Getting what you pay for: When your low-cost divorce is a false economy

Contributed by Dianne Millen, 13 April, 2018

Who doesn't love a bargain? Whether it's a hotel and flight package deal, duty-free perfume, or a buy-one-get-one-free on your favourite brand of washing powder, advertisers know that we like to think we're getting the most for our money. And why not, when everything seems to be getting more expensive by the day?

There are times, though, when what looks like a great deal is really a false economy. One of those times is if you're separating from your spouse – particularly if you're a UK expat, with all the practical and legal complications this can involve.

There's no doubt that splitting up can be expensive. UK insurer Aviva estimates that the total amount spent in the UK in 2017 on "separation expenses" (that's not just legal fees, but all the costs of a split) was a cool £1.7 billion. And that doesn't even include the extra expenses for expats such as flight and accommodation costs to see your kids during the holidays, or relocation costs if you end up coming home.

It all mounts up. So it can be tempting to look for the cheapest option available when you need a divorce lawyer, especially when you read about celebs like Gary Lineker and Jamie Redknapp getting "quickie divorces" for a minimal fee – and companies like the Co-op are offering off-the-shelf online divorces for £99 from the supermarket.

If all you need to do is fill out some forms to get a divorce, why pay a divorce lawyer over the odds to do it for you?

The problem is, the divorce itself is only part of the story. So-called "quickie" divorces usually aren't quick at all. Divorce itself is just one small part (legally speaking) of a lengthy process in which the couple decide how to divide their assets and pay any maintenance before legally ending their marriage. In Scotland, the couple's financial obligations to each other come to an end once divorce is granted. In England, a separate court order is needed to bring an end to those financial obligations, so you can be divorced while still having ongoing financial claims (a process that could last months or even years).

However, in most cases, whether you are in Scotland or England, you only get one shot at sorting those financial claims – so it's vitally important to get it right first time. That means being sure you know what the matrimonial assets are, what they're worth, and what the law says you're entitled to claim as your fair share – not always as straightforward as it sounds. Ideally, you will be able to negotiate a deal which is fair to both of you, and which is legally binding, but if that's not possible you may need to ask a judge to decide.

Getting good advice on this process is even more important for expats, given that your financial affairs are probably more complicated. If you live and work abroad you can usually still divorce in the UK (although you should check out your local options, too, in case they're more favourable) but you will still need to work out a financial deal. If your spouse is not cooperating, you may need to investigate the financial position. That can be complicated in countries which don't maintain public financial records the way we do in the UK. And once you've identified an asset, it needs to be valued by someone with local expertise, and the documentation translated if necessary.

There are other, non-financial, complications. If you have children, you'll need to agree where they will live and be educated and how often the other parent will see them. If the separation affects your immigration status, you need to understand your options urgently, particularly if you might have to return home.

Generally speaking, a firm which is offering a rock-bottom price to handle your divorce won't be able to take the time to investigate all of this in any detail. They are unlikely to spot any dodgy dealings by your spouse, nor will they check out any novel legal arguments you might be able to use to boost the value of your deal. In some cases, most of the work on your file may be done by someone who isn't even a qualified lawyer at all.

A low-cost divorce provider can help you fill out the court forms for the divorce. But the thing that takes the time and expertise is the financial deal, not the formalities of the divorce. If your spouse isn't being 100% open and fair with you, you could end up with a deal that is well short of what the law would have entitled you to claim. Even if you and your spouse have already reached a deal directly, it's best to run it past a lawyer before you sign anything – you could be selling yourself short.

Even if you don't want a lawyer to advise you on the deal, paying one to translate your own agreement into a proper and legally binding format is also well worth paying for. Although the terms you have agreed might sound practical and sensible, turning them into a binding written contract isn't as easy as it looks. Many couples have fallen foul of using an online document template, or copying bits out of an agreement drawn up by a lawyer for a friend's divorce – then found out that they can't actually enforce the deal when things took a difficult turn. If the divorce agreement you've done on your own is effectively not worth the paper it's written on, was that really a bargain worth having?

The really bad news is that if you find out, long after you are divorced, that the agreement you reached gave you less than you were entitled to claim, your options for doing something about that are limited (at least in Scotland). Either side of the border, it's virtually certain that fixing this, if you can, will cost you a lot more in legal fees than you would have spent doing things properly in the first place.

None of this is to say you should be writing a divorce lawyer a blank cheque. You're entitled to know what you're being charged for, and to have the costs made clear. When your relationship breaks down, saving money can become even more important. But any international divorce requires specialist expertise – and hunting for a bargain could end up costing you dear in the long run.

Dianne Millen is a senior family law solicitor with Morton Fraser LLP, a firm with expertise in advising on international divorce and litigating in both England/Wales and Scotland.

Tags: individuals | Scotland | court | law | services | fees |



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