How to Afford a Divorce When You Have No Money

Many people feel that they simply can't afford a divorce because they don't have any savings and can't afford to hire a lawyer. 

by | Answers by Brette Sember, J.D.

So what can you do if you feel trapped in your marriage due to your finances? There are ways to get a divorce, even if your funds are limited. You can use legal aid services or pro bono lawyers. Some people even choose to do their own divorce. There are other options to consider as well, as explained by the legal expert below:

FAQS on How to Afford a Divorce

How can I afford a divorce if he controls all the money?

Erin: I've been married for 13 years and am the mother of 4 kids under 12. My financial situation has been controlled and destroyed by my husband for many years and I have no money. Please let me know what I can do to afford a divorce, or where I can go.

Brette's Answer: There are a few ways to approach this. You can go see an attorney for a free consultation, then work out how you can come up with the money to pay for representation. You may also be able to get your attorney's fees paid by your husband. You can also call your local bar association and ask if there is a volunteer lawyers program or any other free legal aid you could access. Another option is to start custody and support proceedings in family court yourself without an attorney. This will allow you to receive some money on a regular basis from your spouse while you determine how you will file for a divorce. A third choice is to find out if your state has a self-help packet for divorce you could do on your own. Good luck.

How do I get a divorce if I can't afford an attorney?

Lois Asks: After a long-term separation (13+ years), I'm ready to move on with my life. I want to get remarried, but I don't have the money to hire a lawyer to get a divorce. What options I do have?

Brette's Response: You can do a simple uncontested divorce. It's quick and simple. Check your state's court website for forms or go to the court clerk's office. (You can also use an online service like 3Step Divorce to help you complete the forms. Pay only $84 today to get your divorce started with their payment plan).

How do I get a cheap divorce?

Raylene' Question: I was married over ten years ago, but my husband and I were only together for six months. We are still married. How do I get a cheap divorce while living in Georgia?

Brette's Answer: Go to your state's court website and check for information about uncontested divorce. You can likely file yourself.

He wiped out all our accounts so I can't afford a good lawyer.

Jennifer's Question: What if you don't see the divorce coming? What do you do when your husband cleans out the bank account, destroys your credit cards and has taken a lot of things out of the house? When he hires a lawyer that the cheap lawyers you can afford are afraid of? When that same lawyer can seemingly break all of the rules and get away with it? What do you do then?

Brette's Answer: Do not agree to anything and document everything he has taken from the home. Make a list. Take photos of remaining valuable. Make copies of all important documents.

You rely on your family and friends to help you put together cash to hire someone willing to take on the big name attorney. You can sell your wedding ring, hire an attorney who will let you pay in installments, or take out a divorce loan. If that doesn't work, you search high and low for someone who needs work and is willing to take the case on the cheap. Call the bar association for a referral. And if that fails you hold your head up high and go to court yourself.

You've got to have support though - you need people who will help you through this, give you a shoulder to cry on, and will come with you to court.

Are there any services that offer free divorces?

Alexis' Question: After being married for three years to an abusive man, I moved out. He owned everything, and I am left with no money or job and living with my parents again. Is there any services that offer free divorces?

Brette's Answer: Call your local bar association and ask them to refer you to a low cost or no cost legal services program in your area. You could also obtain the pro se (which means "representing yourself") packet from your court and handle the divorce yourself. This works best if the two of you can agree on how to divide your assets and debts.

Is there such a thing as a hardship divorce?

Brooke's Question: I need to obtain a divorce, but have no money to pay a lawyer. Is there such a thing as a hardship divorce?

Brette's Answer: There are a few options. You can represent yourself and file for a divorce yourself. You can access forms through the state's court website or at the court clerk's office. These should include a form to have fees waived due to financial circumstances. You fill out documents about your financial situation and ask the court to waive the fees. You can also ask that your spouse be required to pay the fees. Talk to the county clerk. Good luck.

How can I get a cost efficient, expedited divorce in Hawaii?

Lori's Question: I live in Hawaii and have been separated for just over 5 years. Have no contact with my would-be-ex. I can't afford a divorce lawyer. We have no assets or kids together. How can I get a cost efficient, expedited LEGAL divorce and can I do this without "him"?

Brette's Answer: You need to check your state laws, but you should be able to file for divorce using online Hawaii court forms. He will have to be served. If he does not respond as required by state law, the case will proceed as uncontested. (Editor's note: You can find Court Forms for each Island at the Hawaii State Judiciary site).

I can't afford a divorce lawyer and I don't qualify for legal aid.

Gloria's Question: I am 55 years old, disabled, and need a lawyer for a divorce. The problem is I can't afford a lawyer and legal aid can't help. I have been trying to find a Pro Bono lawyer in my area but haven't been able to. Is there help for women who can't afford a divorce lawyer?

