I have been solely practicing Divorce and Family Law for just about fifteen years. I represent men and women, of all different races, nationalities, and from all different walks of life who are going through Family Crisis. By Family Crisis, I mean either they have broken up from their significant other who is also the parent of their child or children and are dealing with issues such a child support, visitation and custody, or one of the spouses choosing to get a divorce or just finding out their spouse wishes to get a divorce. The main focus is representing individuals who really need someone on their side to guide them through a confusing and oftentimes extremely difficult situation and represent their rights and best interest.
It pains me that so many people stay in loveless, sometimes abusive, horrible marriages because they don’t believe they can afford a divorce. It’s amazing how many times people sit in my office, listen to me tell them about their options and rights, and admit to me that they just cannot afford to pay legal fees, pay rent, take care of the children and believe they are trapped. I truly believe this is the most common misconception of people who wish to get a divorce but decide they just cannot do it.
It must be said upfront that divorce is what you and your spouse make of it. Divorce does not always have to be expensive. While, it will not be free and there will be expenses involved in getting a divorce, it does not have to break the bank. The total cost will depend on how complicated the case is and the cost of your attorney. Unfortunately, as is the case with many of my client’s they are getting divorced because of a complete breakdown of the relationship and there is a lot of animosity between the spouses. Animosity and anger often cause one or both of the spouses to refuse to compromise or want to make the divorce as difficult as possible for the other. However, what they do not realize is that the more difficult the divorce is, the more one or both of the parties refuse to compromise, the more expensive the divorce will be.
I urge those that tell me they cannot afford a divorce to really evaluate all of their options. For example:
- Bank Loan/Credit Card: If your credit score is ok you can obtain a bank loan to cover initial expenses or you can apply for an interest free credit card that you can pay back over a year. Some will even give you 18 months interest free. This would give you some time to pay for upfront counsel fees, expenses, and court fees until you and your spouse can come to an agreement or until the court orders support or counsel fees (if they order support and counsel fees).
- Personal Loan: Also, many clients ask family and friends for their assistance in the form of a loan that they can pay back over time. If this is possible, this is often the best solution as most personal loans from family and friends are interest free.
- Crowdfunding: Some of my clients have reached out to their community for help. They have raised money on sites such as gofundme for their initial legal fees.
- Joint Bank Account: taking money from a joint bank account is an option, but before you take out the money you must be aware of the following: New York and New Jersey are Equitable Distribution States. They are not 50/50 states (otherwise known as Community Property). Meaning that just because it is a joint bank account does not mean that the money belongs to you or that even half belongs to you. The court would decide how much of that money each spouse gets if the spouses do not agree on a distribution between themselves. I usually recommend that the client can take out 50% of the funds of any joint bank account safely to cover initial litigation expenses, but depending on all of the circumstances of the case, the court may later require them to return some of the money to their spouse or take money from the sale of other property or asset to give to the other spouse as a result of you having spent that money.
- Sell Jewelry or other valuables: Again, similarly to the removing money from a joint bank account you must be careful pawning your engagement ring to obtain money for the divorce. Those assets purchased during the marriage are marital property and depending on their value selling them could lead the court to demand you pay your spouse a portion of the value at some point in the process.
- Local Bar Association/Volunteer Lawyers: In New York State, the local legal aid and Volunteer Lawyer’s Programs may be able to help with the costs of litigation. While the divorce may not be free, having discounted or free counsel is like hitting the divorce jackpot. In New Jersey, there are much less options to finding discounted or low cost attorneys. In fact, in New Jersey it seems that you really get what you pay for. Therefore, unless the discounted attorney is through some sort of legal assistance program I would beware of simply finding a low cost attorney that may not specialize in family law issues or who may not obtain the results you are looking for.
- Apply for a fee waiver: In many states, including New Jersey, you can apply to have your initial filing fees waived. By filing out some paperwork and filing them with the Court. Unless you are in absolute dire straits though, most of the time such applications get rejected.
- Come to an agreement through mediation or other alternative to traditional divorce litigation. As previously discussed the less complicated the case, the less bickering and the more compromise, the less money you will spend on the divorce.
When you are sitting around thinking, I can’t afford a divorce; you must realize that you may not be able to afford not to get a divorce. The reality is that time for planning, as discussed previously, is imperative and can save you a lot of money, but waiting years to get a divorce will end up costing you much more than you would have initially spent. Each year you wait to file means that your assets accrue, any property purchased will need to be split, income will grow and spousal support can match the number of years married. Forget the financial consequences of waiting to get divorced, what one should really focus on is the emotional consequences and the possible negative impact living with animosity and stress can have on your physical and mental health. For the most part, the financial issues will not kill you, but physical and mental health issues could.
It is important that you cover all of your funding options with an attorney. The consultation fee may be the most important money spent, but cost the least of what will be required later down the road of the divorce process. Do not go for the gimmick of a free consultation, as most lawyers will not give away their expertise or knowledge for free. There is value to legal counsel, experience and knowledge. A good attorney should not only give you options with regard to the issues of your divorce but also on how to fund the divorce.