Minimize Fees; Maximize Results: A Lawyer’s Guide to a Cost-Effective Divorce

Why is divorce so expensive?
Because it is worth it.

Henny Youngman

Mr. Youngman’s joke may be old, but it raises a serious issue. Divorcing clients frequently ask, “How much will my divorce cost?” This is a fair question. After all, the price of a car or house is not a secret. It is simple to quote flat fees for preparing specific documents or an uncontested matter. But divining a fees algorithm for a contested matter, which may take months or more to resolve, is incredibly difficult. There are simply too many variables, including the extent of the contested issues, your spouse’s personality, your spouse’s attorney’s personality, the judge, and your own ideas about a realistic settlement. But here is a guide how to controlling those costs:

At a minimum, however, education can help you to spot issues, ask knowledgeable questions and improve communication with your attorney. 

1. Do Your Homework. Learn about your issues.  If you are not a fan of law books (who is?), there are plenty of other resources, including seminar videos, internet essays, your attorney’s website, and the Superior Court and State Bar websites and The State Bar of Arizona Legal Help and Education website. But beware – not all information is created equal. There is plenty of bad information available including information not applicable to your circumstances or an Arizona divorce. At a minimum, however, education can help you to spot issues, ask knowledgeable questions and improve communication with your attorney. 

2. Frank Fee Discussions Are a Must. Discuss fees at your first attorney meeting. Before hiring your lawyer, ask for their fee agreement and READ it. It’s tempting to focus on the initial deposit amount or the hourly rate. It is more valuable to focus on billing practices, whether they assign work to less costly paralegals or junior associates, and, above all, their reputation for efficiency. Efficient lawyers not only cost less, they use notes, lists and calendars to keep your case moving.

divorce

3. Get a Therapist. Therapists typically cost less and are far better qualified to listen to you about the emotional side of your divorce than an attorney. However, be aware that therapy records may be discoverable for parenting issues, so check with your attorney first.

4. It’s Really True: Civility Pays. If you aren’t nice, prepare to pay the price. Failure to maintain civil communication with your spouse means your lawyer will have to talk for you. That gets expensive– fast.  Do not discuss your spouse, or the divorce, on social media. Vent to your therapist, not to your spouse. You may be furious. Your spouse may be a jerk. We get it! But, to reduce fees, you have to lower the conflict.

If civility eludes you in the moment, there are services that will magically convert nasty communications into dulcet tones. Don’t obsess over your spouse’s e-mails, even if their attorney accuses you of nefarious deeds.  Escalating “nasty-grams” can quickly torpedo the fee budget. One useless volcanic eruption does not deserve another. Rather than wasting your time with a detailed rejoinder, consider this response: “Your facts are in error and we disagree with your position”. After all, the other attorney has no power and is not the judge.

5. Be Honest with Your Lawyer, and Meet Deadlines. Material omissions, misrepresentations and deceptions can pull your lawyer and you into a vortex of expensive investigation. Timely comply with all document requests. This can save countless hours of unnecessary follow-up and keep your case on the fast track. 

6. Be Your Own Gumshoe. Don’t pay others to find and organize your piles of paper. Try to gather and organize as much information by yourself as possible. Using your attorney’s method of organizing documents will pay big dividends.

7. Limited Representation. You may need legal counsel to only advise you behind the scenes while you attend mediation on your own, or to represent you just for certain events (e.g., obtaining temporary support). Arizona law permits attorneys to appear in court solely for specified limited purposes. Attorneys can also “ghost write” documents that you then file.

Above all, be realistic about settlement. Know when to hold and when to fold.

8. Be Concise. Resist unnecessary venting or scattershot emails to your lawyer. Do establish a communication method that works for you (for example, a regular phone call schedule). Create an agenda beforehand. One call can do the work of numerous emails. Ask for an action list at the end of every meeting.

9. Don’t be Penny-Wise and Pound Foolish. Don’t get carried away. Don’t, for example, rely on your spouse’s lawyer to do all the work or draft agreements. Opposing counsel is not paid to safeguard your interests. It can take your attorney longer to re-work a poorly worded agreement than to do it right the first time.

10. Don’t Park Your Good Sense at the Door. Always ask yourself, “do I want to pay my attorney to argue about this?” Make a list of all the things you do agree upon, no matter how small, and update it regularly. Remember, some agreements can be reached even in the most chaotic and contentious of divorces. Above all, be realistic about settlement. Know when to hold and when to fold. Do not equate getting your way on every issue with winning. It is not.  Analyze your goals from a logical, cost-benefit perspective. Don’t spend $500.00 to fight about $100.00 flatware. With each issue, there is the option to settle or to litigate. Be the master of your own agenda.  Remember, only YOU can decide whether each individual goal is worth it!

The McCarthy Law Firm recommends you consult with a family law attorney and qualified financial or tax advisors when it comes to your specific retirement issues.

This article is inspired and sourced from Kathleen McCarthy’s June 2019 Brief Encounters article, as published in Tucson’s Desert Leaf magazine.

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