The $500 divorce

Mar 4, 2014 at 8:00 a.m. ET

Divorce is messy and heartbreaking. But if your ex is willing to work with you on the financial implications of divorce, it may not have to destroy your finances.

Woman toying with wedding ring
Photo credit: altrendo images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Deidra** was a stay-at-home mom of three kids when she realized her marriage wasn't going to make it. Needless to say, she was scared to death on many different levels. "I hadn't been in the workforce in years, and I wasn't sure how much my ex would be able to support us. When we started talking to lawyers, I was horrified to find that most divorces cost thousands of dollars. We didn't even have enough money in savings to warrant that kind of expense."

That's when Deidra started thinking and scheming about ways to mitigate the financial fallout of divorce. Thankfully, her ex was willing to think outside of the box with her.

Information gathering

Even though Deidra and her ex couldn't make their marriage work, they both started doing their own research. Deidra called around to several different attorneys and used their free 30-minute consultations to become familiar with the divorce process. She spoke with friends who had been through divorce, and enlisted the knowledge of a good friend who had been a paralegal for years. "I guess I always intended to retain a lawyer for the process, but the more I found out, the more confident I felt that we could actually figure this out for ourselves," she said. "My ex and I weren't getting along well, but when I pitched the idea to him of just doing this on our own, he was agreeable because he didn't have the money for a lawyer, either."

Deidra benefited from the fact that she lived in a state with very straightforward laws about property, custody and child support. The couple had also sold their house prior to separation, so they had an easier time managing their discussions about assets than some couples do.

Filing with the court

"Once I did my research, I learned that I could drive myself down to the county courthouse and pay the divorce filing fee for about $350, at which point my state required a waiting period. A lot of lawyers and mediators charge for this service, but I brought my own cash and paperwork to the courthouse so I could save money," Deidra said. Her ex was already aware of her plans to file, so he wasn't served. He submitted his own paperwork, free of cost, during the state's waiting period.

Mediating complex disagreements

During their waiting period, she and her ex hammered out their divorce agreements. "It was a little tricky at first, because we were obviously getting a divorce due to our problems and disagreements. Money was a big motivator, though. Neither of us had the money to approach negotiations differently than we did." Both Deidra and her ex prepared their lists of request and demands, and then sat down at a local restaurant to come to an agreement on custody, assets, child support and a parenting plan.

But what happened when they couldn't reach an agreement? "We spent $120 on an hour and a half with a counselor who also specialized in mediation," Deidra said. "During that meeting, we weren't allowed to be hostile toward each other. If we had dragged out our anger, then we just would have been charged more money prior to coming to an agreement." Once they mediated the hot-button issues in their divorce, the two sat down to develop their decree. At the end of the waiting period, they filed the decree with the court.

A cause for celebration

At that point, it was done. Deidra was out of her bad marriage, and she and her ex had actually worked together in a way that created a foundation for successful co-parenting. But if the $350 court fee and the $120 mediation fee only equals $470, what did she use the other $30 for? "I had a professional mini-photography session with me and my children so we could commemorate our new lives!"

So there you have it: a $500 divorce. Deidra is now working full time, without carrying the burden of divorce debt.

Words of caution

Deidra's situation was unique, in that she and her spouse were able to treat each other respectfully during the process. They also had limited assets to fight over. If you have any concerns about physical or emotional abuse, manipulation or deceit, or if your property and assets are complex, it is wise to retain a lawyer or mediator to help you.

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**name changed