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Tips for keeping divorce costs down

If you, or someone you know, are considering divorce, you might be concerned about the cost of divorce. Certainly, divorce can be very expensive today. I have a panel of wonderful attorneys who are going to talk with us about what to expect when it comes to paying for a lawyer and some of the ways that you can control those costs. I have Lindsay Barbee, Melody Pettit, and Hannah Rector as guests today. So welcome ladies. I’m so happy to have you all here. I can’t think of any other amazing lawyers I’d rather talk with about this issue.

Why is divorce so expensive today?



Well, the divorce decree is a really important legal document and it impacts your future regarding your property and regarding your children. So you want to make sure it’s drafted correctly



And if they’ve never seen one before, people may not know that a divorce decree can be really long.



They sure can. If there are children involved and everybody’s customizing everything, including visitation with the kids, and property division, you could have a decree that is 60 or 80 pages long. If there’s a lot of property, that’s might require specialized drafting skills. And so they can be really long documents.



And of course, the divorce decree is the last document that gets entered as part of the divorce process. Before we even get to the divorce decree, there are other aspects of the process that costs money. 

What are some aspects of divorce that can cost a lot of money? 



I think that the level of conflict is something that is a good indicator of how much a case is going to cost in terms of the work that attorneys have to do. If there is conflict between the two divorcing people, and what they’re going through and finding a resolution to that. And another thing that can drive up the cost of divorce is when there’s conflict between the attorneys and people. They often want their attorneys to fight for them. But I always tell my clients, you want us to cooperate with your spouse’s lawyers, not fight with them. Then we can focus our energy and time resolving your dispute, not just petty fighting between the two lawyers



That is such a good point. I think it’s true that a lot of people think they need to have the meanest, baddest lawyer to represent them. But in fact, you want somebody who’s motivated to advance your case and help find a solution whenever possible. It’s a great point, 

Hannah, when we talk about, you know, different aspects of the divorce, what are you, what do you find when you’re working with clients can really add to the cost of a divorce

What other things might contribute to the cost of a divorce?



One aspect that’s difficult to control is the other professionals involved in the case. Besides just the attorneys, there could be experts for valuing a business that’s owned by the parties so we can figure out how to divide it best. And another example would be a custody evaluator, you know, perhaps a child psychologist who’s compiling a report to show the court what would be in the best interest of the child. These people are going to work on an hourly basis and they’re professionals, so they’re compensated for the time.



Do you find that, you know, early on in the case, if experts are going to be needed or is that something that comes up later?



It depends. Usually, I would say we know at the outset. If there’s a business, obviously we would know, and whether it’s worth spending the resources to value that business. And then depending on the level of conflict regarding the children and what kind of factors are at play.  Addiction, for example, that’s going to complicate things a little bit further if we can’t agree on conservatorship,

How does discovery factor into the costs of a divorce?



Discovery is the process of information gathering, everything from bank statements to financials tax returns. And also where kids are concerned, discovery might include their counseling records, educational records, emails with the teacher, and so on. 

The Texas Supreme Court created a rule in the last year that applies to all cases that people are required to exchange at least two years of financial documents, right at the beginning of the case. So for a client, we give them that list of mandatory documents and say download this stuff, bring it to us. The more organized you can be putting everything in order, the less work that we’re going to have to do, and potentially bill you for, through one of our paralegals or secretaries to put it together. So that is something that clients can really do to lower the amount of work we need to do because you want to spend time reviewing the contents of the documents, not putting the pages in order.



One of the things about discoveries, of course, os that there’s the formal discovery process, which is a term that lawyers use. There are a whole lot of rules that go around it and it applies whether you’re represented by a lawyer or not. But there’s also the opportunity for informal exchanges of information, which I think is what you were talking about earlier in terms of lawyers getting along. That’s one area that can potentially be a cost-saving if you know, knows what needs to be exchanged and they go ahead and exchange it. Absolutely.



And I think that people sometimes hit this roadblock. They don’t want to turn over this information or give their spouse access to it. And I just remind them that it is a court requirement, and if we do it informally if we do it by agreement, it’s so much better than having to go to court to fight over something. In court, the judge is going to tell you that have to turn it over anyway and potentially face sanctions of having to pay the other side’s lawyer for having to take you to court.



