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How to Save on Attorney Fees in Divorce

By Mary Salisbury August 09, 2023 Family

You may not realize this, but when you file divorce papers, you are suing your spouse for divorce. Most people have never been involved in a lawsuit before and have never worked with an attorney for anything other than a traffic ticket or to prepare their will. Fees can add up to the tens of thousands very, very quickly. If you must hire an attorney, here are some tips that will save you money.

Strongly Consider the Hourly Rate You Will Be Paying

Weigh the hourly billing rate of the attorney you choose vs. the complexity of your case and/or what you will realistically get out of your settlement. Some attorneys have high hourly rates because of a specific sub-specialty, because they are board certified in family law, or because they have many years of experience.

If their specialty is child custody, for instance, but you are seeking alimony, their fee may not justify the particular work they will be doing in your case. Some attorneys have a high hourly rate because, well, they can, and because there are people out there who think high fees equal competence.

If your case is not complex, it is probably OK to hire a more junior attorney with a lower hourly rate. Ask what the hourly rate is before your consultation.

Negotiate Your Retainer

Sorry to say, some lawyers have non-refundable retainers, and some ask for a large amount of non-refundable money up front to “reserve their time.” If you can settle quickly, you won’t get that unused portion back. If you want to change attorneys because you are unhappy with the progress of your case or the work they are doing, you will not get that unused portion back.

This happens all the time. If your attorney leaves the firm you hired, you also may not get your retainer back, and you will feel compelled to continue to work with the firm they left.

The purpose of a retainer is to be assured of payment for work performed. They should not get paid for work they do not do. Do not be afraid to talk about how their retainer works in detail.

Ask for Mediation Early

In North Carolina and most other states, the courts require mediation before child custody and equitable division trials. Save yourself a lot of fees and try to mediate early in the process.

A mediator can use their trained skills to bring up issues that are preventing settlement and help find solutions that parties can agree upon. Better yet, instead of attorneys, consider using a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst as both a financial neutral and a mediator.

Be Thorough and Organized When You Gather and Provide Documents

You don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for someone to wade through a disorganized mess. Put them in a binder and provide an index. Attorneys need to inventory all incoming documents and usually will want an index as well.

Also, ask how they want you to provide documents; hard copies of documents, electronic copies, or both. You don’t want to pay a professional for the job of scanning documents. Save yourself a lot of money and perform this sweat equity yourself.

Do Not Use Your Attorney as a Therapist

This one is obvious.

Do Not Think You Won’t Get Billed for Each Email or Quick Phone Call

Attorneys and paralegals charge in 10 or 15-minute increments, so that email that they read in two minutes could cost you $100!!! If you have a question that is not legal, try asking their secretary.

Ask for a Monthly Billing Statement

Not only can you see where your money is going (and that it is going), but what they are doing and how your case is progressing. That might help you avoid a phone call or email to your attorney.

Hire a CDFA, Regardless

A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst can and should handle the financial aspects of your divorce, and can do it more knowledgeably, thoroughly, and affordably than your attorney or their staff. For instance, one of the first things your attorney will want is a Financial Affidavit where you provide your income and expenses and your assets and liabilities.

(Note: Financial Affidavits are called different things in different states. For example, in New Jersey it’s called a “Case Information Statement (CIS)”; in Utah it’s a “Financial Declaration”; and in New York it’s called a “Statement of Net Worth.”)

It’s important this document is correct, because it is the basis on which your support payments and asset division will be determined. A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst can help you make sure your budget is thorough and your affidavit is accurate. He/she can also check to see if there are errors in your spouse’s Financial Affidavit.

For instance, in the case of employee income reported on a W-2, often income can be incorrectly reported by counting the wrong number of pay periods or deducting too much in taxes. 401(k) contributions and healthcare premiums need to be added back to gross income, as well as any other payroll deductions. A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst can check for those types of common errors.

If you haven’t hired an attorney yet, then consider contacting a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to help you settle your divorce affordably. Hiring a CDFA is the best advice I can give you on how to save money in your divorce and how to avoid high attorney fees.

When you use attorneys, the settlement is based on a current snapshot of your financial situation. The benefit of working with a CDFA is that he/she will look not only at the present, but how the settlement will affect you in the future. That’s very important when there is spousal support because it’s important to know if you will have enough income once support stops.

You can read on my website about the many reasons why hiring a CDFA is an emotionally healthier and financially smarter alternative.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What advice would you give others so that they can save attorney fees? Was your attorney clear about how much your divorce would cost? Do you wish you had sought out financial advice or used a mediator instead?

