How to Have an Affordable Divorce

If there is an easy point of agreement in the emotional upheaval of divorce, it is that endless legal battles can break the bank.

Hourly attorney fees can hit the high three figures, according to Nicole Feuer, the vice president of development and operations for the National Association of Divorce Professionals, a group of 600 divorce attorneys. The association estimates that the average cost of a divorce is $15,000 to $20,000, but contested divorces can be far more expensive. Disagreements over issues like child custody may take years to resolve and can push costs well over $100,000.

This has been the case for Maggie Kim, who has been mired in six years of negotiations with her former husband. Every five weeks, she flies from her home in Santa Monica, Calif., to see her two teenage children in Paris, where her former husband won custody. Ms. Kim, a 50-year-old musician and the writer of Divorce or Die, a Substack newsletter, has spent about $400,000 on her divorce, not including travel costs. This is money, she said ruefully, that would have been much better spent paying for her children’s college educations.

“I’ve retained 16 law firms across three countries, and it’s very hard to find a lawyer who defends your interests,” she said.

She has paid for legal fees with her earnings and “11 maxed-out credit cards, a personal loan, a loan from one of my best friends.”

The greatest challenge of getting divorced, many learn, can be trying to negotiate and control powerful emotions: anger, betrayal, grief, rage, disappointment. Too often, with lawyers as costly proxies, a warring couple’s every unresolved issue costs more and more money.

“I say to my clients all the time: You’re making the biggest legal and financial decisions of your life in the middle of the worst moment,” said Kate Anthony, who produces a podcast called “The Divorce Survival Guide” and who has trained to work with couples in high-conflict marriages and those involving domestic violence.

Choosing to immediately “lawyer up” — often a default choice — “is one of the worst things you can do,” she added. “The family court system loves a divorce. That’s how they make their money, off the rage and bitterness.”

But there are ways to reduce the stress and expense of ending a marriage. These options include using a document service (ideally reviewed by a lawyer), mediation and collaborative divorce.

Vanessa McGrady, a writer in California who was married for three years and who became a parent during that time, said that she “realized there were some insurmountable issues” with her former husband and chose to use the document service We the People for her divorce.

“It was not contentious, and it was easier because we didn’t have assets together,” she said. “We had no I.R.A.s. It was my condo and I was making the payments.” She recommends having a lawyer review a document divorce to ensure that it is done correctly.

The process took a year and cost less than $2,000 because she had hashed out issues with her ex before their divorce proceedings, she said. Ms. McGrady, 55, was glad to have saved thousands of dollars for her own retirement or for her daughter’s future needs. “I don’t know anyone who’s had as simple and easy a divorce as we did, even though it was frustrating and sad at times,” she said. “Before you go down the rabbit hole of rage and revenge, think where you want your money to go.”

Caitlin Steele, who lives in Seattle, used a mediation service from a start-up called Wevorce, which cost $750 when she got divorced in 2017. At the time, Ms. Steele, a senior design manager at Atlassian, a software company, had little disposable income and no children. She had witnessed a friend experience the emotional and financial fallout of an embattled divorce that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and limited access to his child for six years.

She had been married for 10 years when, she said, “the wheels started to fall off.” She filed for divorce, which was finalized six months later. Her husband was making $180,000 to her $90,000 a year, which in San Francisco left her, at the age of 38, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.

“I was in no position to hire a lawyer who would be motivated for a battle neither of us were interested in,” said Ms. Steele, now 46. Her former husband didn’t want to get divorced, but they managed to end the marriage civilly. “I would have ended up better off with a lawyer involved, but at what cost emotionally and financially? I’m proud we were able to do it, and it wasn’t always easy, but both of us were motivated to finish it without using lawyers who would have had a motive to make more money,” she said.

Ms. Steele cautions others using mediation to be prepared to come to the table from a place of respect. “You have to have a balance of power and a commitment to doing this as efficiently and painlessly as possible,” she said.

For those with significant assets to divide, and those unlikely to easily come to agreement using a document or mediation service, collaborative divorce is another option. Nanci Smith, whose Williston, Vt., law practice focuses on this process, describes it as “an evolving process” approved by the American Bar Association and the courts. “It’s been around for 30 years and there are attorneys in every state who can do this,” said Ms. Smith, the author of a recent book on the subject.

“Divorce is 80 percent emotional, 10 percent legal and 10 percent financial,” she said. “You cannot make important decisions when overwhelmed by grief, shame, rage. Every emotion comes up.” She insists that every couple consult a mental health professional before starting a divorce.

In collaborative divorce, three key players — a lawyer, a financial professional and a therapist — work together to help the couple stay calm while gathering all the information needed.

“We create a safe space for our clients to process what they’re facing,” Ms. Smith said. “We collect the necessary data and we process it. Everyone has a role, so a couple only moves ahead when they are psychologically ready. It allows people to come to the table and untangle themselves in a respectful way.”

It is the most costly of these alternatives, ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 or more, Ms. Smith said. “The range is huge, depending on the assets and the level of conflict over them. It’s still less costly than going to court,” she said.

Much like using a document service, mediation is a less expensive way to divorce, but it also relies on a couple’s good will and cooperation for it to succeed. Erik Wheeler, a former software expert, retrained six years ago to offer this service to his clients, thanks to a master’s degree in mediation and applied conflict studies from Champlain College in Burlington, Vt.

“The focus of mediation becomes working together for an outcome that works for both,” he said. “The main benefit of this is that the couple has full control of the process and can take the time they need.”

He offers an initial two-hour session for $440 to provide an overview of the process and to help couples understand the law. “There’s lots of misunderstanding, which fuels fear, which creates conflict,” he said. “The majority of people end up working well together. It’s quite surprising.” The total cost for a mediated divorce, he estimates, is about $3,000.

For Jeff Bogle, a writer in Philadelphia who has two daughters, mediation proved to be the best choice when he divorced his wife of 17 years in 2020.

“This might be the most amicable divorce you’ll ever hear,” said Mr. Bogle, 47. “We just grew apart.”

For a total cost of $350, the former spouses easily negotiated who would keep the family home (he did) and came up with a sum that his former wife would pay for property taxes, child support and other expenses. She earned about $200,000 annually — twice his income, Mr. Bogle said.

Key to their ability to divorce affordably and quickly was being aligned on all their issues. They did not have a custody battle over their children, then ages 11 and 15. The house was kept in both their names, and Mr. Bogle said his former wife will buy him out after their youngest turns 18.

“To do it the way we did it, you have to be friendly or at least on friendly terms, not greedy,” he said. “We didn’t want to hurt one another financially. If you’re willing to work things through and be honest and fair, you can save a lot of money.”

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