You may find yourself at a place one day where you're facing divorce. You may be picking your way through blogs and articles on the internet trying to figure out what to do and where to start. If so, this blog is written for you. I will help you get a handle on your situation by helping you figure out if you have the “cheap divorce,” and if so, how to work through it with or without a lawyer.
First, you need a framework for understanding divorce, or you will get confused. You have probably read about “cheap divorce,” “fast or quick divorce,” “easy divorce” “amicable divorce,” and “affordable divorce.” By themselves most of these words sound simple enough. What's hard to understand about a “cheap divorce” after all? It's cheap and it's a divorce, easy, right? But these words don't help you know what kind of divorce you have. In other words, you need to know up front whether you have this kind of divorce before you see a lawyer or handle it on your own. If you have a complex divorce, and handle it like a cheap divorce, you will have hurt yourself, your finances, and if you have them, your kids.
There are three types divorce cases – contested divorce, uncontested divorce, and divorces where a spouse owns real property (home, farm, business, etc.) in another state.
1) First, let's take the case where real property is owned in another state. If you or your spouse own a cabin and land in Arkansas, but both of you live in Highlandville, Missouri, you do not have a cheap, easy or quick divorce. Arkansas laws control the transfer of land and you will need a lawyer here and maybe there to do that. Let me say that again: if you or your spouse has real estate in another state, you need a lawyer, but be forewarned, it won't be cheap and it won't be quick.
2) Let's take “contested divorce” next. A contested divorce is one where at the beginning of the case the husband and wife cannot agree about something that the law requires to be handled in a divorce decree.
What do I mean by that? If you and your spouse cannot agree on any one thing, the judge must set your case for trial. So, if you want your spouse to be picking up your child on 4:30 p.m. every other Friday to begin weekend visitation, and your spouse wants to pick up the child at 4:00 p.m. every other Friday, you have a contested divorce. The law says you must have a decree that sets out the time to exchange children for visitation. People have been detained and investigated by police for not exchanging the child at the time stated on the decree.
That goes for property and pets as well. If you want “Pearl,” the cheerful poodle, and your spouse also wants Pearl, and Pearl joined the family after you married, you have a contested divorce. That's true about the silverware, the dishes, the dining room set, and so on. It is especially true for your 401(k), pension, and credit card debt. Either you agree on how to divide it, or you don't. If you don't completely agree on everything, you have a contested divorce.
A contested divorce may be affordable. If you and your spouse do not agree on things, and you are divorcing, you need a lawyer, period. If you are too poor to afford one, go to Legal Aid. Otherwise, bite the bullet and hire a lawyer. Talk to one who is known to try cases but talks to you about the benefit of settling a case. That lawyer can make your contested divorce affordable by lining up the issues, putting them to paper and getting you and your spouse to the negotiating table.
Using mediators can make your contested case an affordable divorce as well. Mediators are people who meet with spouses, sort out the disagreements and help find common ground. When spouses find common ground, mediators can get agreements or partial agreements that lower the cost of the case. They can also make your divorce amicable.
But, beware of the bad mediator. A bad mediator is one who is all about getting the deal. Bad mediators will raise their voice, slam the door, make you cry (I know of one person who had an emotional breakdown and the mediator just kept going), and bully you into agreeing to something that is not in anyone's interest but “the deal.” Trust me on this one. If you see those behaviors, walk out. Otherwise your affordable divorce case will become an awful and unfair decree. Also, never ever let a mutual friend act as a mediator. You will lose that friend and you will not settle the case.
Sometimes, in contested divorce cases, no matter how reasonable you are, you cannot settle the case. That can happen because your spouse wants it to happen. No cheap divorce there. The faster you get to trial, the less expensive your contested divorce will be.
3) Now for the uncontested divorce. If you are looking for the “cheap divorce,” and “easy divorce” your case needs to be an uncontested, or amicable, divorce. If a “contested divorce” is a divorce where there is no completed agreement, then that means an “uncontested divorce” is one where you have a complete agreement on everything.
If so, that's good, because here you have a shot at a quick and cheap amicable divorce. Go to the Missouri Court website and you will find the forms and schedules as templates that you can use with your spouse to see if you have an agreement. Fill out every form completely; review it with your spouse to make sure you agree. Change whatever terms as needed to make the agreement. Leave no blanks. Completely list your property and debts. Then, just pay the filing fee, file the documents, follow the clerk's instructions and you have a really cheap and quick divorce.
You may also have an attorney review it for safety's sake, which I strongly recommend, and you will have quick and affordable divorce. Many lawyers do this and keep the costs strictly limited. It is called limited scope representation. If you don't trust a lawyer to not walk you into an expensive divorce, get your agreement and go to a lawyer that practices “limited scope representation.” It's a flat fee, and they are only looking to make sure you covered everything, filled every blank, and you understand all the terms.
