Divorce--The Best and Worst Kinds of Help

by Ed Sherman

Since I founded Nolo Press in 1971 with the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, millions of people have successfully done their own divorces without retaining lawyers. Doing your own divorce does not mean you can't get help, but there is a big difference in the kinds of help that are available.

Friends, relatives and "common knowledge" are the worst and most expensive sources of legal advice. Use friends for moral support, but when they give you advice, just say, "thank you," but do not take it seriously without checking with a reliable source. If you didn't get it from a current Nolo book or a family law specialist attorney, don't trust it! Just because you like or trust someone doesn't make them right. Bad advice can cost you dearly—perhaps for the rest of your life.

Lawyers who specialize in divorce know a lot, but because of the way the system works and the way lawyers work, they will almost certainly cause you unnecessary conflict and expense. Do not retain an attorney unless there's no other choice. Getting information and advice from attorneys is tricky, too, because they don't want to help you help yourself; they want to take your case and represent you.

Attorneys will frequently do the first interview for a fairly small fee, but too often they spend that time convincing you that you need them to handle your case. Hourly rates can run over $400, but $190 - $250 per hour is average. Most attorneys require a retainer, about $5,000 is typical, but the amount doesn't matter because the final bill will almost certainly be much higher. Few attorneys will give a fixed figure for the whole job. You are doing very well if you end up spending less than $2,500 per spouse on the simplest case; the average in Los Angeles and Orange counties in California when both spouses are represented is over $18,000 per spouse!

Help for Californians

Legal Document Assistants (LDAs) used to call themselves "paralegals" but that was changed by California law in 2000. LDAs act, basically, as a typing service for people doing their own divorces. You can tell them exactly what you want and they type up the forms and handle the secretarial work. I introduced this innovative service in 1972 and LDAs have since changed the face of the legal map. Their rates are generally $300 to $800 for doing your basic paperwork.

It's very important to understand the limitations of LDAs. Some are trained, but no training is required—anyone can do it. You can't get reliable legal advice from LDAs. There are many good ones out there, but be careful who you hire. Ask how long they've been in business and be sure to check references. If you know exactly what you want and have no legal questions, no problems, and no marital settlement agreement beyond the one in How to Do Your Own Divorce in California, then using an experienced and reliable LDA is a very good way to get your paperwork done.

Divorce Helpline was created to change the way attorneys practice in divorce cases, to provide expert support for people who are doing their own divorces. Divorce Helpline attorneys work exclusively on solving problems and settling divorces. We will not litigate or represent people—we don't believe in it. Instead, we serve as your guide and assistant. Divorce Helpline attorneys are trained in mediation and communication, and are good at solving problems in a practical way. We have to be, because unlike other attorneys, we earn less if you can't settle your case. If you can't settle, we refer you to a litigating attorney in your area and give a refund for any work not completed due to your unresolved conflict.

Divorce Helpline can do a much better job for you when we do the whole case—the paperwork and the marital settlement agreement—as well as giving you advice. That way we have all the information, not just the small bit you are asking about. When we do the whole case, we often find issues, problems to solve and ways to save money that people didn't know to ask about. If you are using mediation and arbitration, Divorce Helpline does that too. Divorce Helpline attorneys charge $1,995 for a complete divorce package, which includes an attorney-drafted marital settlement agreement. If you use a lot of counseling and other services, it is possible to run up a bill as high as $2,500—your total cost for both spouses, but the higher cost is not typical.

Now that you know the best and worst kinds of help for your divorce, here are some more articles that will help you have the best divorce possible:

What Divorce is Really About
Divorce--Obstacles to Agreement
Divorce--Overcoming Obstacles to Agreement
Divorce--Negotiating Agreement
Divorce--Ten Ways to Divide Property Without a Fight
Divorce--When the Date of Separation Matters
Divorce--How to Protect Your Children


Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, divorce expert, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. With more than a million books sold, Ed has saved the public billions of dollars in legal fees while making divorce go more smoothly and easily for millions of readers. You can order his books from www.nolodivorce.com or by calling (800) 464-5502.