An amicable divorce is usually relatively quick and inexpensive, and allows both parties to walking away without a horribly bitter taste in their mouths. A contested divorce is longer, more expensive, and can be very complicated. It requires an experienced lawyer who understands the stalling tactics sometimes used by the other spouse to delay the process, as well as how to know when that spouse is concealing vital information or property in order to avoid giving their spouse a rightful share of the marital assets.
Get referrals from friends or colleagues who have gone through the process, ask a trusted professional (your tax accountant, for instance) if they can recommend someone, or contact a law society in your area and ask for a referral. Go to the potential lawyer's website – and Google their name – to find out as much as possible about their philosophy, area(s) of specialization, etc. Read client testimonials and watch videos or listen to podcasts featuring the lawyer if those are available to give you a sense of who they are and what it would be like to work with them.
Some lawyers offer a free initial consultation, so it's worth asking about when you call to book an appointment. If you bring a friend with you, the meeting won’t be so intimidating. Ask the lawyer if he/she handles cases like yours – especially if your spouse is non-cooperative, vindictive, or retaliating. Explain your situation because if a spouse is not cooperating, negotiations may be more difficult. If yours will be an amicable divorce, however, then you could ask about alternatives to litigation, including negotiation, mediation, or collaborative divorce. The lawyer you choose should answer your questions fully and honestly; if they don’t, or if you feel very uncomfortable with them, keep on shopping!
Some lawyers send a weekly statement with a cost breakdown for the work done. Some charge in six-minute increments, so if they work for seven minutes, you pay for 12 minutes and so on. Ask about their fees, and about the fees for work completed by their assistant and/or paralegal. Other lawyers may charge a few thousand dollars as a retainer. Once the money is gone, the work stops. More money is needed to keep the process going. Be careful in putting liens against your property. If you lack the funds to pay for a lawyer before receiving spousal support or a property settlement, some lawyers may say, “I’ll get paid from the proceeds of your house when it sells, or from your divorce settlement.” The problem with such arrangements is that it could take years to reach a settlement or sell a house. If you want to change lawyers, the bill from the first lawyer usually needs to be paid before your file can get transferred to a new lawyer. It is also possible that in the end, your lawyer will get paid, and there won’t be any money left for you.
Instead, ask your lawyer about temporary orders that could give you access to the cash you need right now: to pay your legal fees, but also to cover your living expenses.
A retainer is a legal contract and a commitment that is not always easy to cancel. Of course, your lawyer can't predict the twists and turns your case might take if your spouse is uncooperative or actively concealing facts or property, but they should be able to give you a ballpark estimate based on similar cases they have handled. Did you know that most lawyers charge to send and receive e-mails, phone calls, to review your case, and for every meeting and court appearance they attend? When you’re aware of this, you’ll keep your calls short and to the point, prepare questions before meetings, and keep informed on what’s happening. If you’re overwhelmed or depressed, seek counseling so you don’t blow up in your lawyer’s office or break down emotionally at the rate of $300 an hour. See a counselor, it’s cheaper! The following are edited excerpts from my books Divorce Prep: Self-Help Guide and Joyfulness At Last! A Memoir.
Here are some good examples of what happens when you’re not well-informed and don’t ask the right questions: “I was 60 years old and I didn’t know where to find a lawyer, so I went to a seniors’ center. I trusted that this was better than looking for a lawyer in the phone book. The legal firm I chose assigned me to a young lawyer who was very kind and patient. She even met me at the seniors’ center, so I didn’t have to drive in downtown traffic. I didn’t know I was paying for her traveling time and extra kindness. Before our first meeting, I made up a list of what I thought were pertinent questions: “What happens if my husband refuses to give me money?” “We just go to court to get some,” she said. “What happens if my husband is out of the country and doesn’t show up in court?” “The judge will give you what you ask for, and may order your husband to pay for court costs,” she said. Her answers were reassuring, so I signed the contract for her to start working on the divorce. I told her I didn’t have any money, and she said not to worry, that I could pay when the house sold or a settlement was reached. This sounded reasonable at the time because a previous divorce had been amicable and cost $700. From that moment on, my lawyer didn’t consult me on anything. She just went ahead and proceeded as if my divorce was amicable.
In the beginning, my lawyer applied for an emergency court date because of my “serious financial hardship.” I thought that because of my age and situation, I had a good chance. After two-and-a-half months, she reported that I wasn’t destitute enough to qualify but I still had to pay for the court application. The biggest mistake I made was to assume that the justice system would protect me. I trusted that my lawyer would work to get my fair share in reasonable time. After all, my name was on title of the waterfront property, truck, car, trailers, boats, and everything my husband and I owned.s What I hadn’t predicted was that, when I left for a weekend with a car and some clothes, my husband would assume he could take exclusive possession of the house without a court order. He continued to live there and the lawyers never questioned what was happening. When I wanted to enter the house to get personal items, I had to go through the lawyers to make an appointment. I was told by my lawyer that this was the process. Eventually, my husband changed the locks to the house on the advice of his lawyer, and I had to involve the police. I seemed to go from one crisis to another, and eventually, I ended up at a women’s shelter. A contested divorce can turn ugly very quickly that way. The other mistake I made was to assume that the legal cost would be calculated as a package deal. I didn’t know that my lawyer would charge me for every call, e-mail, and case review. Each court appearance cost me $2,000 (in 2006), and even though my husband didn’t show up, the judge didn’t give me what I wanted as I had been told he would. My husband never paid for my legal fees and court costs either. When my lawyer asked me to get evaluations on the house, its contents, my pensions, etc., I never questioned her, I just assumed I had to do it. None of the evaluations I paid for were ever used.” The longer the case dragged on, the higher the bill was getting. After eight months and two lawyers, I was forced to represent myself in court, I had no choice! In the end, I was successful, but it was the biggest battle of my life.
What your lawyer tells you is important, but you should ask many questions, be informed, know your rights, and make your own decisions. After all, it’s your divorce, and you’re paying for it!