I think a really important point for people to understand is that as lawyers, we have obligations to the court, to other attorneys to help provide the information. And so, we often encounter a lot of resistance. It’s not uncommon that people don’t want to turn over everything, but the more they can help us help them, the better the process will be. You know, we’ve been talking a little bit about ways that you can control the costs.

 And so I want to, I want to shift now and really talk about how we help empower our clients, what clients really need to know when it comes to what they can do to control those costs. Hannah, I want to talk with you a little bit about in terms of just tips for clients. When working with lawyers,

What are some cost-saving tips for working with divorce lawyers?



Ask questions. Read the engagement agreement or the contract and see what the billing procedures are. Make sure you understand it and if you don’t, ask follow-up questions. Read the bill when you receive it. Make sure you know what time is being spent on. That way you can use your attorney’s time as efficiently as possible. 

For example, on a phone call, have your goals and your questions set out beforehand to make sure you get everything answered as you need it, there and then. Another good resource – paralegals. They have a lot of the answers and they’re usually as involved in your cases as the attorneys. They can answer a whole lot of questions without taking up the billing time of an attorney.



Of course, paralegals can’t answer legal questions. They have to go to the lawyers. But you know, when you’re hiring a law firm, hire one that uses really good paralegals. That can result in tremendous cost savings. 

Billing practices for people who’ve never hired a law firm before can be a little bit overwhelming. 

What should people look for in a law firm engagement agreement?



Every law firm does things differently. Most firms are going to require you to pay a retainer. Think of that as the piggy bank or your gas tank for your legal fees.  And different firms bill at different increments. Some firms bill at 10th of an hour, some firms bill at quarter of an hour increments.  Find out what the hourly rate is for your lawyer, what the hourly rate is for paralegals, for secretaries and know how often the billing cycles are. 

For instance, we bill twice a month because we feel like it’s helpful to our clients to not just get one bill at the end of the month and to see things as they go along. So they can ask those questions and say, Hey, why what’s all this work we’re doing? It’s not as big of a shock.



Exactly. I want to follow up with a couple of questions on that. One is talking about the retainer in more detail.  Often that can seem really uncomfortable for people especially if they’ve not hired a lawyer before. As Lindsay said, you pay money into what you might think of like a piggy bank or the gas tank. But that’s not all you are going to pay. 

How do retainers benefit clients in their legal cases and the provision of legal services?



The retainer holds the client’s money until we earn it. Keeping it retainer replenished, keeps us from having to be their bill collector while also being their lawyer. It’s a very uncomfortable conversation when you owe someone money, but you still want them to be performing services for you. So we’re very intentional about having that tough conversation about money with clients and talking about the cost and this exact conversation we’re having here today. We want our clients to be empowered to make the right decisions and use us in the best way possible to meet their objectives.



And another thing that you just talked about is looking at the different hourly rates. Sometimes when people go shopping for a lawyer, they may think that getting the least expensive lawyer is going to be most valuable to their case. What is your response to that?

Should a person hire the least expensive lawyer?



You get what you pay for although just because you hire the most expensive law firm in town, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you. It’s a very intimate relationship you have with your lawyer because they know everything about your finances, your love life, your kids. And so finding the right chemistry, the right balance, someone you can communicate with, that’s not something you can necessarily put a price on. So I think that asking friends who have gone through this, ask them what they liked about their lawyers, how communicative their lawyers were with them. And then compare the different price ranges for lawyers to find the right fit for yourself.



Some great advice there. Melody, let’s talk a little bit about the discovery process and that expensive part of the divorce. 

What tips do you have for your clients when it actually comes to turning over information during the discovery process?



The first thing that a client needs to do is carefully review the documents that have been requested. We can also help with that review process. If you ask your attorney, they’d probably be willing to create a checklist so that you could go over that. We actually do have a checklist for some of the initial discovery requests that we go through for all of our cases. So once that checklist is created gathering the information early, early, early is really important. 

What we see a lot of times is somebody who has not requested the documents that we need, and both of us end up spending a lot of time chasing down that information. We’re wasting time trying to get it. And so that also can create problems like Lindsay was saying with people filing in court to compel to produce these things. Avoid those kinds of problems by gathering your documents early and getting them complete. You don’t want to miss statements. You don’t want missing pages. You don’t want to send just the first page of something. Send your full bank statement or your full mortgage statement so that we’re not trying to chase you down to get those documents when we’re on a deadline.



