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How Can I Save Money On My Divorce?

Six sound strategies to bring costs down.
By Kirsten Fogg
An illustration of a woman handing a man a piece of paper (Illustration: iStock)

When author Angie Abdou was heading into her second divorce after two children and 18 years of marriage, she thought she had everything under control. The Fernie, B.C. resident knew it would be emotionally exhausting and that her lawyer would charge her in six-minute blocks for every phone call and email. What she didn’t know was how to cap her mounting pile of legal fees.

“There was so much upheaval and uncertainty that the constant legal bills were incredibly stressful,” said Abdou, who finalized her separation amicably in December. “It seemed like every time the lawyer looked in my direction, I’d get another bill."

Legal fees—usually the largest cost associated with divorce—can run as high as $700 or more an hour, plus tax. That’s like going out for a nice dinner every six minutes.

Practicalities may be the last thing you want to consider when you’re distraught, but if you put as much research into ending your marriage as you likely did planning your wedding, you can slash costs. With more women initiating divorce than men and about 40 percent of marriages in Canada failing, it’s key to be informed.

Oh, and thinking of writing your own separation agreement to cut costs? Don’t—it may not be legally binding. Instead, here are six sounder strategies for saving money on your divorce.

Your first call? Your financial planner

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Even before you decide to separate, turn to a financial planner. (If you don’t have one, ask your financial institution whether it offers free planning services.)

“We can reduce costs by helping clients with financial disclosure,” says Caroline Dabu, who leads a wealth planning and advisory team at BMO Private Wealth in Toronto. While financial or wealth planners can’t offer official tax or legal advice, they can outline your options, help compile financial documents and put you in touch with experts like accountants, lawyers or Certified Divorce Financial Analysts (who analyze assets, debt and taxes for an equitable settlement). They can also run financial projections for potential divorce outcomes. “This knowledge is empowering,” says Dabu.

Explore the wide range of other professionals who can help

Divorce doesn’t have to be expensive. Working exclusively with a lawyer isn’t your only option; there is a range of more affordable experts and services available to help you throughout the process.

Certified divorce coaches will walk you through everything from finances to parenting plans, so it’s best to start looking for one before you separate (that said, most divorce coaches will work with you at any stage of the process). Each coach has a different fee structure and rates vary widely. Some charge hourly or offer specific packages. For example, Cindy Stibbard, a CDC based in British Columbia, charges a flat fee that ranges from $2,000 to $6,000 for three to 12 months of service, depending on the level of support needed and where the client is in the process.

LegalShield, available in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, is a company that links members to a roster of law firms for a low monthly fee. Its legal partners can help you with anything from document reviews to representation. You need to be a member for 90 days before you can access legal services for an uncontested separation, divorce or civil annulment, and your net material assets must be less than $500,000.

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Qualified mediators work with couples to resolve disputes quickly and draft documents. A properly drafted mediation agreement that is signed, dated and witnessed is a legally binding document, but each party should have it reviewed by an independent divorce lawyer before signing.

Some law firms offer unbundled services, which allow the client and the firm to decide which specific tasks the lawyer will handle so the client avoids a hefty retainer and can allocate other services to lower cost professionals. Others provide mediation as well as collaborative solutions to resolve issues out of court. In fact, the federal Divorce Act now requires lawyers to encourage clients to resolve matters through processes like mediation or collaborative law, which are cheaper and faster than court.

Some provincial and territorial governments offer other free services in addition to legal aid. Quebec, for example, provides free mediation sessions to separating couples with children, Alberta offers free family mediation to couples who meet certain criteria, and the Law Society of Ontario has free 30-minute phone consultations.

Always take a cooling-off period

Taking a cooling-off period—an informal, mutually agreed upon period of time before starting paperwork and negotiations—is a great way to cut costs: this break will help you focus on what’s important, make compromises and avoid a contested divorce (the average cost for which is a whopping $21,000, 10 times the cost of an uncontested one, according to a 2021 survey by Canadian Lawyer magazine).

“The number one thing that gets in the way of amicable divorce is emotion,” says Stibbard, who hosts the podcast Divorce ReDefined. “Unhooking emotions from the business of divorce helps you make rational decisions.”

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Maya Teleki, a Canadian living in the U.S. whose children were young teens when she left her marriage of 17 years, says the 18-month cooling-off period she took before starting paperwork kept negotiations amicable and affordable. Because emotions weren’t so “raw and fresh” both she and her ex-husband, who live in Chicago, could agree “to use a peacekeeping, conflict-avoidance, collaborative mindset.”

Abdou also took breaks during her separation to digest emotional information, remind herself she wouldn’t get everything she wanted and remain reasonable. “Normally I’m pretty reactive and you just can’t be when so much is at stake,” she says.

Both Teleki and Abdou prioritized their children and tried to detach from material items to keep negotiations rolling and rein in costs. Jennifer Hurvitz, a relationship expert and the host of Doing Relationships Right podcast, says she and her ex-husband deliberately tried to avoid saying things like “you want” during heated financial debates and instead used their sons' names, saying “Jonah needs” or "Zac needs" to help them refocus the conversation and stop costs from spiralling.

Create an emotional support system

When you’re upset, don’t call your lawyer or try to negotiate with your partner, send them angry text messages, or post disparagingly about them on social media because it could be used as evidence against you later. Instead, call a friend, hire a therapist or join Circles, which offers small online support groups for people going through divorce or separation, led by experienced facilitators for a monthly fee.

Don’t hire the first lawyer you meet

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“Never underestimate the importance of fit,” says Diana Isaac, a partner at Shulman & Partners LLP in Toronto. Research and interview lawyers to find one who aligns with your communication style and objectives (for instance, if it's important to you to remain non-combative with your ex, you'll want a lawyer who has a similar approach). You also need a lawyer who “shows they’re actively listening and understands your case,” says Isaac. This meeting of minds will save you hours in legal fees.

Keep documents organized and use your experts strategically

Contrary to popular belief, lawyers don’t want to deplete your savings or max out your credit. Fees creep up when people aren’t organized, says Isaac, who works on hundreds of divorces a year. You can trim fees by providing material in the format requested, grouping documents rather than sending them piecemeal and sending questions to a legal assistant or clerk first because they charge lower hourly rates. (If they can’t answer your question, they’ll pass it on to the lawyer.)

“Allocate your resources based on their expertise and be honest and candid with them” about everything, says Isaac. Use your financial planner or accountant for financial advice, your lawyer for legal advice and your support network for emotional help.

Pulling in experts and lawyers strategically may seem overwhelming but it’s a “game changer,” says Stibbard, who became a divorce coach after she learned to do this and spent a third of the amount her former spouse did on their 2018 divorce.

“This process is not a win or lose situation,” Isaac says. It’s about being “reasonable, fair and equitable.”

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