Is the $399 Divorce for Real?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —I learned for certain that my marriage was on its way to extinction when I came across a memo to my husband referring to his recent contract with one of New York City’s most infamous divorce attorneys. After picking myself up off the floor, I figured I had no choice but to fight fire with fire and hire the best (read: most expensive) lawyer I could afford.

After two years of negotiations and the better part of a five-figure legal retainer, I still wasn’t divorced yet. What was I getting exactly, that wouldn’t be available for say, $399, as the shop front in my neighborhood advertised?

A few weeks ago, I made a visit to find out. I introduced myself to Anna Soriano of Segarra Brokerage, who has been handling divorces for 20 years out of her small storefront on Smith Street in Brooklyn. As I sat down at her desk to get the scoop, she assured me that she had never had a problem in her two decades of practice.

My first question: “$399 for real?” Not exactly, it turns out. That’s just the fee for legal- document preparation (divorce attorneys call it “data input”). Two more payments are required to cover court fees. When I ask how much, Soriano had to excuse herself to go check the small print on the ad in the window. All told, it would cost me $734. If you think that is a lot to pay someone to handle, file and process a bunch of forms, take a look at the cash I had shelled out.

In any event, as my new divorce acquaintance explained it, she and I fill out the application together, then she takes my check for $399 and sends it in to “the agency” (divorce attorneys call it “divorce mill”), where they submit it to the court for an index number that gets assigned to my case. That number is sent directly to me along with a fat packet of forms and documents. I fill those out (Soriano offered to help me if I needed) and submit those to the court. “Then,” Soriano tells me, “it's up to the judges.” The first step takes about two weeks, she tells me, “but then the courts can drag it out for two or three months.” Still beats two or three years.

Somewhere in there, my spouse will have to be served. “Just get a friend or your sister to do it,” Soriano says. I take a moment to imagine my sister ringing my ex’s doorbell. He thinks she is coming to apologize for being rude on their last phone exchange, but instead she hands him a big fat envelope. It is hard to see how this will ease family tensions in the future. Which brings me to my next question: What about the kids? If you don't have kids, according to Soriano, you just need to wait 45 days for a spouse to respond. If the spouse doesn't, Soriano says, everything is in order.

With kids, and it turns out, with assets of almost any size, it’s a whole different story. Unless I’m prepared to spend months in family court, and unless my spouse and I are in perfect agreement about how to decide who gets what share of our joint assets (and which assets are joint for that matter?), I’m better off sticking with my attorney.

The catch is that the storefront divorce fee covers the administrative paper work for an uncontested divorce, explains lawyer Ani Mason of Kathryn Eisold Miller Associates in New Rochelle, NY. “Uncontested divorce doesn’t just mean that you both agree on wanting to divorce,” says Mason, “but that you agree on every single legally relevant issue.” Aside from the fact that many of the storefront operations accept what lawyers call “sewer service” (so called because the documents “dropped into the sewer” instead of ending up in the hands of the person being served) rendering the divorce decree invalid, these agreements leave both parties highly unlikely to get what the law says they deserve.

As a spouse for a given period of time, you have entitlements under the law that you will likely need a lawyer to ferret out. For instance, the retirement account is in your spouse’s name, but you may well be entitled to half of it; the same goes with assets of a startup company or even an inherited property that was improved over the years with marital assets. For these reasons, it makes sense to spend more than $734 and get yourself some representation. Does this mean you absolutely must slap down the $15-25,000 retainer fee for a divorce litigation attorney?

Generally, it depends upon the following:

  • Kids. Count on them to increase the cost of divorce exponentially. The courts are adamant that provisions be made for the kids' care and protection. Usually this translates into child support. More time and thoroughness goes into negotiating issues of custody—physical and legal—as well as education and health care etc.
  • Property. The degree of wealth you and your spouse have: generally, the greater the assets, the higher the cost to divide them.
  • Acrimony. Your potential to save money in the divorce process corresponds at some level to you and your spouse’s ability to communicate effectively. Begin with the fact that if communications were ideal, you wouldn’t be divorcing in the first place, and then be aware of how anger, bitterness and resentment increase the need for buffers and referees in various arenas.
  • Elise Pettus is the founder of UNtied, a website for women navigating separation and divorce. Check out the site's free monthly info and events.

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