Uncontested divorce is the way most people divorce. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it offers you and your spouse the chance to end your marriage quietly and with dignity. It’s not right for everybody, but it’s right for many more couples than gladiators like to admit.
When I first began doing this work, I thought I would eventually spend most of my time as a divorce mediator. I know now that this won’t happen. The more time I spend with people like you who are actually going through this painful process of divorce, the more convinced I become that uncontested divorce is an appropriate way to end most marriages.
The most apparent advantage of uncontested divorce, of course, is its cost. With the exception of the pro se divorce, an uncontested divorce that stays uncontested divorce is almost always the least expensive way of getting divorced. (To read about the pro se divorce, check out Do I Need a Lawyer?).
I’m a big believer in finding the least expensive way to divorce. The simple fact is that any money you can avoid spending on people like me is money you can use to live on after divorce or spend on your kids.
The low cost is not, however, the only advantage of uncontested divorce. If the level of conflict between the two of you is low now, uncontested divorce offers a way to keep it that way. It’s also private. The agreements the two of you reach in an uncontested divorce and file with the court will of course be a matter of public record, but the disclosures you make to each other don’t have to be. Nor do the various proposals you discuss as you negotiate an agreement that’s acceptable to both of you.
I don’t think you have to agree with each other about the issues of your divorce for an uncontested divorce to be right for you. It’s not so much a question of agreement as it is your desire to get through your divorce, and a practical sense on the part of both of you that you want to minimize the cost badly enough to stop fighting, stay in control, and end your marriage.
If you and your spouse don’t yet agree on all the issues of your divorce, that just means you may have some negotiating to do before you finish it. If neither of you gets rattled or gets in a hurry, you’ll probably be able to get through it.
Based on my experience watching couples work through their divorce, I’ve put together an Uncontested Divorce Quiz to help clients decide whether an uncontested divorce is likely to work for them. It’s simple, reasonably accurate, and a source of pride to me. I hope you’ll use it.
Uncontested divorce is a bad idea when one of you is beating up on the other one. When there’s ongoing domestic violence, the victim can’t possibly negotiate with the perpetrator on anything like a level playing field. He or she needs an advocate, and it’s difficult to get this done in the context of uncontested divorce.
Uncontested divorce is a bad idea when the parties are not able to talk with each other. If your spouse refuses to have any discussion with you about divorce, and if you’re determined to move forward with the process, any money you spend on an uncontested divorce is likely to be wasted. If you’re patient, you may find that your spouse will come around later, but if you’re determined to do it now and your spouse is digging in his or her heels, you’ll have no choice but to serve them with the process and do it the hard way.
Uncontested divorce is a bad idea when one or both of the spouses is both ignorant about the law and greedy (it takes both). If your spouse is just ignorant but reasonable, uncontested divorce can work fine. If your spouse is well informed about the law but greedy, rationality will eventually win out, and you and your spouse will eventually be able to reach agreement. But in those isolated cases where one or both of you are both ignorant and greedy, you’ll probably need separated attorneys before you get it all sorted out. I’ll say a prayer for you.
The first thing you need to know about uncontested divorce is that the lawyer you get to do your uncontested divorce cannot represent both of you. As a society, we assume that the spouses in a divorce have necessarily different interests. The ethical principles for lawyers therefore require that a lawyer cannot represent both parties. The lawyer must represent one of you and not the other. The lawyer will need to know at the outset which of you is his or her client and which of you is not.
I can’t speak for uncontested divorce in general. Everybody has his or her own style. I can tell you a great deal, though, about how I do it. You can read more about this on Uncontested Divorce with Lee.
One of the many reasons that I maintain this web site is to help my clients learn all about their divorce before they meet with me. That allows them to minimize the time they spend with me. What I tell my clients is this: “use me only for what only I can do.”
I meet with the spouse who is my client in my office. We work together to think through the key issues involved with the divorce, and I explain to my client what each document does and the various options available. We produce together all the paperwork that either spouse will need to sign.
