Getting a divorce is a big-ticket expense that some Canadians are delaying as they wrestle with high interest rates and a rising cost of living.
Instead of seeking legal advice, people on a constrained budget often go with other options, according to Melissa Bourgeois, a family lawyer with One Family Law in Edmonton.
“The practical reality is that many families don’t have very much money leftover each month to then be able to pay lawyer fees, so they either postpone or seek non-lawyer service alternatives to try to move forward,” Ms. Bourgeois said.
“What we see happening now is people seeking out what they think will be cheaper alternatives to lawyers to help assist them, which oftentimes ends up putting them at risk as they navigate the complexities of the legal system.”
Indeed, financial planners and lawyers warn that delaying a divorce could lead to more conflict and higher expenses down the road.
Divorce is typically an expensive legal action. Legal fees can reach roughly a couple thousand dollars when using lawyers for a fairly simple uncontested divorce, in which both sides agree upon terms such as child care, spousal support and other financial aspects of a split. The cost of contested divorces, in which lawyers are used by either side to settle disputes, can quickly balloon into tens of thousands of dollars.
Clay Gillespie, a certified financial planner and managing director of RGF Integrated Wealth Management, has seen his client’s divorce fees climb to more than $50,000 in some of the most expensive – and contentious – splits. But he said putting off a divorce to a later date, or delaying seeking advice and attempting to decipher a tricky legal system yourself, can lead to misunderstandings that turn into expensive disagreements.
It’s a concern echoed by Kevin Caspersz, a partner and co-founder of Caspersz Chegini LLP.
“The problem comes when you don’t do it right the first time. One party is unsatisfied, the agreement is ambiguous or it’s not executed properly and can be overturned. Now it’ll cost more to clean up that situation and that’s where you’ll find inflated legal fees,” he said.
Approaching the paperwork without an understanding of your rights can lead to couples suddenly realizing there are terms they don’t agree on.
“There’s so much misinformation out there that you have parties that may believe one thing, conduct themselves to try and resolve their matter on those beliefs, and then later find out that they could’ve pursued spousal support or that they were entitled to a piece of property,” Mr. Caspersz said.
Ms. Bourgeois recommends seeking legal help for even simple divorce cases. She says lawyers will charge around $2,500 for basic assistance with completing documents.
Mr. Caspersz says a great way to start out the process is to take advantage of the free initial consultations that many divorce lawyers offer. They can at least help you understand whether issues could arise, or whether your scenario is a relatively simple one.
For couples who are using separate divorce lawyers, Ms. Bourgeois said it’s imperative to try and talk to your partner about aspects of the separation that you both may already agree on: how you want the children to be raised, or what your first ideas are about how to split the financials.
“Really consider that yourself before giving it up to a lawyer to think for you. … Then it becomes your own dynamic that you are actively participating in creating,” said Ms. Bourgeois, who adds that it can help eliminate unnecessary animosity.
Mr. Gillespie has given similar advice as a financial advisor: The most expensive divorces are the most emotional and combative ones.
“The more you try to win a divorce, the more you’ll spend,” he said. “You need to go in with the mindset that both parties will win.”
The most successful divorces he sees are mediated ones, in which one neutral professional helps guide both parties to reach an agreement around financial issues they might have disagreements around.
Mr. Gillespie has seen his clients pay around $5,000 to complete a divorce through this avenue. Generally, these situations are not done by legal professionals to avoid conflict-of-interest issues.
Recently, Ms. Bourgeois became the first lawyer in Canada allowed to represent both sides in a low-conflict divorce, as part of a pilot program with the Law Society of Alberta. She charges a flat fee of $5,000, and the process can take just weeks instead of regular procedures that often take months to finalize.
“This concept starts with, they are amicable, they are wanting to address this together and trusting one another to hire one lawyer who’ll give them impartial advice,” Ms. Bourgeois said.
Mediation is a different thing, she explained, because it’s still a process in which both sides are seen as opposing parties and can receive separate advice from a mediator.
“But not all clients are in an active dispute or opposing one another. … It’s about providing them the information for them to advocate for themselves because they’re the ones who understand their family dynamic.”
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