What if I Can't Afford a Lawyer?
How to find and take advantage of free and low-cost legal services.
Preparing for and going through a divorce or custody battle can be a long journey with no shortage of expenses. According to Forbes, the average cost of a divorce ranges from $15,000 to $20,000. For parents dealing with custody, expenses related to a child custody case can be between $3,000 and $40,000.
Although working with an experienced family law attorney usually offers more benefits than drawbacks, these benefits come at a significant cost that can be difficult to manage. Fortunately, multiple resources that are either low-cost or free are available, making legal assistance more accessible to anyone at any income level.
What about my constitutional right to an attorney?
Although it originated from the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, many are familiar with the right to an attorney thanks to the portrayal of a person's Miranda rights in movies and TV shows. Even though this provision is well known, many do not realize that the right to counsel almost never applies to civil cases. For the most part, the Sixth Amendment is exclusively intended for criminal cases.
Since divorce and child custody cases are considered family law matters, people in these cases do not automatically earn the right to counsel. Although provided counsel is not guaranteed, if you are involved in a civil case but can’t afford it, there are various resources available.
5 low-cost options
1. Mediation or arbitration
For parents going through a divorce or custody case, mediation and arbitration are solutions that work outside of the courts, eliminating expenses like court, legal, and attorney's fees. The main difference between the two is that mediation provides a solution that is a suggestion, while arbitration delivers a final decision that is enforceable in a court of law. In both cases, it is almost always less expensive than hiring a lawyer and dealing with litigation in court.
2. Unbundled legal services
If you cannot afford the expected cost of working with a lawyer, you may still be able to get help from one in some capacity for a lower price. Also called limited scope representation, unbundled legal services involve a lawyer providing partial services. A typical example would be someone solely working with a lawyer in court after preparing and filing documents independently. Instead of paying for a full roster of services, clients can pick and pay for the services they need or can afford.
3. Online divorce services
For parents who cannot avoid going to court, dealing with forms and understanding essential processes can take significant time and money. As an alternative to traditional methods, there are several online resources to help couples file for divorce at a lower cost and on a quicker timeline.
Online divorce services often include features like:
- Document preparation
- Mediation sessions
- Filing instructions
- Lawyer consultations
- Fee-splitting options
- Case evaluations
- Name-change services
Although these services can be helpful, they are usually intended for situations where a divorce is uncontested. If parents disagree on critical issues, they will likely need to pursue litigation.
An online divorce service may not be suitable for couples who cannot agree on matters like:
- Custody schedules
- Child support
- Spousal support
- Division of assets
4. Waived or deferred court fees
Even if a parent finds free representation, they may still need assistance to cover fees issued by the court to file their case and appear in court. Each court system has a process for reviewing and granting requests to waive court and filing fees.
To assess an individual's ability to pay fees, the court may request information such as:
- Net income
- Number of dependents
- Income from assistance programs
- Liabilities and debts
If the court assesses that an individual cannot afford the fees, they will dismiss the costs. If the court determines an individual's eventual ability to pay court expenses, they may defer payment or place them on a payment plan. Payment deferment is typically the case when the court anticipates that the person responsible for fees can pay after their case is settled.
5. Co-parenting communication services like TalkingParents
If parents wish to avoid going to court for a custody or divorce case, communication services like TalkingParents can help people stay out of litigation or save thousands in attorney’s fees if they end up in court. By using TalkingParents while preparing for divorce or working through parenting plan modifications, you and your child’s other parent can coordinate everything related to your children in one place. Our service encourages accountability and security, giving co-parents the opportunity to work through disagreements together before pursuing litigation.
If you cannot avoid going to court and choose to work with a lawyer, collecting and sharing the evidence your legal professional needs to represent you in court often takes significant time and effort. With TalkingParents, co-parents can save thousands in attorney's fees and reduce stress by streamlining the evidence-gathering process. Since every interaction is documented on an Unalterable Record that can be shared with a lawyer, mediator, or other third party, collecting evidence is more efficient for both parents and professionals. By collecting and preparing information related to your case in Records, you and your representation can spend less time sifting through and verifying documentation for court.
6 Free legal options
1. Pro bono attorneys
Legal entities throughout the U.S. take on pro bono work, meaning they work with clients at no cost to them. Like legal fee waivers, pro bono work may only be available depending on a potential client's income status. Qualifications may vary between organizations since there is no national standard for who qualifies for pro bono work.
Pro bono lawyers may be available through:
- Law firms
- Individual lawyers
- Volunteer attorney programs
Free lawyer consultations are a variation of pro bono support you can receive. Some attorneys offer a complimentary meeting, usually for potential clients who intend to hire them, to discuss overarching details related to a case.
2. Legal aid societies
Also called legal aid offices, these not-for-profit agencies provide free and low-cost legal help to those who cannot afford a lawyer for civil cases. Legal aid lawyers have the same qualifications and capabilities as standard lawyers but do not charge for their work. There are legal aid offices in every U.S. state and territory, and they should be contacted based on where the case is or will be filed.
3. Bar associations
The American Bar Association (ABA) and associations in all 50 states offer services for those seeking pro bono lawyers. From national to county levels, bar associations have their own legal aid societies that provide services for various case types. Depending on your county or state's association, certain specialties within family law may not be covered in a pro bono program.
A prominent national resource from the ABA is its Free Legal Answers program, which allows people to determine whether they qualify for pro bono work and ask questions to volunteer attorneys. These services are available to anyone pursuing a civil case at no cost.
4. Law schools
Colleges and universities nationwide may offer free legal help and resources in their law schools. Law students are typically required to complete several hours of pro bono service as part of their coursework. Law schools that house programs for law students to provide pro bono services are registered with the ABA.
5. City courthouse resources
Courthouses will occasionally offer in-house resources for those pursuing a divorce. These resources are typically available for uncontested divorces only, if at all, but circumstances may vary depending on your county's specifications. Check with your county's clerk of courts or family court to assess whether these resources are available.
Although some prefer to hire an attorney, representing yourself in court is entirely possible and legal. Also called pro se representation, self-representation is a common alternative many pursue. Although it can be appealing, assessing the demands of representing yourself in court and whether you can do it successfully is crucial.
People considering self-representation should ask themselves these questions before choosing to do so:
- Will I understand how court procedures work before my case goes to court?
- Does the other person in the case have a lawyer?
- Can I learn how to complete and provide the documents necessary to appear in court and present evidence?
- Am I comfortable explaining my case and answering questions from a judge or the other party's counsel?
- Do I have the time, energy, and resources needed to represent myself?
Regardless of whether you can pay for a lawyer, there are various resources and opportunities available to help you through your custody or divorce case. Doing what’s best for you and your children is of the utmost importance, and your best option could be a fraction of what you expected to pay. With these low-cost and free resources, many can access the legal assistance they need without worrying about expenses.