There’s a long-held belief in the U.S. that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. The good news is that this statistic isn’t quite true. According to the CDC, just 2.3 in every 1,000 marriages end in divorce. While this study only considered data gathered from 45 states, it offers a more positive view of marriage. The bad news, however, is that divorce still happens. And it costs a lot… if you go the “traditional route.”
“We’ve been conditioned to think you need to contact a law firm,” says Nancy Fagan, owner of the Relationship Resolution Center in Plano, Texas. “But an uncomplicated divorce should never cost more than $500. Firms that charge thousands of dollars are preying on ignorance.”
While the exact cost you’ll pay varies by state, if yours is not an amicable divorce, you can expect to pay thousands. A basic filing fee can run you anywhere between $80 and $500, which is where Fagan gets her number from. It’s when attorneys get involved that you’re looking at over $10,000 at least.
So, if you’ve found yourself deciding that divorce is something you need to face, how do you possibly do so without going bankrupt in the process? Let’s look at your options, most of them well under $500.
- Cost: Typically just the cost of the court filing fee
- Requirements (if any): Married a short time; few assets; no children; no debt
- Who it’s best for: Newly married couples without children and/or assets
A summary divorce, also known by other names like simplified divorce, is one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to end a marriage. You won’t have to go through a court proceeding and you likely won’t even have to work with a moderator.
“In California, it’s called a summary dissolution,” Nancy says. “All states have some version of it. There are a few criteria you need to meet to do it this way. In California, you need to be married for less than five years, have no kids, and no debts or assets beyond a certain dollar amount.”
Other states offer summary divorces for those with longer marriages. Minnesota, for example, allows summary dissolutions for those married for eight years or less. However, there are still strict asset limits in Minnesota. Neither spouse can have individual or joint assets that total $25,000.
Florida has a broader option they call simplified dissolution of marriage. It has no marriage length requirements, but the couple must not have children under 18, no alimony can be involved, and the divorce has to be uncontested with each party agreeing that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.”
To complete the summary divorce process, you’ll fill out basic forms, which of course vary by state. You’ll pay the cost of filing the divorce application and any other processing fees your state may charge, but you won’t need to deal with pricey lawyer bills.
Who might consider a summary divorce?
- Those with no children or assets
- Those who plan to have an amicable divorce
- Newly married individuals
Read more: The financial guide to divorce: What to do before, during, and after
- Cost: $1,500 – $4,000, on average
- Requirements (if any): N/A
- Who it’s best for: Those who don’t feel comfortable going through the process alone, but don’t need full-fledged attorneys
Long-term commitments often come with baggage. Whether this is kids, real estate properties, or other assets, those who need help dividing up their stuff can do so with the help of a divorce mediator.
A mediator is a trained professional who can help you and your spouse resolve any issues you have keeping you from fully divorcing. This can mean helping you sort out child custody and support arrangements or divvying up assets. There are in-person and online options available. Keep in mind that most mediators are not lawyers. If you work with lawyers, the process is longer and more costly, which is why many people opt for a mediator in the first place.
How much you’ll pay for a mediator will depend on the specific mediator you work with and the number of meetings you need to make to wrap everything up. Generally, each individual will pay between $1,500 and $4,000.
If you’re looking for a mediator, Mediate is a national directory of divorce mediators you can search through.
Who might consider a divorce mediator?
- Those who need to work out basic issues
- Those with children
- Those with some, but not many assets
Online divorce kits
- Cost: $100-$500, on average
- Requirements (if any): Must have no need for mediation
- Who it’s best for: Those with uncontested divorces just looking for the basic paperwork
If you don’t qualify for a summary divorce, you may still be able to use an online divorce kit. If you have an uncontested divorce (i.e., you have already decided how to divide all your assets), online kits simply help you file the paperwork you need, specific to your state.
