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Low-cost, less-stress alternatives to divorce court

Divorce, American-style, no longer automatically ends up in court. Some soon-to-be ex-spouses are moving away from litigation and exploring other, less-costly ways to sever marital bonds.

Traditionally, divorce has involved each spouse hiring an attorney to battle in court for the client's best deal. The process is long, often up to two years, with an average cost of about $20,000, says Violet P. Woodhouse, an attorney and co-author of Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce.

Costly, drawn-out divorce-court battles also carry a high emotional price. Reducing the emotional strain is an important consideration when parents plan to share custody of the kids.

That's why many separating couples now choose mediation, collaborative law or do-it-yourself divorce with a lawyer hired simply to oversee the paperwork. Sure, they still have to have a final, formal decree of divorce. But couples using these alternatives to get there can keep the breakup from bankrupting bank accounts or erasing any remaining goodwill.

Hiring a divorce 'referee'
Mediation has been around for more than 20 years and is used for all sorts of disagreements, from settling a divorce to resolving a property-line dispute. While litigation puts people in adversarial positions, mediation tends to be more civil.

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"Mediation is a way to have couples work out their differences while retaining their dignity and their relationship so they can move on and so they can co-parent," Woodhouse says.

Each spouse usually retains his or her own legal counsel, but the couple jointly hires a mediator to oversee negotiations. Still, the mediation process is far cheaper than litigation for several reasons.

First, information gathering is taken out of the lawyers' hands. There are no depositions or other legal maneuvering that can rack up an attorney's billable hours. The involved parties are supposed to hand over the information with little formality.

Second, unlike a trial, there are no separate expert witnesses to testify on behalf of each spouse. Instead, experts are pooled. For example, rather than two child-care experts testifying on behalf of each spouse, one expert explores what custody arrangement would be the most favorable for the splitting family.

Third, mediation takes far less time.

When you compare the costs of hiring a mediator vs. going to trial, "it's not even close, not even in the same planet," says Nancy Jean White, a finance and law professor at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich.

"A volunteer mediator might cost $50 for each party," White says. "It can be more expensive hiring a professional mediator, maybe $100 or $150 an hour, but even if it took a whole week to mediate it wouldn't compare to the costs of a trial."

To find a mediator, a couple seeking a divorce can get a referral from their local family court. Large towns and cities also have nonprofit mediation groups that will provide mediators for a low cost or will make recommendations. If you live in an urban area, you can even look for a mediator online or in the Yellow Pages.

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-- Posted: Nov. 10, 2003
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See Also
Divorce finances may call for a planner
Got a prenup? How about a postnup?
Pre-divorce do's and don'ts
Financial advice glossary
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