What If I Can’t Afford a Lawyer?

You have decided to divorce. Or maybe your spouse just hit you with he or she wants a divorce. So many things go through your mind. You are scared about the future. You are worried about your children. There are so many things to cause you concern.

Then you wonder – how am I going to pay for a divorce?

Divorce is not cheap. It is not uncommon for a lawyer to ask for a $5,000 or $10,000 retainer. Some attorneys ask for more up front. And that may not be enough to cover all of your costs.

You may think “Do I need an attorney? What if I cannot afford to pay for a lawyer?”

Maybe the question you should be asking is “Can I afford to NOT have a lawyer?” The answer may be no.

After all, some major decisions come out of a divorce. Custody, parenting time, alimony, child support, division of retirement accounts, your home, and more are all addressed in a divorce. A bad resolution can impact the rest of your life. It can also cost you more in the long run in higher support payments, unreasonable division of assets and time to work out these issues in court.

You are not required to have an attorney represent you. You have the right to represent yourself in court. In making this decision, you need to be aware that you will be held to the same rules as an attorney. Representing yourself could put you at a disadvantage if you have a lawyer representing your spouse. It can also be an issue if there are complex issues like custody, relocation or complex assets which need to be divided.

You do have some options if you cannot afford an attorney.

First, you may be able to obtain a lawyer pro bono. Depending on your income and assets, you may be eligible for free or low-cost attorney services from Legal Services. You can find out if you qualify by contacting Legal Services.

You may also be able to obtain assistance from a law school law clinic. Rutgers Law, Seton Hall School of Law and other law schools often have legal clinics where students can represent clients in certain cases. You can contact your local law school to see if they have such services available and what are the qualifications.

Another option available is unbundled or limited scope legal services.

Unbundled(limited scope) legal services are services where a client hires an attorney to assist with specific elements of their case. This may include services such as: drafting of pleadings, legal advice, document review or limited appearance in court. The client and attorney determine which specific services the attorney will provide and for the remainder of the case the client represents him/herself.

For clients who have limited means but do not qualify for legal services, unbundled services may be a viable option. Unbundled services can be the right fit for someone who is comfortable advocating for his/herself but needs some help with drafting documents or just needs some advice. For those clients who are not comfortable speaking for themselves, need more assistance or who have complex issues to resolve they should consider other options.

Some clients can handle their divorce on their own. They may not have complex issues. Maybe the couple is able to resolve all of their differences and they are able to come up with the agreement on their own. There is nothing stopping them from representing themselves. Some clients do ok without an attorney. But some are not.

Before you decide that you cannot afford a lawyer in your divorce, you should consider all of your options.

You may not be able to afford to divorce without a lawyer.