Really good advice there. One thing that’s really common these days is for people to provide screenshots as opposed to downloading the full statement. And of course, when they give us just the screenshot, that means we have to have a phone call, we have to follow up and, you know, walk them through downloading. And of course, we never mind doing that. That’s part of what we’re there to do is to help them. But the more we can have them do early on, so we’re not doing it all at the last minute, the more helpful we can be.



Spending some time organizing your documents by date or in some logical fashion is also really helpful because it sometimes feels like these documents are just for the other side, they’re actually the documents that I’m using when I go to court to put your case on. So if you spend a lot of time upfront organizing your documents in a logical fashion, that’s less time than I have to spend and charge you for, to get them organized.  



In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for people to bring in shopping bags of papers and we’d have to go through it all and get it organized. But in digital format, it’s very much the same. If clients just send us a bunch of stuff via email or different ways that they’re sending us and we have to go and sort through it all,  that can be a big expense as well.



We always use Dropbox instead of email. I find that sometimes if clients use email, we get so many emails in a day, that sometimes things get lost. It’s more efficient for us and for our clients to set up a Dropbox or other centralized location where they can put those documents and we can gather them when we need them. We want those done in advance. We want to make sure that we are ready for them. That they’re all there and they’re in a comprehensive order.



And just so people understand the consequences. if the documents are not turned over, what, typically happens when we’re not able to provide all the information that is requested?

What happens if all the requested information is not provided?



That depends on the circumstances. I think there’s a great deal of misunderstanding over what we’re obligated to produce. Even among other attorneys. It’s not just stuff you have sitting at home. We’re not talking about stuff you can easily access. If you have the right to get that document, even if the other side has the same, you’re still obligated to make sure you produce it.

Failing to produce can result in the opposing party filing for sanctions against you, which is essentially a fine, the same way you would pay a fine for a traffic ticket. 

You could be sanctioned. You could be made to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees, if they have to force you to go to court to get those documents. And that’s no fun. We just want to follow the rules.

It’s much less expensive to play by the rules and turn everything over the first time. I know this feels to our clients like why are we doing this? Why are we giving the opposite side what they ask for? But It’s not about that. These are the documents that we need to put your case, and for me to do my job for you. I have to do these things. So it’s not, why are we turning stuff over? It’s you need to give me these things so that I can help you get your case resolved. Whether that’s through mediation or court, it’s still the same process. You’re still going to exchange these same documents.



One more thing on this point, because it is a sore spot and comes up often, is clients will ask why am I having to do all of this and they’re not? How do you respond to that?



Well, that’s not true. I actually really love the new rules that Lindsay was talking about. It used to be that we had no obligation to turn any documents over to anybody. On the other side, you had to wait for them to ask for stuff. Now we actually have an affirmative obligation to turn over certain documents –  two years’ worth of bank statements and two years’ worth of retirement statements. You have to turn over deed records, things like that. That exchange of information facilitates the settlement of your case. And that’s why it’s really important. Just go ahead and get those done. It’s not about why isn’t the other side doing it. They are doing it because now we all have to do the same thing. We all have to turn over the same documents at the same time.



And if they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s a lot easier to ask for help from the court. When we have done everything we’re supposed to do, and the court will help.



That’s exactly right. They will help. We have had multiple motions to compel on one of my cases recently, and the courts have very clearly said, you have to turn these documents over. They’re not optional. So you can win that battle pretty quickly.



And beyond the fine, it can be something even more serious like evidence being excluded. We have a term called death penalty sanctions, which is, you’ve been asked once, you’ve been asked twice, you’re ignoring the judge. And that’s something that can keep you from putting your case on in court, using that witness, that expert, that document that proves your case, simply because you were resistant to providing the information. The judge told you to give the other side. 



And even if you don’t get death penalty sanctions, what you probably will get as a continuance in your case, which means it is going to go on longer and there’s going to be more expenses and more costs associated with it. Yes. Great points. 

Hannah. I want to turn to you because one thing that you and I had talked about before is the do-it-yourself divorce. 

Can people control costs by having a do-it-yourself divorce?