You’ll need to make sure you’ve fully resolved all your issues before choosing this option, though. There will be no professional legal help and no mediation. You’ll need to be able to prove that you’ve resolved the following:
- Child custody and support
- Visitation rights
- How you’ll handle any individual and mutual debt
- Division of assets
Websites like MyDivorcePapers or Legal Zoom will provide you with all the necessary paperwork for your state and offer consultation via email or over the phone. MyDivorce costs just $139 while Legal Zoom costs $499.
Who might consider an online divorce?
- Amicable couples who have already divided assets
- Couples without children
- Those willing to fill out somewhat complex paperwork
Work with a lawyer only as needed
- Cost: Varies depending on the type of lawyer you work with — likely a few hundred dollars/hour
- Requirements (if any): N/A
- Who it’s best for: Those who can’t work through a few problems, but who generally are looking for an amicable divorce
Instead of working with a lawyer for the full process, consider using a lawyer only as needed. If you and your former spouse have agreed on most terms but can’t, say, get your child custody agreements down, consider going to a custody lawyer instead of a full-fledged divorce attorney. Child custody lawyers cost, on average, $225 to $325 per hour. If you can resolve your issue in a few hours, you can get out without having to pay thousands.
Compared to a full-scope divorce attorney who, on average, costs over $11,000, working with a specific lawyer only as often as you need to can save you thousands each.
Who might consider working with a limited attorney?
- Those who can’t work out all issues, but have resolved some
- Those willing to pay a little more than the DIY route
Ask nonprofit law firms for help
- Cost: Free
- Requirements (if any): Meet low-income requirements set by your state
- Who it’s best for: Low-income individuals who can’t afford legal help
If you’re unable to settle your divorce on your own and you have children and/or assets that need to be dealt with, you may be able to find some help from a local nonprofit legal organization. You’ll need to have a very low income to qualify for many of these law firms, though. They’re designed to help people who can’t afford legal help get the legal care they need.
If you qualify to receive legal help from one of these firms, there should be zero cost to you. These organizations are funded by private donations and state funding. You can find nonprofit lawyers here by typing in your zip code.
If you don’t fully qualify for a nonprofit lawyer, there are also moderate means programs. If you still have a low or moderate income, these programs offer discounted legal costs. Moderate means programs can be found through your state’s bar association website. You can also find state-by-state programs on lawhelp.org.
Who might consider working with a legal nonprofit?
- Those living at or below the poverty line
- Those without complex legal issues
- Those willing to deal with long wait times for legal help
Complications with the cheap option
Despite the fact there are cheaper options, there’s a reason some couples end up paying tens of thousands of dollars each to dissolve the marriage. Before jumping to the cheap option, consider the following negatives associated with doing so:
- Some options require legal know-how. If you’re not working with a legal professional, you’ll have to answer any legal questions on your own. If you use an online service and DIY the process, having some ability to research and understand legal topics is a must.
- Some couples need lawyers due to complex state laws. Divorce laws are predominately focused on cisgender, heterosexual couples. Communities like the LGBTQ+ community face additional complications that can make getting divorced even more complicated. For example, LGBTQ+ couples have complex laws surrounding adoption and child custody, so not working with a lawyer just isn’t a possibility for many couples going through a divorce.
- Issues could arise in the future. If anything is done incorrectly during a divorce or things turn ugly after the official divorce goes through, this could cause future legal issues. Working with trained professionals during a divorce, on the other hand, helps protect you and your children from not having child support or potentially losing your home, for example.
- You may not have the advocacy you need. Couples get divorced for all kinds of reasons. If there’s an issue of domestic violence or if you’re in a very toxic marriage, going without legal representation can leave you vulnerable. Lawyers are there to fight for your best interest and can help separate emotions from the equation so you can get what you need from the divorce.
Read more: 7 financial concerns the LGBTQ+ community faces
If you and your former spouse are capable of civility, there are a lot of ways you can get divorced for just a few hundred dollars.
A low-cost summary divorce could work for you if you have no debt or children, while hiring a divorce mediator or a lawyer part-time may cost you a bit more, but would be suitable if you have a complicated separation or don’t want to go it alone.
Featured image: Leon Rafael/Shutterstock.com