By Michelle L. Searcy
Comedians have written countless jokes about losing half of everything in a divorce. While it is, by far, the most common outcome that the marital estate will be divided equally or nearly equally, parties to a divorce have considerable control over how much will be left to divide. Sadly, it is not uncommon for people with fairly significant estates to walk away from a divorce with a fraction of what they had to start, and not because their former spouse received the majority of the property.
The first step to controlling costs in a divorce concerns budgeting. You will need to decide when to move into separate homes. In many cases, this is a given, but if you are able to peacefully co-exist on a temporary basis, then it is possible to reduce expenses during your divorce by continuing to share them. Of course, you still need to plan and prepare for setting up separate households eventually. Actually separating once the big financial picture has been resolved can save a tidy sum of money.
Whether you share expenses or not, there are certain expenses that cannot be changed while the divorce is pending. You cannot remove your spouse from health insurance nor can you allow any insurance policy to lapse for nonpayment of premiums, including homeowner’s, renter’s or car insurance because of an automatic injunction that immediately goes in place in every divorce. If you are in dire straits, you may be able to change certain policies with enough notice, but it is best to avoid this. This injunction also forbids transferring, encumbering, concealing or disposing of marital property. So, if you are trying to get rid of things in anticipation of a move, be sure to discuss this disposal with your spouse first. Being aware of the injunction actually saves money because the Court can impose an economic consequence for a violation.
Other than other ordinary budgeting that should be employed to prevent costs from spiraling out of control, you can also control your legal costs. When communicating with your lawyer, keep in mind that you are charged for time, so keep a bullet list of topics and questions to review. Take notes about your attorney’s advice, so you can refer back to them should you forget what was said. Often, repeated conversations add to the cost of legal services. On the other hand, if you do not understand your lawyer’s advice or explanation, ask follow-up questions rather than making assumptions. An example we often give new clients is to “ask or tell 5 things in 1 phone call and get billed for 1 phone call instead of 5.” Being smart in terms of how you engage your attorney can save you money in the long run, though don’t forego asking or telling your attorney things that are time sensitive or you believe are important. Though we, as attorneys, will bill for the work we do, we are wholly supportive of you saving yourself money where you can.
In addition to maintaining productive conversations with your attorney, keep the flow of communication with your spouse as open as possible without resorting to bickering. Out of frustration, sometimes people want to direct all communication through attorneys. While sometimes this is the only method of productive communication, it will also increase costs. Parties should be able to discuss separating personal property between themselves for instance. If you cannot resolve an issue directly, present your attorney with a summary that is easy to comprehend and discuss. You should also prioritize your goals and communicate that to your attorney who will then direct his or her efforts toward accomplishing what is most important to you.
Finally, understand the risk involved in taking your divorce case to a contested hearing. If you and your spouse cannot determine how to divide property and care for the children, you will put your stuff and your kids’ future in the hands of a stranger. While this stranger is required to be smart and well-intentioned, he or she may or may not understand all of the information presented. You are far more likely to negotiate a good outcome than the judicial officer getting every detail right. Negotiation does not mean getting the exact outcome you want. You will need to make some compromises, which is why prioritizing your goals is important. Overall, however, your agreement is likely to be far better than the court’s forced order. Plus, it will usually cost you less to settle than litigate, thereby leaving you and your family resources for the future.