Well, as Lindsay said, you get what you pay for and the decree is a document that’s going to affect you for the rest of your life in terms of property, the rest of your children’s lives in terms of kids. A divorce is not something to be taken lightly. You want to make sure that it’s done correctly the first time.

A lot of clients end up having to pay a lot more down the road to unravel something that was done poorly the first time, whether by that not communicating with their attorney the first time, or do-it-yourself divorce forms that you can get online. If you have any kind of property at all, you really want to make sure you’re doing this correctly. And that the assets get awarded. 

I’ve seen a do-ot-yourself divorce decree leave the child off and result in the mum losing seven years of child support. Those are real consequences to not having hired an attorney in the first place



And then to go and have to fix those things can end up costing so much more money. Whether it’s because you lost out on child support for seven years, or because a house wasn’t properly awarded in a decree and it can create a lot more legal expenses on the back end



And other things that you wouldn’t necessarily think of like debts affecting your credit because they weren’t awarded correctly to one side or the other.



Exactly. And of course, there is a lot of good information on Google. Our firm has a lot of good information out there, but people need to understand that every situation is different. And that’s why it’s important to sit down with a lawyer, at least for a consultation. Even if only to have an hour of time to kind of understand how a law is going to apply to your situation. 

Going with full representation can be so much more cost-effective in the long run. 

What about when people decide not to move forward with divorce?



Well, in my experience, especially when kids are involved, a lot of people think, we need to try to make it work for the kids. And dissolving a marriage is not a decision to take lightly.  But, I urge my clients to think, what behavior are you modeling for your children? Is this a toxic environment? Even if there’s no physical violence or yelling or screaming, the silent treatment is something kids learn. They absorb like a sponge and their future romantic relationships, and friendships are modeled from their parents because those were the first examples of human behavior that they see. 

So trying to put off the actual divorce itself is less important than resolving the conflict. Even if that ultimately leads to the two of you parting ways in your marriage. You’re going to be co-parents going forward and you want that relationship to be the one that is maintained so you can move onto that next chapter together.



I think that’s a good and valid point because a lot of people do decide to stay together for the sake of the kids. And when they make that decision we always hope that it’s for the best, but oftentimes, staying in a toxic situation can just create more stress and trauma for children. 

What are some benefits for clients when they approached divorce with intention and really work on getting the best outcome?



One of the best things that you can do to reduce the overall costs and financial and emotional costs is to be intentional upfront. Set goals and communicate those goals to your attorney and stick to those goals. If co-parenting with the other parent is a goal of yours, which I believe it should be, do whatever possible. Keep your gols in mind and know that every decision that you make along the way should reflect those goals.

Is it possible for people to get along better after a divorce?



Have you had clients who have actually gotten on better in their post-divorce life? And what are some of the factors you think played into that, into that outcome?



The attorneys that are in the original case can help guide the parties to set the tone for their co-parenting relationship going forward. There’s an extent to which you can’t backpedal your co-parenting relationship after having testified against each other in open court. There’s only so much mudslinging that a relationship can withstand. So I think whenever possible it’s better to keep family preservation in mind even when there’s conflict and keep that in mind going forward

What are some of the positive aspects of divorce and what is your hope for your clients when you’re representing them in divorce?



When I talk to my clients about divorce, one of the things that I frequently tell them is to think about, you know, When clients first come in sometimes they’re really angry and focused on getting back at their spouse. They did these things to me! I want to get everything I possibly can. So, what I say to them is to think about the intangible benefits that come from getting a divorce; the things you can’t put a number on. You can’t put a dollar value on your peace of mind. You can’t put a dollar value on the relief you feel when you’ve left a person who’s emotionally abusive to you, or who’s emotionally abusive to your children, or someone you’re fighting with all the time.



And then I talk about the intangible costs that come from taking a case to trial or settling. That’s typically what I will talk to my clients about when I try to encourage settlement or when I talk to them about where they’re headed and why they’re going there. That usually helps them see the big picture because then they sort of understand that there is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. This may sounds cliche, but it’s really true for many of them. They are usually very relieved and happy when they’ve gotten to the end of that road.



That’s great. Well, one of the things I really appreciate about each of you is that the clients are always at the forefront. And of course we all work together at Hargrave Family Law, and it is truly a privilege to get to work with each of you.