Massachusetts couples can represent themselves in their own divorce, and there are products offering “Do-it-Yourself” divorces. But, is this the right option for you? You could save money in the short term, but make a mistake that costs a fortune to fix.
Don’t be “penny wise and pound foolish”: Learn how to control the costs of divorce without sacrificing your legal rights.
Is a DIY divorce right for you?
A DIY divorce can be appropriate for uncontested divorces in Massachusetts (otherwise known as a “Joint Petition” or a “1A” divorce).
When a couple divorces, they separate their family’s assets, parenting responsibilities, and income. An uncontested divorce is appropriate where both parties agree on most of these issues. The longer the marriage, the larger the assets, the greater the disparity in income, and the more the parties disagree on parenting issues, the less likely it is that the divorce can be done successfully without an attorney.
Doing it all by yourself risks giving up rights that you don’t think are important now, like retirement benefits or alimony, but may become incredibly important later. Divorce lawyers are trained to envision virtually every way that an agreement can go wrong — and help devise a solution so it never becomes a problem.
If your partner has a history of abuse or other controlling behaviors, or there is another type of power imbalance, an uncontested divorce is not for you. If you do not feel empowered to assert your rights, or feel bullied into accepting your spouse’s version of the divorce, it’s time to call an attorney.
How can you DIY your Massachusetts divorce?
Every state has different laws about divorce and custody. For this reason, doing your own divorce requires that you use the legal forms of your state and follow your state’s instructions. Each state also has its own unique rules about how assets are divided, how child support is calculated, and other issues.
Massachusetts has an excellent Legal Aid website that can give you specific instructions on filing for divorce. Go to MassLegalHelp.org to learn more about the process. This site will provide you with more assistance than many of the generic online and retail services that offer templates but no legal advice. With either option, you will have to do your own legal research.
Most forms are easy to fill out and are available online on the Massachusetts Family Court Website. It’s the Separation Agreement that is the most fluid, and important, document in your divorce. The Separation Agreement states how the assets and debts are divided, the amount of support, and the parenting plan for the minor children. The challenge for DIY-ers is to be specific enough in the agreement, such that the parties avoid miscommunication and ambiguity in the future.
Divorce attorneys add their wisdom from experience and draft agreements that cover the common pitfalls of Separation Agreements. Thankfully, you may be able to hire a divorce lawyer simply to draft the Separation Agreement, and handle the rest of the process yourself.
How much does a divorce cost?
The cost for a divorce depends on how contentious the parties make the process.
At a minimum, couples need to pay a filing fee of $200 unless they truly cannot afford the filing fee. The party who files needs to request a “fee waiver” by filling out an indigency form.
In addition to court costs, dividing the marital assets can cost money. Selling and refinancing real estate each have its own costs and fees. Dividing retirement assets requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO,” for short), and even divorce lawyers hire specialists to manage this process. My preferred specialist charges $600.
Because of the complicated issues involved with minor children and the rules regarding the division of assets, I always suggest that couples who have assets or minor children should have their Separation Agreement reviewed by an attorney.
Most divorce lawyers charge an hourly rate, from $200 to $600 an hour — and higher. The more contentious the case, the more you will pay your attorney. It’s important to evaluate whether it’s worth paying your attorney $300 an hour to fight over a $500 television is actually worth the expense.
How about Limited Representation?
Many divorce lawyers now offer “unbundled” legal services (discrete legal tasks, typically in an advisory capacity) and charge flat rates up front for their services. Reviewing a Separation Agreement is some of the best money a frugal couple can spend on their divorce. Ethics rules require separate attorneys for each party.
I do simple Separation Agreement review for the price of a consultation and my hourly rate for reviewing any later revisions (and for drafting them). This can be helpful when couples work with a mediator.
I also offer a flat rate “DIY Divorce,” for clients who want to save money without sacrificing their legal rights and without the hassle of trying to figure everything out for themselves. See more details here: Family Law Fees.
You can save money on your divorce. Sometimes it requires a larger investment in the short term in order to avoid paying more money in the long term.