Note that answers given in this section cannot take the place of a lawyer. For legal advice about your specific situation, you must consult a qualified lawyer. See our disclaimer.
“I want a divorce, but I don’t think I can afford it. What should I do?”
Many people who want to terminate their marriages are intimidated by today’s high legal fees. Most lawyers today require a retainer (ie. advance) from a client before they begin working on a divorce case. There are many steps that you can take to minimize the attorney’s fees and expenses.
Most attorneys today also accept credit card payment. You can also attempt to secure the initial retainer from your spouse, either directly or through an attorney if the other spouse is better situated economically.
Cutting down the costs of a divorce necessitates that the client do a lot of the leg work. Before the client goes to see an attorney, relevant financial documents should be gathered and copied. Bank statements, brokerage statements and tax returns can be copied relatively inexpensively. This will provide information to your attorney which he does not have to attempt to get from the other litigant, thereby incurring counsel fees in so doing. You should also prepare a budget and a list of assets and liabilities.
As a litigant, you also have the right to appear on your own behalf as your own attorney, or what attorneys call “appearing pro se.” In today’s complex world, this is generally not recommended, because there are subtle nuances and complications which can result from your lack of knowledge about the law. Your interest in medical benefits, pensions or other assets could be inadvertently waived without proper legal representation. Without understanding your rights, you may leave yourself unprotected.
Many clients today borrow the funds for the initial retainer, expecting that their attorney will try to obtain it from the other side, or that there will be enough money once the assets are divided to pay back the loan for the initial retainer. If loans from friends or family members or payment by credit card are not available, an alternate route could be through mediation, in which both you and your spouse together pay a mediator to attempt to reach an agreement. Successful mediation could substantially cut down on the overall counsel fees because you would only need an attorney to advise you on the agreement, rather than litigate the issues in court.
Finally, you may have more money than you think you have. If an asset is jointly held, you may be able to take half or a portion of the asset to devote it to a counsel fee without your spouse’s permission. You could also use income tax refunds, borrow against pensions or similar assets, and/or pledge certain assets to obtain a loan to hire an attorney. It is advisable for a client to meet with one or more attorneys for initial consultations. You can educate yourself as to the issue of prospective fees, retainers, and how to obtain the money necessary to proceed. Matrimonial attorneys are generally sensitive to the difficulties of clients getting access to funds and can help the client to tap into sources of funds which may not be obvious.
As a fallback position, some states have legal services or legal aid for economically disadvantaged litigants who qualify to have a family law attorney assigned to them. You should contact local bar associations to see if this is available in your jurisdiction.
Jeffrey K. Epstein is a partner on the matrimonial and family law team with the Woodbridge, NJ-based firm of Wilentz Goldman Spitzer P.A. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a Law Review Graduate with over 15 years of varied commercial and family law litigation experience in New York and New Jersey.