The average divorce in California costs $15,000! Now some of those cost 5k and some of them cost 20k, but still expect a divorce with a traditional private law firm attorney to cost at least $5,000. In fact they often ask for that as a retainer to start on your case.
So how in the world do you avoid this?
Technically you can handle the case yourself, cross your fingers that all issues have been resolved and all paperwork is correct, and pay just the filing fees - which average about $500 if you just have the petition and not a bunch of side hearings. If you have a stipulated agreement (you both agree on everything 100% and do not need a hearing) then maybe that is a realistic option if you have the time to spend at the self help center located at California court houses attending classes and asking questions about the paperwork you should file. For most people, however, I would definitely recommend having an attorney represent you.
So if you do hire an attorney here are both options and recommendations on how to save money.
1) If you qualify, fill out a fee waiver. In Alameda county a household of 1 person making under approximately $1100 or a family of 3 making approximately under $1300 per month would qualify for a fee waiver so that they can avoid the approximately $500 in court fees.
2) If you qualify you can apply for legal aid- Baylegal.org is the SF Bay Area Option. You can also call us, All for the Family Legal Clinic, to be charged on a sliding scale based on your family income and size, or you can call your county bar association to see what volunteer attorney programs they have that you may qualify for.
3) Once you have an attorney, remember time is money.
Every phone call, every email, every contact that you have with your attorney, or that the opposing party has with your attorney costs you money. Look at your fee agreement because often every call is rounded to the nearest 0.15 of an hour. Every email, also rounded to the nearest 0.15 of an hour, etc. If they file paperwork for you they charge you travel time and wait time, etc. You can often ask if you can serve your own paperwork (have a friend who is over 18 do it, not yourself) or file your own papers at the court.
Also when you call them to vent - you are paying them. You may be paying them to be a therapist instead of an attorney, but you are paying them for their time to listen to you talk about your relationship. Some of that information will be relevant and you need to tell your attorney, but you do not need to tell them the same thing over and over again.
4) Make sure that you give them ALL of the information. It will save you money if you give your attorney all of the paperwork regarding your finances, etc. You can even take a look at forms FL-150 and FL-160 in advance to see what type of financial information your attorney will need to properly fill out your paperwork. You can also ask your attorney if you can fill out your own FL-150 and FL-160 (Income and Expense and property declarations) so that your attorney is not billing you for the time. However if you do this make sure that you address all of your assets and debts.
5) Talk to the other party and see if you can reach an agreement. Most attorney income comes from waiting around at hearings. You pay from the second we leave the office to the second we get back. If your hearing is at 9am expect us to leave our office at about 8:15am, wait around for your case to be called and possibly during day of court mediation when your attorney wont go in with you, but sits in the hall, while a court appointed mediator attempts to get both parties to reach an agreement, waiting for your case to be called to finalize the agreement or debate why one was not reached, etc. Expect to pay your attorney for 5 hours worth of work minimum for each hearing that you have. If you can reach an agreement then these hearings will not be necessary - in that case you can pay your attorney just to handle the paperwork.
6) If you can reach an agreement before you even talk to an attorney, then negotiate a flat fee stipulated divorce with your attorney. Even a stipulated agreement in many counties attorneys must draft the agreement plus lots of additional forms to attach to it. Even a 100% agreed divorce if there are children involved can be 50 pages worth of documents. However if you have a flat fee you know that the divorce cost (assuming everything remains 100% agreed) will not go over that amount.
Divorces and custody disputes are never easy, but if you work with an attorney that is concerned about the best interest of the children, your pocket book, and you then it will be as pleasant as possible. In family court there is no such thing as a winner or loser. You are real people that have to deal the consequences and the goal is to reach and agreement that is the best for everyone in the long run - especially when children are involved.