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Divorce Alternatives: How to Keep Costs Down

Mediated Divorce • Collaborative Divorce • Do-It-Yourself

Experts tell us that it’s increasingly difficult to determine how much that you’ll pay for a litigated divorce, because cases are more complex, attorney fees are higher and more third-party experts are involved than ever before. Meanwhile, the paperwork for a do-it-yourself divorce is easier to file, and collaborative divorces increasingly are standardized.

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Age Fotostock

Chris Furney recalls the bewilderment that he felt in 2013 when it became clear that he and his now former wife were headed for divorce court. Their case involved alimony, children and real estate, and they quickly realized that a litigated divorce would require two attorneys, a business appraiser, a court-ordered child-custody evaluator, a financial planner and a mental-health professional. They were looking at a bill of at least $20,000.

“We didn’t want to spend a lot of money,” Furney says. “We thought we were pretty intelligent people and could figure it out on our own, but you’re a little ignorant about how many things there are to consider and what the court is going to want to know you’ve addressed.”

Furney and his wife eventually paid a little less than $10,000 for a cooperative settlement through a collaborative divorce, which is the newest type of nonlitigated divorce. Experts tell us that nonlitigated divorce became more common in the past 5 years as more couples looked for alternatives to the traditional (and most common) model of divorce—litigated divorce.

We spoke with 30 family-law analysts, experts and organizations, and all of them tell us that it’s increasingly difficult to determine how much that you’ll pay for a divorce. The consensus of the experts whom we interviewed is that a litigated divorce costs $15,000–$30,000, which is at least $5,000 more than the typical cost was 5 years ago.

“The cost of your average divorce has gone up because of complexities in the cases when you’re dealing with the value of assets and because children’s issues have become extraordinarily complicated with education and health care,” says attorney Harry Tindall, who has practiced family law for 40 years. “It’s not cookie-cutter justice; no two cases are the same.”

The consensus of the experts whom we interviewed is that the size of the U.S. divorce industry is $36 billion–$50 billion. Forbes estimates that U.S. lawyers alone rake in about $30 billion per year from divorce.

If the divorcing couple can’t agree on child custody, financial support and property division, a judge can require that the couple pays for business appraisers, custody investigations, financial planners, mental-health evaluations and therapists. Actually, no limitations exist on what judges can require from divorcing plaintiffs. Experts tell us that in the past 10 years, they’ve seen the emergence of divorce coaches, who are professionals who claim that they can help you to “navigate the divorce process.”

Divorce coaches typically charge $100–$200 per hour. Unfortunately, we found that no regulations exist for divorce coaches. They typically are unlicensed therapists and typically don’t have a financial or legal background. Experts tell us that some divorce coaches’ only experience is that they went through a divorce themselves.

“The intention of divorce coaches might be good, but just because you went through a divorce doesn’t mean you’re qualified to help others go through divorce,” says Jeff Landers, who is a certified financial analyst who writes about divorce issues. “It’s like saying, ‘I had brain surgery, so now I want to help other patients who had brain surgery.’”

Consequently, we believe that before you hire any divorce professional, even a lawyer, you should consider an alternative form of resolution instead of litigated divorce.

ALTERNATIVE RESOLUTIONS. Divorcing couples who want to avoid the high costs and emotional turmoil that are typical of a litigated divorce have three options: do-it-yourself divorce, mediated divorce or collaborative divorce.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

We found that a do-it-yourself divorce costs $300–$1,800. It’s the least expensive form of divorce, because no attorneys or outside experts are involved, and the only fees that you’ll pay are related to acquiring the necessary paperwork and filing it in your local court. Experts tell us that a do-it-yourself divorce makes sense if you have few assets or debts to divide, and no alimony or children are involved.

You can buy do-it-yourself divorce paperwork at your county courthouse, starting at $15. If you review the paperwork and decide that filling it out is beyond you, you can hire someone who can prepare legal documents in your city for $175–$700. The cost varies depending on the state in which you live, the complexity of the form and whether you want the preparer to help you to file the form. Experts tell us that these forms became more sophisticated (read: more expensive) in the past 5 years to address the complexities of settlement agreements.

If no legal-document preparer is nearby, you can buy the same paperwork from an online divorce service for $200–$500, depending on how soon that you want the paperwork and whether you want the service to help you to file the forms. What’s good news is that online divorce paperwork has become easier to understand in the past 5 years, because it has better instructions than ever before, says Lee Borden, who is an Alabama lawyer. What’s bad news is that if you fill out online paperwork yourself and make an error, then the court typically will return the paperwork without telling you what you did wrong, Borden says. No fee exists for refiling, he says, but figuring out the error might require consulting with an expert.

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