How to save money on legal fees when you separate

Lady saving money on legal fees

As a divorce coach and mediator I believe that for most couples mediation with an accredited specialist is the best way to reach parenting arrangements and property settlements; even when it takes several attempts.

Sometimes, however, the legal route is the most appropriate path.

It’s easy to forget that lawyers provide advice but they only act upon their client’s instruction.

It’s not uncommon for people to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and still end up with orders that you might as well use to line the budgie cage. Or worse, with no result to show for all that dosh.

I hear those stories regularly, usually told through tears or clenched teeth.

Sometimes, the person with exorbitant legal fees is their own worst enemy.

An important part of my coaching work is helping people to use family lawyers cost-effectively and keep a lid on legal fees.

Effective Instruction = Lower Lawyer’s Fees.

MY TOP THREE TIPS TO AVOID A BUDGET BLOW OUT ON LEGAL FEES

LEARN THE BASICS OF FAMILY LAW

Divorce Resource provides free information and support for the 90,000 or so men and women who experience divorce in Australia every year.

Legal Aid, Relationships Australia, The Family Court, Family Court of WA and many online support groups also provide excellent educational resources.

One of the most important things to understand in family law is relevance.

I appreciate the pain of infidelity. I empathise with those whose family finances were eroded by misfortune or bad choices. My heart goes out to anyone escaping an abusive relationship.

I relate to these feelings, but I’m compelled to be brutally honest with anyone who’s experienced such behaviour and wants justice in compensation for the actions of their ex-partner.

Australia is a ‘no-fault’ jurisdiction. The only grounds for divorce are that one of you believes the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

Despite what appears permissible under the Family Law Act, or seems understandable and fair, without going to full trial, you are extremely unlikely to get an addback of squandered funds whether there is capacity to repay or not. Even going to full trial is still dodgy odds.

Spend some time in the Family Court to see that a property settlement split rarely concedes to infidelities, deliberate manipulating and limiting one’s income or physical, financial and psychological abuse. Even the use of illicit drugs is routinely dismissed.

And, statistically, threatening a costs order forcing your ex to pay your legal fees is also a toothless tiger. A recent study showed less than 2% success.

What all that translates to, is that neither your lawyer nor the court is likely to force your ex to compensate you in the property settlement for their destructive behaviour.

Although it feels as though bad behaviour should be relevant, it seldom is in family law.

This harsh reality is the single most difficult thing for most of my clients to accept, as it was for me.

People who can’t accept it, invariably run up outrageous legal fees. They bombard the other side demanding explanations and disclosure about emotional charged issues that maybe, on a good day, in front of a lenient judge, might carry some weight at trial, but are more likely to be deemed immaterial, or overlooked as irrelevant.

I’m not suggesting you roll over, give in and accept an offer that isn’t viably in your best interests but rather you weigh up how much it will cost in time, fees and lost opportunities if you insist on proving blame by going to trial where there’s a high risk the ruling goes against you, or at best, not as much in your favour as you anticipated.

Perhaps it’s better for your overall wellbeing, and your bank balance, to learn to accept the apology that you will never, ever, get from your ex.

Pay your lawyer for legal work not to explain family law basics or pursue ‘irrelevant’ issues.

Couple discussing separation

DO YOUR OWN ADMIN FOR YOUR SEPARATION

If you haven’t dealt with lawyers before, perhaps you have a misconception that they do it all for you. They don’t. Their job is to advise on legal process and potential outcomes.

Your job is to provide all the information and documentation they need to formulate their advice.

It’s essential for family lawyers to create a snapshot of your personal, family, business and financial life before giving advice.

You will save many hours of legal fees by creating this snapshot yourself, before your first meeting.

This ‘discovery process’ is an arduous task; in most cases not so much difficult, as overwhelming. Most people don’t know where to begin.

For a bullet point plan, read How to Get Started on Your Divorce Property Settlement.

Do as much paper shuffling, summarising and cross-referencing as you can so lawyers don’t spend time trawling submissions for the snippets of evidence that support your claims.

Establish a filing system that’s easily searchable so you don’t waste money ordering duplicates of documentation you can’t locate.

Avoid padding your bill with lawyers and assistants filing and responding to multiple communications from you; wait to combine non-urgent issues in one letter.

Keep your instructions concise and on topic. Only correspond when it is requested, necessary or urgent.

Pay your lawyer for legal work not to do unnecessary administration.

Lady doing legal paperwork

PAY THE RIGHT PEOPLE THE RIGHT FEE AT THE RIGHT TIME

When a relationship ends, well-meaning people surface offering all manner of advice. It won’t be long before someone says, “Hun, you need a good lawyer.”

Getting the law on your side seems like a sensible plan.

However, a lawyer may not be the first person you need. Your immediate worries are more likely to be centred around managing your emotions and finances.

Most family lawyers are good at curbing emotions, and many have sound financial skills, but they are not usually specialists in these areas. And, many charge more per hour than those who are.

Pay the most appropriate experts the industry related fee or confide in friends and family.

Nurturing your mental health is crucial. I found counselling extremely helpful. As with lawyers, it wasn’t always the most decorated who was the most effective. Keep trying different approaches until you find a fit that works for you.

Financial difficulties are at the heart of many breakups, and some structures are complex. Perhaps a commercial or contract lawyer would be more useful first up.

Even in simple financial scenarios, certain actions have far-reaching consequences. Consulting a finance professional may help protect yourself, your family, your business, asset base and credit rating.

You will be a far better-quality legal client when it comes to instructing your lawyer and negotiating with your ex, if you are in control of your emotions and understand your financial situation. 

Pay your lawyer for legal work when it is required and not for engaging with you about emotional or financial issues.

single mother support

The information in this article is general in nature and should not be considered as legal advice. You should seek the advice of a registered professional who will be able to appropriately assess your specific circumstances before offering their expert opinion.

Save money on your separation

Christine Weston

Christine Weston

Mediator and Divorce Coach, Christine Weston, is passionate about helping you minimise the stress, conflict and cost of separating. Creator of DivorceResource.com.au, designer of The Split Kit (Australia's first divorce management software) and author of, ‘The First Steps through Separation & Divorce’ and "Separation and Divorce involving Real Estate'.

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