Most people find they do not want to go through a divorce without an attorney, particularly those mired in contentious cases.  Yet, in these difficult economic times, they do not want to pay massive legal bills.   There are things that clients can usually do to help control their legal costs.  These are my top five:

1.  Be Proactive.  Be your own detective.  Your divorce attorney will need a great deal of financial information about you and your spouse in order to properly prepare your case and give you advice.  If the attorney has to request this information from other sources, such as your spouse’s attorney, financial institutions and employers, it becomes very time-consuming and expensive.  The more documents you can uncover on your own and provide to your attorney, the better.

2. Be Patiently Organized.  Calling or emailing your attorney immediately with every question that pops into your mind may instantly put your mind at ease, but will likely end up costing you in the long run.  For non-emergency situations, I recommend that clients keep a running list of questions and concerns to bring forward during a phone call or office conference. 

3.  Choose Your Battles Wisely.  As a general rule, the more issues in dispute, the more costly and time-consuming the case becomes.  Think carefully about what is really important to you, and where you want to focus the greatest amount of resources.  For example, rather than fighting over the Tupperware, wouldn’t you rather make sure you get a fair share of your spouse’s 401(k)? 

4.  Cooperate With Your Attorney.  If your attorney asks you for information, provide it.  If your attorney wants to see you, make an appointment.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but often people who do not want to be divorced will try to avoid the entire process.  This can be a mistake for several reasons.  Most importantly (for purposes of this post), valuable resources may be wasted by your attorney trying to pin you down, rather than actually making progress on the substantive issues in your case.

5.  Be On Your Best Behavior.  This is not the time to get a drunken driving ticket, sell your snowmobile to your best friend, or bring your new boyfriend/girlfriend to the dance recital.  Follow your court orders, and don’t give your spouse and/or spouse’s attorney any new ammunition which can be used to fire off a nasty letter, or even worse, schedule additional court proceedings, thereby raising your legal fees and increasing your heartache in the process.

While these tips are usually quite effective, your attorney can advise you on the best ways to save legal fees in your particular case.

Rising unemployment means that many people are unable to meet their court-ordered obligations.   Recently, The New York Times published an article about the effect of the economic downturn on child support payments. 

In Wisconsin, either parent (the recipient or the payor) may request that the Court review a child support order upon a showing of a substantial change in circumstances.  This means that something significant must occur with respect to the financial situation of either parent in order for the Court to revisit the issue.  The law presumes that a substantial change in circumstances occurred if more than 33 months have passed since the most recent revision of a child support order.

If the parents agree that the child support should be modified, that agreement can and should be made into an enforceable court order.  If the parents do not agree, then the party requesting the change must file a formal motion with the court requesting the change.  Then, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether or not there has been a substantial change in circumstances, and if so, whether or not the support order should be changed.

It is important to note that in the vast majority of circumstances, a Wisconsin Court is not allowed to make retroactive revisions to a child support obligation.  Therefore, time is of the essence if a parent believes he or she is entitled to a change in the support obligation.

Financial problems are at the root of many disagreements between couples, and divorce is difficult to face at any time in one’s life.  However, the recession brings money worries to the forefront of issues in nearly every marital breakup.  In these tough economic times, there are many issues to consider if you are contemplating divorce. 

Declining Market Value.  In a Wisconsin divorce, the Court has the authority to divide your assets and liabilities.  However, declining real estate and other investment values means that there is less of a pie to divide.  Most people have less today than they had even a few short weeks ago.   Unfortunately, many families are “upside down” on their homes — often the single biggest asset in the estate.  It is critical to properly identify, value and divide all assets (and debts) in order to achieve an equitable division of the marital estate.   I encourage anyone in this situation to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer.

Rising Unemployment.   The rising numbers of the jobless has drastic economic implications for divorcing families.  Child support and maintenance (alimony) are based largely on the parties’ incomes.  Even the still-employed are grappling with the effects of reduced or eliminated overtime work, cuts in hours, wage freezes and the like.   Diminished income results in less pie to share among members of the family.  If there is little to no money available, there is often little to no economic support to the spouse and children.  As a result, many couples literally cannot afford to separate under these conditions.

A Silver Lining.  The surprising upside for those divorcing in this economic downturn is that if they are working less, they are typically more available to parent their children.  Wisconsin law allows the courts to consider parents’ work schedules and availability to care for their children when deciding upon physical placement arrangements.  Being around early in the morning, during the day while the other parent works, after school, in the evening and on weekends can all translate into more quality time with your children.  In a time when all news seems bad, that is something to smile about.