What is the best way to get a free or cheap divorce that is fair?

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Answered by: Kari, An Expert in the Getting Divorced Category
It is easy to get a free or cheap divorce, and it is also possible to get a fair divorce. The difficult trick, obviously, is to get a free divorce that is also fair.

You are already doing the most valuable thing that will benefit the whole process, and that is getting information by doing your research and asking questions. The internet has many blogs from lawyers and others who have been through the process before. Don't rely on internet advice. Use it to get an idea of what happens in cases like yours.

You will not be given a free court-appointed lawyer for family court, even if you cannot afford one. This is not like criminal court. Most courts will accommodate the poorest income families with a waiver or postponement of paying the filing fees. Some may require repayment when you get back on your feet, but at least you will have your foot in the door.

To file you need to assure that you have accurate paperwork, based on correct information. This is often tricky, even if your county has all the forms and instructions available online. Since every state has different rules and different forms and pleadings you will need to get information that is specific to that state and county where you will be filing your divorce. You may even need help deciding in which state to file! You may think it is obvious, but there are several factors that apply to this decision.

Most people hire a lawyer or paralegal service to make sure the forms are filled out correctly and everything submitted within the deadlines. Otherwise you could spend a lot of time by doing it yourself, possibly filing the same papers over and over with the court.

To find "free" legal help look up your county court's own website. Your state/county website might list any free or sliding scale services. Sometimes this means lining up at 6 a.m. outside a clinic, waiting hours until your turn, only to get little accomplished, forms incomplete, and insufficient legal advice.

Make appointments with some divorce lawyers for initial consultations, these are usually low cost. Prepare questions ahead and at the end ask what else you should know. Some lawyers are forthcoming with information but others won't tell you much until they get a retainer. You will find there were hidden issues you hadn't realized. It's usually the snake you do not see that bites you.

Now that you have found the issues, the next thing to do to keep it cheap is to come to an agreement with your spouse. But you are divorcing because you cannot agree on things! Almost all divorces are settled by agreement, not by a court deciding everything. Negotiating settlements mean that you bargain with give and take, and both sides will be losing "non-negotiable" things. If you want to do better, hire a mediator skilled at getting to win-win settlements. You will save thousands compared to hiring a lawyer, and it will save you from losing a huge amount of money in an unlucky court ruling. You can mediate just one issue, or the whole divorce.

Consider hiring a lawyer yourself, or together, to do just one thing. Perhaps you have a tax or retirement question. One expert could save you from a mistake that could cost either or both of you terribly down the road.

Lawyers are not cheap, unless you have special circumstances that let you get one from legal aid. Even a lawyer charging on a sliding scale gets real money for representing you in court. Once you have a full agreement with your spouse have it checked, and get a lawyer to draw up a final settlement for a small fraction of the cost of representation.

Keeping yours a free or cheap divorce means that you will represent yourself in court, acting as your own attorney, on any matter you need the court to decide for you. A judge will hold you to the law, and expect you to behave like a lawyer following all rules of the court. Do not assume that because you have been talking to your ex and working on agreements and agreeing not to hire lawyers that this will remain true. They may very well surprise you and come in to court all lawyered up! Plan for the worst, and always plan on making a professional presentation.

To summarize:

1. Do your own research, do not go by what your friends have told you.

2. See if you qualify for any free clinic.

3. Interview lawyers on a first consultation basis.

4. Consider hiring a mediator.

5. Hire a lawyer for a limited issue.

6. Be prepared to represent yourself by learning as much as you can ahead of time.

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