While it is technically possible to get a divorce without a divorce lawyer, doing so will almost certainly backfire. Divorce professionals provide a great value in their knowledge of the law, local rules, familiarity with the court, and their ability to draft clear and precise agreements. It’s understandable that you would want to try to save money during your divorce, so it is recommended that you look into smart alternatives such as divorce mediation instead of trying to go it alone.
Divorce is expensive. The average cost of a divorce is between $20,000 and $30,000 per side. Many people are looking for ways to bring down the cost. A common thought is, I can save money by doing this on my own and I won’t have to hire a divorce lawyer. After all, do I really need a lawyer to get divorced?
In general, the answer is yes. It’s only “no” if you and your spouse hire a divorce mediator instead.
Divorce is complicated and involves many important details. Those details, if handled incorrectly, can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. For example, do you know how to transfer funds to your spouse from your retirement account without taxable consequences? Do you know how to correctly draft and process a Qualified Domestic Relations Order? Do you even know what that is? The list goes on and on. There are many traps for the unwary in divorce. And, if you make a mistake you may be stuck living with the consequences of it for the rest of your life or have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to try to re-litigate the issue in court (if that is even possible).
When most people think about divorce they focus on a few broad issues, such as: what will happen to the house, how will the assets be split, and, if there are children, how custody be divided. While those are important issues that must be resolved, there is more to getting a divorce then just answering those questions. The details of transfers must be worked out, taking into consideration tax consequences. Marital assets must be separated from non-marital assets. Agreements must be carefully drafted. Paperwork must be properly prepared and filed with the court. You need to raise any claims that go along with the divorce such as division of property, counsel fees, custody, and support. (For more detail on the steps involved check out “How The Divorce Process Works In Pennsylvania: Choose Your Own Adventure”). Finally, deadlines must be met.
In addition to ensuring that all of the proper claims are raised and filing deadlines met, different jurisdictions have different rules and customs for how you need to file everything. For instance, in Bucks County, PA you must file your marital settlement agreement and your custody agreement separately if you want your custody agreement to be enforceable. A local divorce attorney or mediator will be familiar with these requirements. Hiring an attorney or mediator will greatly reduce your burden of having to research the law and will ensure your documents are prepared in accordance with the applicable rules, filed in the proper location, and by their respective deadlines.
While complying with all of the rules and regulations governing the filing for divorce are extremely important, it’s not what most people are concerned with. Most people are concerned about getting a fair split of their marital assets and debts, and if you have children, an acceptable custody arrangement. A divorce mediator can help here as well. Experienced divorce mediators have handled hundreds of divorces in their careers. That experience allows them to guide you as to how the court would divide assets or assign custody. As a result, they are better positioned to tell you if a proposed agreement is reasonable. A mediator will also help ensure that your spouse is properly disclosing all of their assets to you. If a spouse is hiding money, a deal that may seem fair on its face will not be truly fair.
A divorce mediator can also help prevent your spouse from playing on your emotions in order to get you to agree to bad deal. First, proposed terms will be discussed with a neutral party familiar with the process. That insulates you from any emotional manipulation. Second, the mediator will help guide you should one term would affect another. For example, if your spouse offered not to pursue sole custody in exchange for you taking less assets in the divorce, the mediator could let you know that will not be enforceable.
If you really don’t want or cannot afford to hire an attorney or mediator to manage your whole divorce process, you may be able to hire one for specific tasks. If you and your spouse have no assets to split or have been able to agree on how to split all of your assets, support payments and custody arrangement, you may be able to hire a lawyer or mediator in a limited capacity. In that case you should hire an attorney to review the agreements you have prepared to see if anything is missing. One common thing that people overlook is the tax implications of the divorce, but there may also be details specifically required by your area that you missed.
Alternatively, you may want to hire a neutral mediator to draft a formal agreement that you and your spouse already reached. This is quite common and a good idea, as the mediator will be able to ensure there are no ambiguities in the language and the document properly represents what you are intending.
In summary, if you are looking for a way to bring down the cost of your divorce consider mediation. The average of cost of divorce mediation is a fraction of the cost of divorce litigation, and it’s money well spent. In almost all cases the mediator will pay for himself or herself by making sure you get all of the details correct. Just remember to hire a mediator who is also a divorce attorney.