"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.
Greenberg said the most common mistake couples make is to assume that justice is an absolute.
Each party firmly believes that if it gets its day in court, it will be vindicated. But, according to Greenberg, going to court is a gamble. "Justice can be elusive," said Greenberg. And, she adds, more than 95 percent of all divorce cases end up being settled out of court. "There's a reason for that."
Even though it's tempting, resist the impulse to run out and hire that famous "attack-dog" divorce lawyer you've heard so much about. "They're in pain and they're hurting and they're afraid of getting screwed and they feel powerless, so they reach out and get a lawyer … but getting a lawyer doesn't always have to mean getting a warrior."
Greenberg advocates trying to talk to your partner before you rush to the experts.
"Sit down at Starbucks or your kitchen table and talk about the issues. You might find you can come to an agreement on most things and then if you have one big thing you can't agree on then take that to the mediator. It will save you a lot of money." And, Greenberg adds, couples could consider spending the money they save on some therapy.
In fact, there are two well-regarded, economical and low-conflict options: mediation and collaborative law.
In a mediated divorce, the spouses take the lead in discussing financial and custodial issues surrounding the divorce. The mediator helps resolve any outstanding conflicts and then draws up a memorandum of understanding.
Both parties should also hire a lawyer to look at the final agreement. If all goes well, that agreement becomes the basis for the legal divorce decree. It's almost impossible to put a dollar figure on the "average" divorce but a mediated settlement can cost about $5,000.
The more cutting-edge legal offering that's generating a lot of buzz is called collaborative law. A couple and their lawyers -- trained in collaborative law -- sign a written agreement that they will settle the case without litigation. Both spouses have lawyers to advise them of their best interests, but the emphasis is on cooperation, not combat.
The costs tend to be much lower than a traditional divorce because the process is faster — often wrapping up in as little as four meetings. If, for some reason, the parties can't reach an agreement, the attorneys must resign and the couple have to hire new lawyers. The price tag, which varies widely, is in the $10,000-15,000 range.
This is all very familiar territory to Stephen Serio of Milton, Mass. He divorced his wife in September 2005. They had been married for seven years and have one child. The couple tried both mediation and litigation. According to Serio, the sticking point wasn't custody but cash — specifically financial issues surrounding his business.
"We went to a mediator, which, for us, was a waste of time and money. We couldn't come to an agreement," Serio said. As with many couples, there were emotional issues as well.
"I had moved on years before and she saw the final divorce as really admitting failure. But when the marriage is over, really over, I think both parties just have to look at it as a business transaction because it is. You're dividing the assets and all you're talking about is money," he said.
Serio says his divorce cost him about $25,000, but he doesn't regret the price. "I married the wrong person. This isn't the 1950s and stuff happens. Should I stay miserable and married and waste the rest of my life or try to rectify a terrible mistake? It's [divorce], not the end. "
It can also be a new beginning. Serio remarried last year, and he and his new wife are expecting twins in October.