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
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.
"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,"
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
Third, mediation takes far
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,
"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.