8 Tips For Cutting Costs On Your Divorce
I know, I know, I just featured cost-cutting techniques for weddings on Monday, and how much of a cynic do I have to be to have a feature on divorces two days later? Listen, I’m neither a fan nor an advocate of divorce, but I am a realist, and when I was writing the wedding post it struck me how much I know about the divorce process for someone who has neither been divorced (nor ever plans to be — I love you, Mr. Right-Click!) and who is not a lawyer herself. See, I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this here, but I’m kind of uniquely qualified to write a post advising people on how to save money on their divorces — I happen to be the child of two family law specialists who have been practicing law — primarily divorce law — for well over thirty years each. And let me tell you, when you’re at the dinner table with two divorce attorneys during your formative years, you pick up a few things. You learn about how clients sometimes run up their bills for not good reason. About how fights over things like pictures can end up costing people thousands and thousands of dollars. Now add that early training to the fact that I’ve also worked as a legal secretary and a paralegal in countless law firms, and you’ll understand why I’m far too familiar with the pitfalls of divorce law. Listen, I’m hoping you don’t need ever this post. But if you do ever find yourself in need of divorce advice, do your best to bear the following in mind.
- Do not call your lawyer unless it is absolutely necessary. Most lawyers bill in 1/10th hour increments (every six minutes), and all of the time you call them or leave messages for them counts towards this billing. This is true for most any type of law, but it’s especially important in the case of divorce because people tend to use their lawyers as therapists, or to make them feel better about things. Do not be so stupid. For one thing, many lawyers are going to cost more per hour than a good therapist, and . . . well, let’s just say that lawyers don’t become lawyers because they’re really understanding of human emotion. Call your friend, call a therapist, but don’t call your lawyer, because the clock is always running.
- You can call your lawyer’s secretary, but be judicious. The dirty secret of billable hours is that your lawyer’s secretary is probably not going to bill for time on the phone with you. This is a good backdoor way of getting information about your case without stuff being on the clock. But you need to be very careful about how you use this option — legal secretaries tend to be very busy, and you want them to be on your side. If you call them all the time with unnecessary questions, they aren’t going to like you. You should be nice to them and respectful of their time, it’s definitely in your best interest.
- Organize your paperwork and financial records yourself. This tip comes straight from my mother’s vault: the single most important thing you can do to save yourself money when getting a divorce is to organize all of your financial paperwork yourself. One of the first things that has to happen in a divorce is an assessment of a couple’s financial picture, and this requires going over bank records, credit card records, brokerage account statements, retirement fund statements, tax returns, and any other miscellaneous financial asset documents you can think of. Do yourself a favor and organize all of these in chronological order, and put each of them in folders, ideally with summaries that state what everything is, and where it is, so that the lawyer can find everything they need quickly. You do NOT WANT TO PAY THE LAWYER TO ORGANIZE THESE DOCUMENTS. It can take hours and hours to go through this stuff, so if you organize it yourself, not only will you save yourself a TON of money, you will make your lawyer happy because they won’t have to waste their time going through things trying to find receipts.
- Wherever possible, pay as you go. Lawyers will sometimes let you run a bill for your case, and in some cases you will have to do this. But if at all possible, do not run a bill. As is the case with any form of debt, costs can get out of control quickly and without you realizing it. And a smart lawyer will be charging you interest rates on any balance you run — as much at 10%, which is worse than many credit cards. Paying in cash regularly will keep you from spending a lot of extra time on stuff that doesn’t need to be done.
- Determine if you really need a lawyer. If you and your spouse have no children and don’t have a lot of assets, you might not need a lawyer. If you have kids and not a lot of assets, you still might not need one, provided you’re reasonably amicable. But let’s say you’re getting divorced, hypothetically, from somebody who has amassed a large amount of assets, and that person says that he or she doesn’t want to use a lawyer. That is a case where you run, don’t walk, to the best attorney you can find. You need to run because that person has probably already met with half of the attorneys in the general geographical area, and because of this, they won’t be detainable for you. You need to get an appointment with somebody who is decent whom your spouse hasn’t already contaminated.
- Just because a lawyer costs $700 an hour does not mean they’re better at lawyering. Lawyers are like mechanics in a lot of ways. You have to shop around, and it takes a while to know enough about how they work to know if you have got a good one. Some people try to forgo this by just hiring “the best” in a given field. Though there is definitely some truth to the old adage “you get what you pay for,” this is another case where there are circumstances that can drive up a lawyer’s price for no good reason. Say you hire a big firm well known for family law. Are you getting the partner who made the team’s name? In that case, it might be worth it to pay more. But the likelihood is that you are going to get a young, inexperienced associate who is doing most of the work. And, yes, that associate’s work will be billed out at less than what the partner costs, but it will still be far, far more than that associate would ever be able to charge as a sole practitioner. You need to ask the right questions when trying to find a lawyer, including who will be working on your case and when, and what their experience is, and what their track record is.
- A referral from one of your friends is a good starting point. Lawyers refer people to other lawyers all the time, but this is not always a sure-fire means of determining a good attorney for you. They might refer you to one of their friends, or they might refer you to somebody who has a history of sending them 20% referral kickback fees. It’s very hard to determine what an individual lawyer’s referral policy is, but you do know your friends and (hopefully) trust their judgment. Your best bet is to find somebody who has had a divorce in your area and see what they thought about their own lawyer, and the lawyer on the other side
- Even with a good lawyer, you aren’t always going to get the result you want. The reason people hate lawyers so much is because effective litigation (any kind) ends with both parties unhappy. Never is this more true in the case of a divorce. You cannot reasonably expect to get everything you want in a divorce. It’s a divorce — it sucks. It’s going to suck. And beyond cases of gross malpractice, most of that suckitude is not going to be your lawyer’s fault. So lower your expectations and just try to get through.