If your divorce or separation is of the “contested” variety, the process can get very expensive, very quickly. The average cost in North America is $20,000 and goes up exponentially from there.
Put bluntly, fighting is expensive. If your soon-to-be ex is particularly litigious for whatever reason, however, then it’s also true that sometimes a fight can’t be avoided
In these cases, how can you keep costs down? Kathleen Wells, lead partner at Wells Family Law, gives these Top Tips for how to save legal fees during a contested or high conflict divorce.
- Get a good therapist
As Kathleen says, “A divorce is like a death” – the death of your family rather than in your family. “Too few people acknowledge (the grief) and don’t hire a professional psychologist to help them cope with and manage their emotions and expectations... I refer clients to ‘personal coaches’ all the time.”
It can be comforting to talk about the latest, crazy thing your ex has done with your lawyer who gets it, but as much as they care about you, your lawyer isn’t trained to offer the kind of advice on personal issues you likely need.
A psychologist, on the other hand can not only provide the emotional support you need through this destabilizing time, but they’ll likely cost you half the billable hour of your lawyer. Furthermore, “there’s a good chance you can access employee healthcare benefits to cover the cost of therapeutic support too, which you’re never going to be able to do for your legal fees.”
Kathleen believes having a personal coach in your corner helps save you money in other ways too: “When emotions and expectations are under control, you make better decisions,” especially around hot topics like child custody and pets or the division of money or property.
- Organize your financial information yourself
Most firms provide a checklist of the financial information required to settle your divorce. Become your own admin assistant by sourcing and organizing everything yourself. There’s a lot of savings to be had if your legal counsel and their team isn’t doing this for you.
Make copies of the last 5 years tax returns, bank statements, RRSP’s, home, business ownership and mortgage documents, insurance and retirement policies, debts, loans, incomes, trusts…Generally, you need to catalogue everything of value, except household contents.
Be as fully transparent about everything as possible. “Sometimes people are tempted to “hide” some asset or other in hopes they won’t have to split it with their ex. This not only destroys whatever trust or goodwill there is left, but it almost always ends up costing more in the end. Save yourself time and money and be upfront.”
The more often legal counsel has to review, write letters, etc. the more expensive this piece will be – and if forensic accountants are required to find out where money is hiding, for example, it can drive up costs exponentionally.
- Collect and organize excellent text, email and social or chat app evidence
If text, email or other electronic communications evidence between you and your ex is pertinent to your divorce, you can save yourself a lot of money simply by collecting and organizing everything yourself. If your lawyer has to sequence, consolidate and chase gaps for context or dates in the communications between you and your ex, this can potentially add thousands to your legal bill.
A good summary of how to collect digital communications evidence for court can be found HERE.
- Organize and limit communications with your lawyer
“There’s a feeling of losing power when you get divorced and organizing yourself really helps give a sense of power back,” says Kathleen. “When you’re getting divorced, even organizing your thoughts can save you money. “
This means avoiding long-winded, meandering, and ultimately expensive telephone conversations and meetings with your lawyer by waiting a few days between communications to organize all your thoughts in one place: Know everything you want to say, and say it at once.
When it comes to email, Kathleen advises keeping a message in ‘draft’ over a few days, adding to it as thoughts arise. One 3-paragraph email will cost you less in legal fees for counsel to read and respond to than five 3-sentence emails over as many days, for example.
- Do what you can to stay out of court
Asking a judge to make decisions on the division of assets and debts, spousal and child support or custody is known as a litigated divorce. In these cases, expert witnesses, bi-lateral parenting assessments and additional court applications may be required that can send legal costs through the roof (think five zeros worth).
“The biggest money saver by far, is to stay out of court,” says Kathleen. She recommends couples try alternative dispute resolution options first like mediation or arbitration, to help come to an agreement on their own terms and keep costs down. Mediation/arbitration generally takes less time (so you’re not paying as many lawyer-hours), you settle on your own timeline, and importantly, you avoid the additional expenses associated with court.
“The most expensive divorce, is a litigated one.” It’s also often the least satisfying for everyone involved. It’s a rare occasion that people are happy with all the decisions a judge has made on their behalf – not to mention enduring the associated emotional and financial costs of the process. “At the end of the day, litigation really only helps lawyers. For my clients’ sake, I encourage all other solutions first.”
It takes work on your part, but it’s entirely possible save yourself thousands in legal fees for your divorce, while ensuring the best possible outcome in a less-than-best situation. Divorce can be excruciating, but keep your eye on the horizon: the end of one kind of life, can only mean the beginning of another.