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Catherine Vance

I am a family law attorney of 30 years. Here are my top 10 tips to keep your fees low:

(1) Do not bring me your life in a paper bag. Ask your lawyer or his/her assistant at the time of hire what he or she will need from you. Tax returns, recent paystubs, bank statements, retirement statements, etc. Don’t pay the lawyer to do stuff you can do.
(2) Find a therapist or support group. Tell the emotional stuff to your bartender, your hairdresser or your best friend. I am trying to get the business part of this done.
(3) Do not leave messages that say, “Call me.” Call after hours and leave a detailed, specific message of what you need. That gives me opportunity to get the answer to you.
Do not pester me daily with a question here and a question there. Save them up and send an email with a bullet list. Get a notebook and take notes so you’re not asking the lawyer the same stuff over and over.
(4) Do not ask stupid things like: “Did we get the judge’s ruling yet?” Do you want me to answer, “Yes, I’ve had it for over a week now but instead of sending it to you, I prefer your daily annoying pesterings.”
(5) Consult with more than one lawyer if you don’t “feel right” with the lawyer. It’s like picking a gynecologist. You’re getting naked with this person. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about things, move on. Your gut feeling is important.
(6) Be happy if you see your lawyer being cordial, even friendly, with the other lawyer. Lawyers who dislike each other do not negotiate well and will make your life a living hell. “I will not be out-lawyered by that bitch!” is not a good sign.
(7) Ask for a four-way settlement conference as early as possible. It is much cheaper if all four people are in the room rather than an endless round of he wants, she wants, let me check, I’ll get back to you, etc.
(8) Choose your battles. I had a client ask me about getting the kids’ raincoats from Dad
and he was being a butthead. I said, “Go to the Salvation Army store—you’ll walk out with an armload of damn-good-enough raincoats for the kids. Or, you can pay me $300 an hour to try to coax him into giving you the raincoats.” This is also called, “Use your damn common sense.” Not every problem you have needs a lawyer’s answer.
(9) Get over yourself. Your case is no worse than the other million. Divorce is a process, not an event. Dig in for the haul. If you’re in court, LISTEN to the judge as he/she handles other cases. You will learn how the judge thinks. You will see the horrendous backlog. In my county, every client wants it over tomorrow. It is August and the first available trial dates are in January. Push for settlement which means be ready to give up and give in on certain things. This will save you a lot of money.
(10) Do not lie to me! Nothing is worse than being blindsided in Court because you failed to me you have to spend weekends in jail for trying to poison a co-worker (true story). I hear ugly truths all day long. You’re not here to impress me or earn me as a friend. I cannot figure this out if you are not giving the good and bad about yourself. Your bill will creep up and up if I’m trying to put out brush fires at the last minute because I did not get the full
truth up front, while I could figure out cost-effective measures to help you.

Catherine Vance
Vance Family Law


The way to save attorney fees in a divorce is hire a mediator instead. It took me 3-1/2 years from separation to actual divorce but I ultimately convinced my ex to do it. We each paid $250.00 for the divorce. We sat down and figured out division of assets and custody/child support in advance and took it to the mediator. You won’t be sorry going this route.


This is possible if the proposed divorce is amicable. However, if there has been infidelity, financial cheating, physical, mental or mental abuse – (and yes, cheating is abuse) then mediation is the worst way to go. Don’t. Do. it. Lying liars lie, cheating spouses have lied for longer than you realize, the disrespect shown to the chumped spouse will only continue. Despite what therapists and marital counsellors say (pay me $$ to affair-proof your marriage) the discourse always at some stage turns the focus onto you and ‘what you did to cause your spouse the cheat’. This is BS and it’s a character defect in the cheater, it’s a narrative so many buy into unless one has experienced cheating yourself – whether by infidelity, financially or orherwise


Totally agree! Well said!

Mary Salisbury

Hello Kim, I agree that if you are mostly amicable and can work with your spouse, mediation is the way to go. I also agree with the other commenter that in cases of abuse, cheating and narcissism, mediation may not be the way to go. Mediation also requires full disclosure of financial assets and sometimes one party is not forthcoming so the only way to get that information is via discovery in a litigated case. Mediation with two attorneys and a mediator can be surprisingly expense. In my mediations, I work with the couple only and do my own financial analysis of the assets, which is great for a spouse who is not financially savvy.

The Author

Mary Salisbury is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® and Divorce Mediator and the founder of The Right Divorce Solution, LLC. Mary helps clients understand the long-term financial implications of property division, child support and alimony. Mary’s passion is to help couples and individuals have a financially smart and emotionally kinder divorce.

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