How to Beat the High Cost of Divorce

Estimates suggest that 50 percent of all people who get married stay married.

Good for them. This is about the other half: the ones for whom the dream of till death do us part wind up in the reality of divorce.

A couple thinking of uncoupling these days faces a wide range of choices: from a full-blown litigated custody battle, to a mediated settlement, to a quick click on No Fault Divorce Online, a Web site that promises a fast and easy divorce for as little as $28.95.

So how do you choose the divorce that's right for you?

Clearly many couples will be lured by the promise of a cheap and painless digital divorce. And an online service might be the right choice if you've been married for a short time (less than two years) and don't have any children.

But proceed with caution.

"The key to the $29 divorce is two people communicating," said Ellen Zack, a family law attorney who practiced in Boston for 26 years, and is now a consultant "If you can sit down at your kitchen table and set aside your anger, fear, sadness and terror and say let's work this thing out, then maybe you can do it."

Unfortunately, that's hard for many couples, she says. "Most people don't communicate very well and when you're getting a divorce you don't want to sit down across from your spouse and talk. I used to say my job was one part lawyer, one part clergy person and 98 parts psychiatrist."

The online sites are generally document-preparation services. They don't offer legal advice or counsel and you must be in complete agreement with your spouse on all the issues. Fees range from less than the cost of a tank of gas to a couple of hundred dollars, but either way it's far less than the cost of hiring a lawyer.

The emotional cost of a divorce has been well documented. What hasn't been as openly discussed is the dollars-and-cents price tag attached to the average divorce. The simple fact is: It's expensive.

Middle Class Squeeze

According to Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and a practicing lawyer in New Canaan, Conn., the middle class is feeling the squeeze: "It's very hard for the middle class to get divorced these days."

Why? In part, because the cost of litigation has skyrocketed and because the modern divorce can be very complex. "In the good old days, we would say 'Give her the house and you keep the pension,' but now there are issues about executive compensation, valuation of hedge funds. We have to hire forensic accountants," Ferro said. "It's like night and day."

Still, Ferro said, if you're thinking of hiring a lawyer don't do what most people do and hire "that guy their brother-in-law recommended."

Find someone you feel comfortable with and hire that person for an hour or so. Most lawyers will charge a consulting fee to take the pulse of the case. Expect them to offer some basic advice and an outline of how to proceed including details of a retainer.

In Boston, as in other major cities, the hourly rate for a highly skilled senior family law attorney is as much as $600. That means a contentious custody battle could easily cost $75,000 to $100,000.

"When you decide to get divorced, it's not just a legal issue. It's a social, religious, psychological issue. It has many dimensions," said Elayne Greenberg, a lawyer based in Great Neck, N.Y., who specializes in mediation and conflict management.

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