The cost of divorce – how to keep things simple
But if a relationship must end, and after all attempts to save it have been made, there are steps that can be taken to ensure the assets you’ve worked hard to build up aren’t eroded unnecessarily in the legal process that follows. Some simple pointers are:
Do as much preparation for your case as possible. You are likely to need legal advice at some point in the divorce process and getting your personal papers and financial disclosure in order early will set you up well for what lies ahead. A common area where costs often increase unnecessarily is when clients provide their solicitor with disorganised papers, often missing vital information. This costs you money as the solicitor must first put the papers into some sort of order before they can begin reviewing them.
- Keep good communication with your partner, and try to reach agreement yourselves
The more you can discuss and agree yourselves, the quicker matters will be concluded and the lower your legal bill will be. Solicitors will step back from the case eventually and where there are children to co-parent you will be communicating with each other indefinitely – so best do so now and save the avoidable legal costs of dealing only through solicitors.
- Decide how much you want your solicitor involved
One way to keep costs to a minimum is to instruct a solicitor on an ‘unbundled legal retainer’, which provides access to essential legal advice whilst you remain in complete control of legal fees. On an unbundled legal retainer you conduct your case in person and seek advice from your solicitor only as and when you choose or wish to. You can ask your solicitor for a fixed fee for each piece of work, or an estimate of the likely time needed on each piece of work to help you manage costs.
- Research which solicitor to instruct
Search for specialists highly ranked in directories and review their approach carefully. Remember you are going to be discussing your most private details with them so it’s important you feel comfortable working with them.
A ‘firm but fair’ lawyer will serve you best, protecting your interests but without an aggressive approach. Whilst you may wish to prove a point to your partner, if your solicitor’s approach is combative it will set the tone for the case, which usually results in unnecessary, expensive correspondence and creates ill feeling which could prevent settlement.
Most family law specialists now offer a fixed or reduced fee for the initial consultation. Ask them how they charge for their work beyond the first meeting and seek a fixed fee for all or part of your case.
- Carefully choose the legal method for resolving disputed matters
There are a range of methods to consider, with varying cost implications:
– In court
This is typically the most expensive and should be a last resort.
– Between solicitors
This can be in correspondence, or at a round table meeting between solicitors (often with clients in attendance).
Meeting with a trained family mediator can reduce legal fees significantly. The mediator is there to guide you to an appropriate settlement and is not your legal advisor. They typically charge an hourly rate, shared between both parties by agreement, which is likely to be cheaper than your respective solicitors. Solicitors aren’t normally present at mediation, but will advise their clients in the background throughout the process on the terms discussed.
– Collaborative law
This process involves you and your partner sitting down face to face with your respective solicitors to discuss settlement. All matters are discussed in person rather than in correspondence. This method only works if there is a genuine commitment from both parties not to go to court, but if successful it can result in considerable cost savings.
Family arbitration is relatively new and can be used for both financial and children disputes. It is a private court system in essence and allows clients to choose their own arbitrator (judge) and where and when their case is decided. The main benefit is speed, avoiding the queues in the state court list and allowing a case to be resolved in weeks rather than months. Cost savings can be considerable, depending on the arbitrator chosen and the number and complexity of issues to be resolved.
- Respect the legal process
Respond to your solicitor promptly and make it easy for them to contact you so they don’t have to chase you for instructions, driving up your legal bill. Respect court deadlines to avoid unnecessary applications to the court for awaited information from you, and orders for costs against you.
Undoubtedly, the lowest legal fees are found where couples have reached agreement themselves or at mediation, leaving solicitors simply to advise on the appropriateness of the terms and to convert the agreement into a binding settlement. There are occasions where reaching agreement between yourselves is neither possible nor appropriate (for example after domestic abuse) but otherwise this way of settling issues typically results in the lowest costs and better post-divorce communication, of particular importance where co-parenting is required.
By Deborah Jeff, partner and head of family at Seddons. Seddons have pioneered a fixed fee arbitration for certain cases, giving clients certainty of the legal costs they will incur through to conclusion of their case.