Is there such a thing as a cheap divorce? The answer is definitely yes. In fact, most divorcing couples in California have a cheap divorce out of financial necessity.
The divorce cost that is normally unavoidable is the court filing fee. Currently $435 in most counties, this must be paid to the court clerk when the divorce petition is filed. You can only avoid this fee if you are poor enough to be granted a fee waiver.
If the other spouse chooses to file a response to the petition, another filing fee ($435) is required. However, it is possible to get an uncontested divorce without paying this second filing fee.
All other divorce costs are optional.
Super Cheap Divorce
Let’s say you want to avoid all other expenditure. How can you do this? Most importantly, somehow you need to reach agreement with your spouse on the necessary decisions. These are in the areas of asset/debt division and spousal support (and a parenting plan and child support if you have minor children). If you can do this, all that’s left is the required court paperwork.
If you are unable to reach agreement on everything and one or more unresolved issues remain, you can still go to court yourselves, present your positions to the judge (without attorney representation) and receive the judge’s decision(s). Many people assume that if you are going to court for a hearing or a trial, you must have an attorney. Actually, the majority of spouses who appear before judges in divorce cases in California do so themselves without an attorney.
You can’t avoid the required court paperwork. It’s far from easy to fill out all the forms correctly. There are free resources that can assist such as the court’s website. The Self Help staff at court won’t fill out your paperwork for you but they will give you some free guidance and review it for completeness. There’s also an excellent best-selling book called “How to Do Your Own Divorce in California.”
Some of the court paperwork needs to be “served” on the other spouse. You don’t have to hire a process server for this. You can have any third party do this for you.
Perhaps you can afford and want to get some professional input for the necessary decision making. You can get and pay for this on an as-needed (hourly) basis without having to pay a large up-front retainer to a professional. For example, this could be from a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst or an attorney who practices family law.
Maybe you can’t agree on everything but don’t want a judge to make decisions for you. You can use a mediator and pay for just the time he/she spends helping you work out the necessary decisions. There are non-attorney mediators and mediators who are attorneys. Non-attorney mediators typically have a significantly lower hourly rate. Total mediation cost with a non-attorney mediator? It depends on your situation but it would usually be less than $3,000 and could be as little as $1,000.
If doing the court paperwork yourself is too daunting or painful, you could consider an online service such as CompleteCase. These can suitable for non-complex divorces. They will generate your paperwork for about $200 after you answer a bunch of questions online. They give you instructions on what needs to be filed and served. There is a guarantee that eventually your paperwork will be accepted by the court, although not necessarily on the first try. The services do not file the paperwork at court or arrange for service on your spouse.
Full-service paralegals and Legal Document Assistants (LDAs) will take care of all the court paperwork for you, including what must be done with it once it is prepared. Expect to pay between $500 and $1,200.
Is Cheap Best?
Probably not. But there are no prizes for unnecessary expenditure either. It can be tough to keep a cool head when figuring out how best to accomplish your divorce. The old “better hire an attorney” way of thinking is too simplistic. Yes, sometimes having an attorney represent you is a wise move. But there’s now a wide range of services and options available for accomplishing your divorce in a way that can work for you and your wallet.