By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 22, 2022
The divorce process is stressful enough; financial issues could put someone in a difficult situation. Everyone should be able to access quality legal aid at an affordable rate when they need it most. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
If you can’t afford to pay much (or anything) in legal fees, it could be a good idea to take a step back and figure out what options you have available to you. Many attorneys are offering low-cost legal services; some will even help you out for free in some instances.
When You Might Need a Divorce Lawyer
There are a few different situations where one (or both) spouses might need to hire a divorce lawyer or attorney to help them navigate their case. While the titles are often used interchangeably, lawyers and attorneys have different functions and capabilities.
Anyone who has graduated from law school is considered a lawyer; attorneys will have passed the bar exam and therefore can practice in a court of law. If a divorcing couple decides to settle outside of court (ex: mediation), they could consult a divorce lawyer.
You might need a divorce lawyer or divorce attorney if:
- You’re in a “fault” divorce state. Most states are solely “no-fault” divorce states, meaning the spouse who files doesn’t need to cite a reason for filing. However, some states still allow fault-based divorces. If someone wanted to file using this method, they would have to prove their partner was the reason the marriage was unsuccessful (ex: adultery). This could be difficult to navigate without a lawyer.
- Your spouse has one. If your spouse hires an attorney and serves you with divorce papers, you might also want to hire one. Attempting to handle legal paperwork on your own could be difficult for someone who doesn’t understand the terms. Since divorce attorneys are already well-versed in family law, they can help you know and even represent you if your case goes to trial.
- You’re having child support or an alimony dispute. If you and your spouse cannot agree on issues like how much one of you should receive in spousal support (if applicable) or what an appropriate monthly child support payment would be, you might need to consult a divorce lawyer for legal advice.
Sometimes, the complexities of divorce can be hard to understand, especially if children are involved or you and your spouse have many assets that need to be divided. So make sure to take the time to consider if asking for legal help could serve you well.
When You Might Not Need a Divorce Lawyer
Sometimes, a divorce case can be settled without legal assistance. Not every divorce involves lengthy litigation; many can even be resolved outside of court.
You might not need a divorce lawyer or divorce attorney if:
- You’ve agreed to an uncontested divorce. In this type of divorce proceeding, both parties agree to separate without dispute the divorce terms. Since there are no open disputes to settle, the judge can issue a ruling faster.
- You’ve agreed to mediation. Mediation can be handled outside of family court. Typically, spouses who choose this method have a neutral third party that serves as a buffer and can offer advice. Mediators do not need to be lawyers or attorneys.
- You’ve agreed on property division. If a couple is not having a dispute over the division of marital property, they might not need any legal help.
As you can see, there are instances where a couple might not need a divorce lawyer or attorney. If you and your spouse get along well and aren’t disagreeing on issues like child custody arrangements or the division of property, you might not need legal representation.
Options When You Can’t Afford a Divorce Lawyer
Fortunately, many options are available for divorcing couples who can’t afford to pay attorney’s fees. In some cases, lawyers and attorneys offer their services free, so you don’t have to pay an expensive upfront retainer.
Find a Pro Bono Attorney
Pro bono is an abbreviated version of the Latin phrase pro bono publico (for the public good). It’s important to note that while many public goods and services are free, this isn’t always the case. Often, lawyers and attorneys will waive their retainer fee for those experiencing financial hardship, but pro bono services can sometimes be offered for a low cost.
Try Mediation or Dispute Resolution Programs
Several mediation and dispute resolution services are available for people who traditionally can’t afford to handle their divorce. Mediation is often much quicker and you don’t need a lawyer or divorce attorney to act as your mediator.
Get Limited-Scope Representation
Limited-scope representation is when a lawyer agrees to take on a portion of a case; focusing on one dispute instead of all. For example, the most critical aspect of your case could be that you are a domestic violence victim and need help filing a restraining order.
Consider Separation Without Divorce
Another option you can consider is separation. A separation can be legal (through the court) or informal, and you don’t have to move into a new place to be considered “separated” from your spouse. Some couples separate and remain in the same home due to financial reasons or to better co-parent their children.
Contact Your Local Bar Association or Free Law Clinic
Your local bar association could also be an excellent resource for legal help. This is especially true if you’re a part of a minority group or not familiar with the local language where you live; many bar associations were founded on a particular culture. The local bar association can connect underrepresented groups and those experiencing financial hardship with a legal representative who can genuinely understand their needs.
Find a Legal Aid Fund
For low-income individuals or domestic violence victims, seeking a legal aid fund could be the way to go. The function of the legal aid society is to ensure that people needing legal assistance don’t go without simply because they do not have the means to pay. It is a government-funded organization with services available in every state.
The Bottom Line
You can obtain quality legal assistance from experienced professionals with a limited budget. Divorce proceedings don’t have to break the bank; everyone should be able to access the help they need at an affordable rate.