if you are likely to get cash as part of your divorce settlement, is to sign an agreement to pay your divorce fees out of your share of the property. Your attorney is likely to agree to this only if she believes that you are entitled to, and likely to get, money or property in the divorce. Further, check out the law schools in the area. Some have free legal clinics for certain types of legal problems. Both a local bar association and the court will likely know about these clinics and can give you more information.