Getting divorced is hard on your finances, but if you haven't been married long and the split is (relatively) amiable, you don't have to spend thousands at an attorney's office to get a legal divorce. Here, how to get divorced cheap.

“Wedding” is one of the most commonly searched terms on Money Under 30. That makes sense, given that the average age of a man’s first marriage is 29, and a woman’s first marriage is 27.

Unfortunately, plenty of people often get divorced in their 20s and early 30s. One study found that couples are more likely to divorce within the first five years of marriage than during any other period.

Four friends of mine who married young – around 23 or 24 – divorced that person at some point (happily, they all found love again).

If your marriage is ending, or a friend’s marriage is kaput, there’s some good news – divorce can be cheap and easy.

“We’ve been conditioned to think you need to contact a law firm,” says Nancy Fagan, owner of the Divorce Help Clinic, a divorce planning and mediation service in San Diego. “But an uncomplicated divorce should never cost more than $500. Firms that charge thousands of dollars are preying on ignorance.”

Method #1: For those married less than five years who agree it’s time to split

The key word in Nancy’s advice? Uncomplicated.

If you and your partner haven’t been together long, and can only agree on one issue – that you should no longer be married – it won’t cost much to divorce.

“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.”

These types of divorces are fast – and cheap. Nancy’s group charges $450 to help you fill out and file the paperwork. The online service MyDivorcePapers.com does it for as little as $159.

So while you may have spent a lot on the wedding, you can rest easier at night knowing the divorce didn’t cost you much.

Method #2: For couples who are still fighting

If you and your soon-to-be-ex are still fighting over various issues, you may want more detailed legal advice.

You still don’t need to hire a divorce lawyer. Hire a divorce mediator instead.

Mediators are neutral third party negotiators who help a divorce couple reach agreements on issues. In other words, the mediator helps you communicate. If you have children together, you will need to keep communicating with one another post-divorce.

Mediators charge an hourly or per-session fee that’s considerably less than a lawyer’s rate.

One expert estimates that a typical divorce handled through a mediator runs between $500 and $3,000. If a divorce attorney handles that same case, it could cost between $15,000 – $35,000.

Mediate is a national directory of divorce mediators.

Method #3: For those couples who don’t qualify for a simple divorce but also aren’t fighting over anything

If you and your spouse don’t qualify for a summary dissolution (or your state’s version of it), but also aren’t fighting over the split, you may want to order a DIY divorce kit online.

Don’t consider this option unless you meet the following criteria:

  • You and your spouse are in agreement on all issues related to property, custody, and so on
  • You both have a strong understanding of your debts and assets
  • At least one of you has time to visit the courts in person, fill out all of the paperwork (there’s a lot!), and appear at all court hearings related to the dissolution

Web sites like MyDivorcePapers or Legal Zoom will provide you with all of the necessary paperwork for your state and offer consultation via email or over the phone.

As part of their $299 divorce package, Legal Zoom will also review your paperwork before you submit it to the courts.

If you hate the DMV, this option may not be for you. You’ll have to physically deliver the paperwork to your local courthouse, and at least one of you has to appear at any and all hearings. “A lot of courts won’t accept phone calls,” Nancy says. “You have to go in and ask for the family court office.”

Yes, divorce is a pain. But it’s better than a lifetime with someone who doesn’t make you happy. And at least, you don’t have to pay a lot to end the relationship!

Have you gotten divorced? Or do you know someone who has? Did they get lawyers or use one of these methods?

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About the author

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Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at [email protected]