What if I Can’t Afford a Divorce? Are There Other Options?

by Shanti Nagrani
in Divorce
Low cost divorce options and alternatives

Divorce proceedings can range in price from as little as a thousand dollars for an uncontested divorce to as much as $15,000 and $30,000 for the average contested divorce. According to a recent survey by Martindale-Nolo research, the average Georgia divorce cost is $14,700, most of which goes to legal fees.

Although fees for an attorney vary, divorce attorneys range in cost from as little as $250 per hour to as high as $1000 an hour. These fees make it very difficult for some people to file for a divorce, but there are other lower cost options available for some couples.

Mediation

Mediation is an option for couples who agree on most areas of the divorce but disagree on a few issues and feel like they can work those out amicably with a bit of help. Parties in a divorce can attempt to mediate their issues without the assistance of legal counsel. Even with attorneys present, mediation is an option that helps to keep costs of litigation lower. A couple can jointly elect to mediate their issues prior to either party filing for divorce to see if a deal can be reached which settles their case. While these couples may have to pay for a mediator, this typically speeds up the process of divorce and reduces the fee amount paid to an attorney. Many Georgia counties require mediation for couples in a contested divorce before a trial date can even be set. Mediation is shown to result in better parenting for the children and better post-divorce relationships.

Collaboration

This is similar to mediation, but instead of having a mediator help work out the differences, each party hires a coach and other specialists (for the financial and custody issues), with the assistance of an attorney, to work out disagreements. In collaboration, both spouses typically hire an attorney, but the attorneys agree to help the couple solve the disagreements without going through the litigation process. They use specialists including coaches, to resolve the disputes. This process can reduce attorney fees significantly, although admittedly increasing the overall expenses for the specialists. Statistics show that couples typically spend around $3,000 each during collaboration.

The best possible results in terms of parenting for the children and post-divorce relationships will be possible under this unique and progressive form of handling family law litigation.

Stearns-Montgomery & Proctor is a collaborative practice and has attorneys certified to help divorcing couples achieve an outcome that would not be possible without this cooperative team approach.

Uncontested Divorce

This is the one of the least expensive of all options. It is for couples who agree on all areas of the divorce, including support payments, child custody, and property distribution. This type of divorce can be completed, in some cases, without the help of an attorney. However, it is advisable to hire one to help you address issues such as determining custody arrangements and managing financial issues and property settlements. An uncontested divorce usually takes much less time to settle, and legal fees will typically be lower. Some uncontested divorces can cost as little as $750, excluding filing costs which go directly to the court. Still, as in all things, you get what you pay for. Retaining an attorney for a “low-cost” uncontested divorce usually leads to generic and bare-bones settlement documents which may lack the specificity needed to properly define the post-divorce rights and responsibilities of the parties. When this occurs, parties’ may end up in additional litigation over issues not specifically adressed in their bare-bones settlement agreement.

Process for an Uncontested Divorce

While each attorney will handle things just a little bit differently when it comes to an uncontested divorce, many of the same procedures are followed for most cases:

  • Initial Process: Both spouses will agree on all terms. A Petition for Divorce and Marital Settlement Agreement will be filed in the court attesting that both spouses agree to the arrangements set forth in the agreement.
  • Waiver of Service and Notice: Only one spouse will file the Petition for Divorce and the other spouse will sign a document called the Acknowledgement of Service and Consent to Jurisdiction. This expedites the divorce process and waives service of the petition and further documents in the case.
  • Additional Forms: Even though the divorce is uncontested, Georgia law requires that a few additional documents be filed. A copy of past separation agreements, if there were any, must be filed. They must also file a Consent to Try within 31 Days, which allows the court to finalize the divorce within 31 days of receiving the petition. Additionally, if the parties have minor children, they must agree on a Parenting Plan, which will define the parties’ custody rights, and submit a Child Support Worksheet. Final Process: If a divorce is uncontested and there are not any minor children involved, a divorce may be finalized after 31 days. A hearing may be required, but only for the spouses to appear before the judge and answer a few questions to be sure the divorce is of mutual consent. A hearing may not be required if there are no minor children and no real or personal property to be divided.

Limited Scope Representation

Some people truly cannot afford to retain an attorney to represent them throughout the divorce process. A retained attorney will attend mediations and trials with their client, counsel their client on the law and strategy, and work towards their client’s best interests. In a limited scope representation, an attorney will not go to trials and mediations, nor will they file an Entry of Appearance with the court to establish themselves as their client’s attorney of record. However, under a limited scope representation, an attorney will meet with their client and advise them on law and case strategy. The attorney can also review legal documents, explain the documents, and offer proposed edits. The advantage of limited scope representation is that it typically costs less but still gives a person access to an attorney’s counsel. The disadvantage is that you won’t have an attorney with you at mediations and trials.

Practical Advice

If you enter divorce proceedings and your spouse retains an attorney to represent them, please understand that in no way will that attorney assist you or look out for your interests. While an attorney cannot lie to the court, they don’t have to “play fair” with you. To put it bluntly, your spouse’s attorney is not your friend and ethical rules specifically prohibit him or her from giving you any legal advice. If an attorney representing your spouse offers you a settlement, you should at least engage an attorney for limited scope representation (explained above) to review that settlement and explain its ramifications.

If you and your spouse reach an agreement on all issues without an attorney, you may want to consider retaining an attorney to draft documents which reflect the agreement which can then be submitted to the court. To grant a divorce, Georgia courts require that a series of documents be filed with them. Documents required may vary based on the specific facts of the case, i.e. if the couple has minor children. An attorney can take the agreement reached by a divorcing couple, forge it into the proper legal documents, and then guide the party on how to get a judge to sign a Final Order of Divorce. The attorney can even offer suggestions on additional terms the divorcing couple should consider. The couple would be free to take or ignore that advice.

To help you understand all the information listed above, consider these scenarios:

Scenario 1: Husband and wife decide to get a divorce. They jointly agree to mediate their case without retaining attorneys prior to either filing for divorce. At mediation, they come to an agreement on all of their issues, including custody of their children. Husband retains an attorney to formalize their deal. His attorney drafts all the required documents, including a Petition for Divorce, Acknowledgment of Service, Settlement Agreement, Parenting Plan, Child Support Worksheet, Child Support Addendum, and Consent to Try. The attorney then informs the husband that his assigned judge requires an Uncontested Hearing to grant a divorce, which isn’t a trial but rather a formality in which only one party must testify. For a fee, the attorney attends the Uncontested Hearing with the husband and gets the judge to sign a Final Order of Divorce.

Scenario 2: Wife retains an attorney and files for divorce. Her husband lacks the means to retain an attorney and decides to represent himself. Wife’s attorney sends a formal settlement offer to the husband. The husband reviews the offer but has some concerns about the terms. Husband then hires an attorney for limited scope representation. This attorney, after reviewing the settlement, explains the terms that have been offered to the husband. The attorney then advises him to present a counteroffer and suggests what he should include in it. The husband makes a counteroffer to the wife through her attorney, and she accepts it.

Contact an Attorney

Whatever route you decide to go with for your divorce, for the most amicable process to a fully contested dispute, the attorneys at Stearns-Montgomery & Proctor have the experience to handle the process so that it can be done as quickly and with the least amount of expense as possible. With several offices around the Atlanta area, there is a convenient location to meet your needs.