I've been practicing divorce and family law for 22 years. Back when I litigated divorces, I drove a Rolls Royce. I'm not kidding. I traded that car for a Honda Accord when I became a mediator (again, not kidding!).
Want to avoid buying a lawyer a Rolls Royce? Here's how:
The best ways to save money in your divorce fall into 3 categories:
• Planning--doing as much as you can yourself, in advance
• Professionals--getting the most out of your fees
• Perspective--keeping your cool under stress and being strategic
Planning Tip 1:
Get organized. Nobody knows your life like you do. Get a 3 ring binder and tab dividers and make a tab for each of your assets: personal property you care about, bank accounts, stock accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles, real estate, and everything else. You don't have to complete it all in one day. Start, and fill in the gaps over time. The more complete the better.
Include a section for Questions. Write all of your questions in it as they come up. Then, when you call your lawyer, accountant, therapist or best friend, write down the answers they give you. Call once a week (or less). Save up your questions. Lawyers charge by the minute. I'm not kidding.
Planning Tip 2:
Buy some divorce self help books. They are mostly written by lawyers and financial professionals who charge a lot for their time. For $15, you can get their best advice whenever you want it. Some good ones: The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons, anything published by Nolo Press, like Divorce and Money by Violet Woodhouse and Dale Fetherling, Your Divorce Advisor by Diana Mercer, J.D. (that's me) and Marsha Kline Pruett, Ph.D. (which I wrote because I couldn't find a really terrific legal plus psychology book already published), and Mom's House, Dad's House by Isolina Ricci.
Read them. Follow their advice. Do your homework.
Planning Tip 3:
Reality test your wish list before talking settlement with your spouse. If you want to keep your house, for example, can you afford the mortgage on your own when you factor in paying or receiving support? Could you refinance in your own name? If you do keep the house, and need to pay your spouse to do so, what money will you use? There's no sense taking a stand on an issue like the house if you can't afford to keep it anyway.
The same goes for your parenting schedule. If you work every Saturday, don't fight about who gets the kids on Saturday.
Do 3 versions of you budget: your wish list, your bottom line, and something in the middle that's reasonably comfortable. Know where you'd make cuts. Support is always too much to pay and too little to receive. Everyone will make budget cuts.
Professionals Tip 4:
Mediate. Don't litigate. If you need more structure than mediation provides, consider Collaborative Divorce. Or find a lawyer who will work on a by-the-hour basis to give you legal advice and go over your options. There's nothing more wasteful than going to court. In 22 years of law practice, I saw few cases that shouldn't settle. In fact, 98% of all court cases settle before trial, so assume you'll be in that 98% and start with that attitude.
Most of our mediation cases are done in 2-3 months with about 10 hours of service. Most litigated divorces take 1-3 years and costs easily skyrocket.
Professionals Tip 5:
You may not need a lawyer. An accountant with some divorce experience, a Certified Divorce Financial Planner, or fee-based financial planner may be much more help and much less expensive than a family law attorney. Take your notebook from Tip 1 to a financial professional and go over it with him or her first before you run and pay an attorney's retainer.
Professionals Tip 6:
Use professionals wisely. If you need an appraisal, a forensic accountant or a business valuation or any other kind of fancy expert opinion, ask your chosen expert if he or she has a range of services. The cost for a ballpark estimate of your business' value is much less expensive than it is for a full business valuation including the report that would be submitted in a trial. Jointly hire the expert with your spouse, attend each meeting together, and ask for a range of outcomes, not just "the" conclusion. By doing it together, you take the mystery out of it and cut the bill in half.
Got a parenting question? See a child psychologist together to work out an optimal parenting plan taking everyone's needs into account. Often, it's lack of information that creates conflict, not an actual disagreement.
And do this sooner rather than later. It's expensive to use lawyers to argue "I think the business is worth X" or "this parenting arrangement is best" when nobody really knows. Hiring the expert early on can keep costs down in the long run.
Professionals Tip 7:
Choose your attorney based on their client demographic as well as experience. If you must hire an attorney, you want to be in their top 1/3 of their client pool. You don't want to be their most important client---they won't be experienced enough to help you. You don't want to be the least important client in the office---you'll get service to match. There's no sense hiring the biggest lawyer in town if your case will simply get ignored. You want to be a valued and important client at the firm you hire. If you fit or slightly exceed the client profile of the firm they'll pay attention to your case and return your calls.
Find a lawyer whose practice is at least 50% family law and divorce. Better yet, find a lawyer who practices family law exclusively. Lots of new lawyers stumble into family law so they can pay the rent while they work on bigger personal injury cases. You want someone who knows what they're doing, not winging it.
Perspective Tip 8:
See a therapist. There's an emotional divorce that needs to be settled along with the financial divorce. You need support getting through this. You don't want to wear out your friends and family members. If your spouse will go with you, attend together and work out the details of co-parenting and communication. This is much less expensive and less stressful than a custody battle in court, and it may even be covered by your insurance.
Co-parenting classes can be found in most communities and are a terrific bargain. In addition to the teachers, you also get the benefit of learning from the other couples attending with you.
Perspective Tip 9:
Talk to your spouse. If you can't talk to your spouse, learn how to talk to your spouse, particularly if you share children, because you're going to be co-grandparents, too. The best predictor of how children fare post-divorce is the amount of conflict between the parents. Plus, fighting is expensive and stressful. And for your financial settlement, if you can settle some of the smaller things around your kitchen table, like your personal property and frequent flier miles, you'll save money and time.
Perspective Tip 10:
Know your priorities. Write out a brainstormed list of everything that needs to get settled and then rank them. Now pretend you are your spouse. How would he or she rank them? Are there some natural trade-offs, e.g., things that are less important to you but more important to your spouse that you could trade for your wish list?
If you want to settle, it has to be an agreement your spouse will sign. So you've got to hang the ham low enough to where the dog can get at it. You'll need to come up with ideas or proposals that will at least keep your spouse at the negotiating table. "I want everything," will just shut down the discussion, and it's not realistic anyway.
Smart planning, smart use of professionals and keeping a sane perspective will help you get through your divorce as inexpensively as possible without compromising your rights or skimping on important issues.
Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin 2010), and Your Divorce Advisor (Simon & Schuster 2001) and a mediator at Peace Talks Mediation Services, Inc.