When I first started practicing family law over a decade ago, most people had equity in their homes and decent amounts in their retirements/pensions. When there was plenty to divide, splitting up was not so painful, and my job was a lot less complicated.

These days, a lot of people are facing short sales or foreclosures because their homes are underwater. Retirement accounts have lost a fair amount of value in the last couple of years, and good pensions are rare. People are unsure about their job security and their future, and as a result, I think fewer people are making the drastic decision to separate and divide into two separate homes. As long as they don’t ignore the issues in the marriage, and make an effort to address the problems in the relationship, I think this is a good thing; if they don’t the whole arrangement is eventually going to fall apart.

When the decision is made to divorce, there is a lot the couple can do to minimize the legal expenses. Here are some real money-saving tips:

1.Avoid litigation— it is very expensive.  Instead, try going to a mediator, where you will only being paying for that one professional’s time as opposed to two separate attorneys.  If sitting in one room together isn’t an appealing option, then one person can go consult with an attorney first and have a Separation Agreement drafted, then the other partner can set up a consult with an attorney of his/her own choosing simply to review the proposal. Ultimately, the more negotiating the parties can do on their own and the more information they can exchange freely and voluntarily about their income, assets and liabilties, the less they will have to spend paying professionals to do this.

2. Family counseling– Especially for couples with children, it is important to deal with the immense anger and/or disappointment that normally comes with the decision to separate.  While the emotions are difficult to discuss, it is necessary to do so with a professional, who can then help you develop a plan for how to assist the kids through the transition phase.  Mental health professionals trained in child development can also help parents work out a Parenting Plan that will include an appropriate time-sharing arrangement.

3. Financial Advisors– Setting up your own household budget, and making major decisions about investments, including the marital home and retirement assets, should not be done without consulting a financial expert.  These are major decisions that need to be carefully considered, and it is wise to seek the counsel of someone who is not emotionally involved in the divorce.

4. Collaborate– Some people are unwilling to mediate, but may be open to a mediation-style dispute resolution format, where each party can bring his/her own counsel with the goal of finding a resolution that avoids the need for costly litigation.  If a Collaborative  Divorce isn’t a viable option, at least the couple can minimize certain expenses by hiring mutually agreed to experts re the finances and/or custody issues.

Divorcing with an attorney is a luxury these days. While you may not be able to afford to retain one for a full-blown litigated case, it is worthwhile getting a consult, learning about your options, and then formulating a strategy that works within your budget. For most cases where people want to minimize the expenses, opting for mediation or a Collaborative Divorce will certainly help preserve more of the family’s wealth than going to court.

By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.