Just one word of advice: you need a lawyer to fully represent you if any of the following are true:
- you were in a long term marriage, and did most of the child raising and housekeeping
- your spouse abused you physically, sexually, verbally or financially
- your spouse kept you in the dark about your finances
- your spouse makes a lot more money than you
- your spouse physically, sexually or emotionally abused the children
- you have a child born more than 6 months before your marriage
- you are pregnant or your spouse is pregnant by another man
- you have a child born during the marriage and another man is the father
- your spouse committed adultery
- your spouse is addicted to alcohol, prescription medication, or illegal drugs
- you have a long term medical or mental health condition that keeps you from working
- you or your spouse is an immigrant
- you or your spouse serves or served in the military
- you purchased a home just before you got married
- you got a sexually transmitted disease from your spouse
- either you or your spouse filed for bankruptcy and the debts are not yet discharged
- your spouse pled guilty to a sexual crime or any crime against children
- you or your spouse needs to file for bankruptcy
- you are a father, and you have doubts about the paternity of a child born during the marriage
- you and your spouse's accumulated combined wealth is worth more than $100,000.00
- you just got the judgment signed, and your now ex-spouse isn't doing what you thought they agreed to do
If any of those conditions exist, you need a lawyer to get you full protection. A judge may protect the children from an abusive or neglectful parent by restricting or eliminating contact. If you or your children suffered in your marriage at the hands of your spouse, a judge may provide you with less debt than your spouse and more assets than your spouse; you may also receive a lump sum or monthly payment for spousal support, known as alimony; Missouri calls it maintenance. A judge may also make your spouse pay for your attorney fees. In that case, your divorce may not be quick, but it would be more than affordable. In fact, you and your children could come out way ahead.
Two rules about any type of divorce. You cannot get divorced if you are pregnant or your spouse is pregnant. And if either you or your spouse has a pending bankruptcy, there is a possibility that you cannot get divorced.
How to handle your uncontested divorce:
- You and your spouse need to be honest with each other. That means everyone discloses everything. If you have not disclosed everything, you can be held into account later if that is discovered. On the other hand, there is an old legal maxim, equity does not reward those who slumber on their rights. You owe it to yourself to ask if you were disclosed everything and document that you in fact asked. Either way, not disclosing or not asking turns a quick, cheap divorce into a financial disaster.
- Be fair with one another. You will need to look at each other's most recent pay stubs and tax returns. You need to see, at least, the past year's bank statements, credit card statements, pension and 401(k) statements. You need to show each other your e-mails, and social media account information—at least for the time before you and your spouse separated. All that should be just a username and password away. If someone is saying, no…trust me, they are hiding something you need to know.
- Make sure what you do is in your child's best interests. If you agree to have the child live with you most of the time, and you earn less than your spouse, your child needs monthly child support payments. You need the tax dependency exemption. Don't give those up. Also, if your spouse is managing a trust on behalf of your children (like for college), insist on being named the co-trustee. Your spouse may be trustworthy now, excuse the pun, but who knows what can happen in the future?
- If you two were equally caring for the child, and share an equal bond, consider evenly dividing parenting time. But I recommend you search the web for the different ways of dividing the parenting time instead of one week on, one week off. When thinking about evenly dividing parenting time, or any schedule, think about your work schedule, your spouse's work schedule and the schedule for your children's activities, now and in the future. Think about giving yourself a weekend off from caring for the children. You will want to date, and you may want to date in a way that your child does not meet the person early on. Always, always, always consider whether or not you and your spouse will have the same values 5 years from now, and date or live with the people who have similar values. Otherwise, you may have a cheap divorce, and a quick divorce, but a long and expensive motion to modify custody case as you try to remove your child from a bad situation.
- If your spouse is a bad influence on the children or is not bonded with the children, then don't agree to a 50/50 custody plan. Not for the sake of peace. Not ever. Your children will be hurt by your decision to not reduce your child's time with the parent who lacks parenting skills or is a bad influence. Your divorce will have hurt your child.
- If you are a high income earner or own valuable assets from before the marriage, and your spouse has low income, consider taking on most or all of the debt, in exchange for you getting assets equal in value to the debt. That way, you don't get in trouble with the creditor on a debt your spouse cannot pay. Otherwise you make a cheap divorce very expensive.
- Keep the lines of communication open. There is no way to have an amicable divorce if you and your spouse are not communicating.
- If you have kids, don't ask them for advice. You are really asking them to take sides. You're the parent. You know your kids. Evaluate their needs based on what you know. You will not get good information from them if you talk to them about the divorce. The most you should say is the adults are figuring this out. End of story.
You now have the tools to decide whether or not you have the cheap divorce. It depends upon whether or not you have a contested divorce. If you have a contested divorce, you and your spouse can still make it affordable, even with lawyers. If you and your spouse acquired real property in another state, you won't have a quick divorce. On the other hand, if you are among the lucky ones, you may have an uncontested case. If so, you have a “cheap divorce.” I gave you the rules of the road for working through an uncontested case. In fact, I use them in contested cases. If you have a case that is the “cheap divorce,” you now have some tools to work through it yourself.
However, a blog is not legal advice. Only a lawyer retained by you for consultation can do that. And yes, you have heard it before: You are never better off in a divorce without a lawyer. If you decide to do your “cheap divorce” on your own, at least this blog can help you.