Brette Answers: I am so sorry to hear about your situation and unfortunately it is a common one. There are many, many, many people who do not have the resources to pay an attorney yet do not qualify for legal aid. Call your local or state bar association and ask if there is a volunteer lawyer program in your area. It is very common for attorney to donate a certain amount of their time to a local agency such as this and provide services for those who cannot afford them. If no such program exists, find out who the chair of the matrimonial or family law committee is on the local or state bar and call him or her up and ask if there are any local attorneys available to help people in your kind of situation. If all else fails, you may be able to find someone who can help you work out a payment plan.

What should I consider if I file for divorce online?

Rebecca's Question: I have two children and was wondering if an online divorce is a good idea if everything is uncontested or do you get what you pay for as I've been told by a few attorneys?

Brette's Reply: It's always a good idea to have a lawyer review any paperwork you file. Each state has its own language and requirements and to be absolutely sure you are protected in every way, it's best to pay for a consult at least to have it reviewed.

How can I get help filling out the divorce papers?

Holly's Question: I could not afford a divorce attorney; therefore I am filling out divorce papers myself. I didn't realize the task would be so challenging on just filling out papers. I have no idea what to or how to fill these papers out. Can you help me please?

Brette's Answer: Check your state court web site. Many states have tutorials or information about how to complete the forms. If that doesn't work, you could consider hiring a paralegal service to help you. They cost much less than an attorney. Good luck.

Can I take money out of a joint account before I move out?

Kathy's Question: I want a divorce from my husband, but I have no income. My husband and I have money in the bank. Can I legally withdraw one half of the balance before I move out? He's going to fight me on the divorce and this is the only way I know to get the money for legal fees.

Brette's Answer: It is generally considered acceptable to withdraw half of the funds in a joint account when separating. Good luck.

Selling Property before Filing for Divorce

Shannon asks: Can I sell assets, since we are separated and there has been no divorce filed for? Everything we own is in my name, but acquired during the marriage. Before I file for divorce, can I sell any of these assets to pay for the attorney?

Brette's Answer: Anything you sell would be a marital asset and subject to division. Your attorney would advise you first that you shouldn't sell anything until you have some kind of agreement, and that if you do, you should put the money into a bank account where you don't touch it during the proceedings. However, if you have no other way to pay for an attorney, it would be reasonable to use your portion of those assets to pay for one. (Find out other crucial steps to take before divorce.)

Selling Personal Property before Filing for Divorce

Heather's Question: We haven't filed for a divorce yet, but I need some money to pay for the proceedings. Can I take my guns from the house to sell them for the money?

Brette's Answer: If this is your separate property that you owned before marriage, absolutely. If it was acquired during marriage, it is a marital asset. That doesn't mean you can't sell it, but it does mean that it is likely the value of the items would be deducted from your portion of the remaining property as it is distributed.

Should I get a joint credit card to help pay bills?

Leigh's Question: My husband has financially cut me off, and my sister told me that I should take a credit card out in both of our names so that I can pay for my expenses. I feel this is wrong, but I also feel that he has left me no other choice. How will this look if he takes me to court, and what other options do I have?

Brette's Reply: You can go to court and get an order for temporary spousal and child support which will help you pay your bills. It's also likely the court will order your husband to pay your legal bills. I would not recommend doing anything fraudulent or illegal. Applying for credit in his name would be.

Doesn't he have to pay my legal fees if he files for divorce?

Christine's Question: If my husband petitions for the divorce, does that mean he pays for my legal expenses as well?

Brette's Answer: No not at all. It's possible to request that, but it usually only happens in cases where there is a large financial disparity between the parties or one spouse has done something particularly egregious.

Topic: How to Survive When a Divorce Goes on Forever

Betty's Question: I am 62 and going through a divorce for over a year now. When it started, I had no money because he controlled the finances and I had to use a pro bono lawyer. As it stands, I am living on $430 a month, while he takes trips to Hawaii and buys a new car. His attorney keeps postponing the court date, and I'm having a hard time surviving. Is there something I can do to get this to change?

Brette's Answer: Your attorney should seek an emergency temporary order of spousal support. There is no excuse for this and you should ask that it be done immediately. Good luck.

His lawyer won't send me the papers to sign until he's paid.

Kristen's Question: Our split was a mutual decision and we have no children or assets together, so we had originally planned simply to file paperwork down at the courthouse without lawyers. After meeting someone and getting engaged, my ex felt that hiring a lawyer to handle it would be more efficient than doing it ourselves. Seven months later, he is refusing to pay his lawyer, and his lawyer has said that he won't send me any final papers to sign until he's paid. I really don't want to get stuck paying an $800 bill. Do I have an alternative?

Brette's Answer: You're not responsible for paying his attorney, he is. You can go to the courthouse and find out where the case is at and handle it yourself from this point on.

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