Many people often reflect on how long and expensive their divorce was, and frequently for good reason because it did take a long time and it was expensive. However, the resolution of a divorce does not need to be this way.
It is important to be realistic about your matter and the effort and time it will take to reach a conclusion. The time and cost it takes to finalize a divorce is usually a direct result of the complexity of issues, the amount of attention paid to the matter by the clients and lawyers, and the level of litigation (court activity) that ensues and the approach to resolution implemented by both sides. In California, the Family Law Courts are mandated to manage the cases so that on average, cases are concluded within 18 months. Of course, this 18-month goal depends on many factors touched on at the outset of this post.
Here are some things you can do to help conclude your divorce sooner rather than later and with less expense:
- Divide Household Items Without the Assistance of the Lawyers. Unless you and your spouse are arguing over the division or valuation of expensive antiques or art, it is not financially smart to spend money or time on attorneys to divide up what can often be replaced at less cost than the fees being incurred. While it’s not always easy, if you and your spouse can work together, with a third party present, to alternate picking what you each want from the family residence, you will help to minimize the expense of your case.
- Obtain Financial Records. The more financial records you can obtain by calling the bank, credit card companies, and your accountant yourself, the better. This will save money and time otherwise spent on issuing subpoenas and having to issue formal discovery.
- Voluntarily Share Information. There is little financial information in a family law matter which is private and unavailable to the other side. The time and cost of subpoenas and depositions can be saved or reduced if each party cooperates to provide that information which can – and will – be obtained through discovery if not provided voluntarily. Discovery is sometimes one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts of litigation, so the quicker and easier information is provided, the better.
- Make a “Wish List” of What You Want. A lot of time and money is spent during a divorce, as well as on child custody matters when a client’s goals are driven by the emotions of the situation and thus are often unrealistic. If your lawyer has not asked you to do so, you should make a “wish list” of what you would like to achieve in the final resolution of your matter. Once this is done, make an appointment to meet with your lawyer and review your list. Your lawyer should identify those items which are achievable, those that are possibly achievable, and those items which are unrealistic. Once this is done, you have a good map of what (if anything) to litigate and what to focus on settling in negotiations.
- Employ a Mediator or Private Judge. I have written many articles about the delays in the court system due to budget cuts and the inefficiency of the system. Everyone (even judges) agrees that the system is broken, thus increasing the time and expense when a divorce or custody proceeding gets trapped in the judicial system. Bringing a case to early resolution with a mediator, who is neutral and assists in a settlement or with a private judge hired to make binding decisions, saves money and time. While many people “want their day in court,” they must understand that this day comes at an extraordinary cost that most people cannot afford. It is better to discuss these alternative approaches with your lawyer to understand how they will benefit you.
- Hire a Lawyer Who Spends At Least 75% of the Time on Family Law Matters. It is not just the number of years a lawyer has been practicing law that should make him or her efficient; it is also how much they focus on one practice area. Lawyers who spend at least 75% of their time on family law matters (divorce, child custody, spousal support, child support, and property issues) will have a strong and efficient knowledge base to understand the issues in your case and can work efficiently to advise you and prepare your case for trial or settlement. While many cases have unique or complicating issues or difficult emotional or personal dynamics which can make resolution more expensive, at least you will not be paying such a lawyer to learn the basics.
Family law matters are complex because they are emotional, often financially devastating, and present complex and dynamic issues spanning many different subjects. A skilled and experienced family law attorney can employ his or her knowledge and capability in the most efficient way possible, yet the attorneys’ fees and time expended can still be staggering. Many people blame the lawyer for this, and sometimes that blame is justified. However, quite often, the high fees and long duration of the proceeding are because a client does not follow the guidance provided by the lawyer or makes unnecessary or unreasonable demands. Approaching the divorce with clarity, commitment, and an understanding that some compromise may need to occur, will help one to not be embroiled in a lengthy and expensive divorce.