I work on a laptop with an LCD projector in my office, so my client sees the documents take shape on a big screen in my office. We can make changes to all the documents and see the changes as we make them. When we’re satisfied with the documents, I print them so the client can take them and share them with his or her spouse. Because my practice is so systems-driven, if the client is task-focused, it rarely takes more than an hour, or at most an hour and a half, to prepare all the paperwork needed.
After we produce the documents, if my client needs to make changes to them, that’s okay. Everything’s on computer, and it’s easy to make changes, as long as the parties can agree on what they ought to be.
When both spouses are satisfied with the papers, they come back to my office to sign them, and I file them. Barring something unusual, neither spouse has to go to court in my state. Everything is handled on paper.
If both spouses want to come together, that’s okay. I just insist that we all be ever so clear about which spouse is my client and which spouse is not. And I’m careful not to give any advice to the spouse who is not.
Uncontested divorce can happen faster than most people realize. If my client comes prepared with all the key information, and if the two parties are able to agree on the key issues, I can usually produce the necessary paperwork on the spot and my client can take it with them when they leave.
The prices for uncontested divorce vary widely. I’ve talked to attorneys who charge as much as $1,200 for an uncontested divorce, and there are plenty of people out there who advertise uncontested divorces for as little as $90.
In general, the lawyer who charges 100 dollars is likely to have organized his or her practice around an extremely high volume of divorces and relatively little time spent with individual clients, and he or she will expect to increase the fee if children are involved, if any significant assets or unusual debts are involved, or if anything else about the divorce requires that he or she spend significant time on the divorce. On the other hand, the lawyer who charges several hundred dollars probably doesn’t do a large number of uncontested divorces, and expects to spend a significant amount of time with his or her client.
I publish simple rates for uncontested divorce, and you’re welcome to check them out if you want. I realize I’m on the low side, but that’s because I don’t need to make a lot of money to live. Nice, huh?
For starters, the person who is represented will be the plaintiff, the one “asking” for the divorce. If it’s offensive to either of you to be the one who asks for the divorce in the legal documents, that may settle the question right there. For most divorcing couples, though, neither spouse has a strong objection to being the plaintiff. If that’s the case with you, that means it frees you up to focus on the practical considerations.
Start with the assumption that the lawyer in an uncontested divorce is looking out after his or her client. That means that having the lawyer on your side and not on your spouse’s side is a powerful advantage. Once you understand that, it makes sense that the lawyer should represent the spouse who needs help the most.
Who needs help the most? I encourage you to apply three factors to make this decision:
- The spouse who is the left gets some points (if this is unfamiliar to you, check out The Three Divorces).
- The spouse who is less financially savvy gets some points.
- If one of you is considering filing bankruptcy and the other is not, the one who is less likely to file bankruptcy gets some points.
The first disadvantage of an uncontested divorce flows from its very simplicity. If, for example, you and your spouse hold joint title to real property or owe money jointly, or if your children have unusual parenting needs, resolving them in uncontested divorce may be awkward.
The second disadvantage of uncontested divorce arises from the way the law looks at the role of the lawyer in divorce. Like it or not, the law sees divorce as an adversarial contest between you and your spouse. And because a lawyer must not represent two parties who are competing with each other, the lawyer cannot represent both of you. He or she must represent either you or your spouse. In an uncontested divorce, that means the other party will not have a lawyer at all. That’s an imbalance of power between the spouses.
The simplest safeguard, and I believe the one that makes the most sense, is a coach for the spouse who is not represented. In this context, the coach simply reviews the papers after they’ve been drawn up, quizzes his or her client about the facts of the divorce and what the client wants to accomplish, and reviews with the client the options available.
It’s simple, quick, and relatively inexpensive. It gives the client the information that he or she needs before signing the divorce papers, but it doesn’t push the divorce into a protracted adversarial battle.
The other safeguard is for the unrepresented spouse to gather lots of information about the divorce from as many sources as possible. DivorceInfo is a good source, of course, but shouldn’t be the only source. There’s lots of information available from other sites on the web, and lots of good books on the subject. One of my favorites is pricey but thorough, Divorce and Money. You can check it out if you’re interested.