WHAT CAN BE DONE TO MINIMIZE THE LEGAL COSTS OF A DIVORCE?

by Marla S. Miller, Q.C.

It's no secret that getting a divorce can cost a bundle. While there are definitely situations where expensive legal proceedings are unavoidable, there are many things that you can do to help keep the costs down. As one lawyer suggests to her clients: "You can spend your money to take your kids to Disney Land.....or mine. The choice is yours."

Here are five things you can do to minimize the financial and emotional cost of divorce.

1. Get informed

At a time when you may find yourself the least able to make decisions, due to the stress and emotions attendant with marriage breakdown, you will be asked to decide things that will impact you for the rest of your life. Information is power. Find out as much as you can about the divorce process, the law, and the financial aspects of your and your former mate's own situation. Ask your lawyer for a reading list. Go to the public library. If you have children, attend the mandatory free Parenting After Separation course as soon as you possibly can. Being in the midst of a divorce can be a frightening situation and the more information you have the better you will be in a position to make the right decisions for yourself and your family. Educating yourself will reduce the time your lawyer will need to spend to educate you.

2. Get clear

In a stressful situation people often act in a fearful manner. When emotions run high, and trust is gone, it is not uncommon to fear that a former mate has the worst possible intentions and will do the worst possible things. As communication is usually strained, there is no ability to ask for understanding of the other party and his or her actions. The tendency is to impute the worst possible motives. In reaction to this fear, people often turn to the offensive. Take the time to determine what is motivating your actions. Is it fear? Anger? The desire for retribution? Ask yourself if your expectations of the divorce process and the other side are realistic. If you have children, ask yourself if your actions are truly in the best interests of your children. Learn how to communicate clearly and how to listen to the other side. Consider taking the free Focus on Communication in Separation course offered through Alberta Justice and Family Mediation Services. This course is taken by yourself, without your former partner in attendance. The easiest way to reduce your legal costs is to be in a position to instruct your lawyer in a clear way not unduly influenced by your emotions of the moment.

3. Get organized

The legal process requires a lot of information, especially financial information. Although the process may seem daunting, take the time to get familiarized with your financial information. Gather up all of the information you can attain regarding your and your former mate's income, assets and debts, including those assets which you had at the date of marriage, or which either of you received outside of either of your own efforts during the course of the marriage, eg. gifts from third parties, inheritances, personal injuries, etc. Organize the information as best you can. Make all necessary copies of the information to give to your lawyer. If you have difficulty with this, ask someone with more financial ability or understanding to help you wade through the papers. The more organized you are, the less time your lawyer will have to spend trying to decipher the information.

4. Choose the right supporting players

Find a healthy support group or person. You may find that you will need some counselling to help you through the situation. Some people find that divorce adjustment groups work well for them. Avoid seeking emotional support from any one or any group who has not fully made peace with his or her situation. Angry, bitter people will not help you to a better emotional state.

Finding the right legal professional is as difficult as finding the right medical professional. Ask people that you know and respect for their recommendations. Make arrangements to talk to the professional. Find out what his or her philosophy is in helping people in your situation. It is hard to second guess your lawyer, so make sure that he or she is someone who listens to you and understands where you are coming from. Does his or her approach make sense to you? If your thought is to resolve matters outside of Court, it would be a mismatch to retain a lawyer whose only thought is to take the matter to Court. At the end of the day, it is you who has to live with the results. The process you go through in finalizing your divorce and other matters such as custody, access, support and division of property, will impact how you, your former mate, and your children will do in the future.

5. Consider alternate methods of dispute resolution

Consider ways to stay out of Court. Avoid positional bargaining. Sometimes this can only lead to an agreement once everyone is equally unhappy. Consider the merits of interest based mediation or negotiation, where a concerted effort is made to find options that meet everyone's needs and interest. In Collaborative Family Law, the clients and their specially trained lawyers form a settlement team and formally contract not to go to Court. Like Collaborative Family Law, Mediation can be a very efficient way to resolve your disputes in that the two people who have to say yes to any agreement and who have to live with the outcome of any agreement are the ones at the decision making table. In mediation, you and your former mate share the cost of a neutral mediator, who works directly with you and the other side. Your lawyer does not come to the mediation meetings, but you have the advantage of being able to consult your own lawyer to advise you when needed. Your lawyer can also help you in advance of the mediation by not only advising you of your legal rights and liabilities, and discussing with you your best and worst alternatives to a negotiated agreement, but can also help you prepare for the mediation by explaining to you how to be able to assert your needs and interests. By this process you can drastically reduce the emotion, time and financial costs of a divorce.

Marla S. Miller is both a Registered Collaborative Family Lawyer and a Registered Family Mediator and practices in Edmonton with Miller Boileau Family Law Group