What If I Can't Afford a Divorce Attorney?

What If I Can’t Afford a Divorce Attorney?

Divorce is undeniably a challenging, stressful, and costly process. Many divorce attorneys demand substantial initial retainers ranging from $2,000 to $20,000. They also charge high hourly billing rates spanning from $300 to $950. As if ending your marriage, dividing assets, and raising your children as coparents weren’t enough to bear, the financial burden of affording a divorce can be an enormous source of anxiety. So, when faced with the inability to afford a divorce attorney, what steps can you take to navigate this difficult situation?

Do I Need a Divorce Attorney?

First, it’s essential to assess whether you truly need an attorney. You may not require an attorney if you and your spouse are on amicable terms and have little or no assets, no debt, no children. This is especially true if you have been married for a short time.

Uncontested divorces, where both parties ultimately agree on all aspects of their settlement, tend to proceed faster. This is because a judge does not need to get involved. If you’ve evaluated the situation and believe your spouse won’t contest most of the divorce terms, you may not need an attorney. You may be able to file the documents at your local courthouse or use an online-divorce service.

But wait.  Chances are you did not go to law school and that you’ve never been divorced before. Before you start negotiating things or splitting assets, please get objective feedback on your situation first. As a starter, we recommend you begin your education by talking to a divorce coach. Many divorce coaches will speak with you for free in an initial consultation. In this meeting you will learn basics about your story, what your next steps might be, and what is and is not doable. 

If you cannot find a divorce coach to speak with for free (which is very unlikely; you need only google “divorce coach” and you will find pages of them), then we urge you to schedule with a divorce attorney to hear how the law in your state would view your situation. Even if you cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent you in the case, we strongly encourage you to seek at least one consultation with a divorce attorney so that you have advance knowledge and protection regarding legal and financial issues.

Check out “How to Find a Good Divorce Attorney”.

You should be aware, too, that hiring a divorce attorney may become necessary if you and your spouse cannot agree on terms, and your divorce becomes “contested”. Or, you may need representation when your spouse has legal representation and you feel unheard.

Remember that not being able to afford a private boutique divorce attorney on your own doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to proper representation.

Exploring Affordable Legal Options During Divorce

Attorneys can be expensive and there’s no need to feel ashamed if you can’t afford one right now. Take the time to sit down, budget your expenses, and determine what money you can set aside to pay for future court costs. Once you’ve established your financial situation, you can begin exploring your options.

One option is using disgorgement, wherein your spouse may be required to pay for your attorney fees. Alternatively, consider finding an attorney who can provide you with limited-scope representation on the major issues of your divorce and allow you to handle the undisputed issues on your own without extra costs. Finally, you can consider hiring a novice attorney with lower billing rates or seeking assistance from Legal Aid, where your case may be handled at low cost or free. It’s important to know that you are not alone, and, even with limited financial means, there are avenues to secure adequate legal support during this challenging time.

  1. Disgorgement: Can I Get My Spouse to Pay for My Attorney?

    In certain situations, your spouse may be the primary income earner for your household, and you might be concerned that they could afford an expensive attorney, leaving you without sufficient means. However, various Marriage Acts, including the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, aim to “level the playing field” by allowing one spouse to request the other spouse to cover some or all of their attorney’s fees. To explore this possibility in your state, you can begin by scheduling an initial consultation with an attorney. Many attorneys offer initial consultations either for free or at a reduced cost. During the consultation, you can share your financial circumstances with the attorney and inquire about the possibility of seeking disgorgement or petitioning the court for your spouse to contribute to your attorney’s fees.

    Check out “The Truth About Divorce for Women.”

    Before moving forward, it’s crucial to discuss with the attorney the precise payments you will need to make and what responsibilities your spouse would have if you choose to hire the attorney. The Court will consider several factors when determining whether to order your spouse to cover your attorney’s fees, including both parties’ earning capacities, current income, and financial situation, as well as any property or assets each party possesses. Following this assessment, the Court will decide whether you are genuinely unable to afford your attorney’s fees and if your spouse has the financial capacity to cover them.

    While disgorgement may not be feasible for everyone and might not completely cover your attorney’s costs, it is certainly worth exploring. However, if disgorgement is not suitable for your situation, there are still other alternatives available to secure proper legal representation. Don’t lose hope; you will find a way to navigate through this challenging time.

  2. Limited-Scope Representation

    Another option worth considering is hiring an attorney solely to focus on the complex issues of your case. For instance, if you and your spouse agree on all terms except child custody or parenting time, you can inform potential attorneys that you’d like to engage them for limited-scope representation, specifically to address matters related to your children.

    Check out “Child Support: Five Things Mothers Must Know.”

    In this arrangement, you would be responsible for handling any other issues that arise with your spouse, such as property division or maintenance, while your attorney concentrates on child-related matters. It’s essential to keep in mind that most attorneys bill for every call or email, so be mindful of communication to avoid unnecessary costs. Make sure that when you contact your attorney it’s about something important and relevant to what they are representing you for. You should be responsive to your attorney and provide them with all information they ask for however try not to contact your attorney over trivial issues that you don’t want to be billed for.

    What might you prepare yourself for? Check out “The 4 Biggest Legal Issues You Might Face in a Divorce”.

    Additionally, some attorneys offer a one-time fee service to review and edit legal documents you have drafted. If you prefer to research and learn how to draft some of the initial divorce documents yourself, you can do so and have an attorney review them for you. Many courts provide templates for the essential documents needed to file your divorce and offer fee waivers if your income meets certain minimum levels. There are also websites and online databases that can assist in preparing divorce forms and provide insight into the divorce process.

    Consider “Getting Help with Your Mind-Numbing Divorce Forms”.

    By exploring these alternatives, you can tailor the legal representation to suit your specific needs and budget. Whether it’s focusing on specific issues or getting professional guidance with document preparation, these options can empower you to navigate the divorce process in a way that meets your demands.

  3. Novice Attorney with Lower Rates

    An alternative choice to securing more affordable legal representation is to consider engaging a newer attorney with lower rates. Attorneys who have recently graduated from law school or have worked for another firm but are now starting their own practice are likely to charge less compared to attorneys with over 20 years of experience running their own law firms. While these attorneys may have fewer years of experience compared to others, it does not necessarily mean they cannot provide the representation you need. The key is to conduct thorough research and have a detailed conversation with the attorney to assess their trustworthiness and knowledge in handling your case.

    To initiate this process, you can contact the American Bar Association (ABA) Referral Service in your state and explain your situation to them. Their role is to provide attorney referrals based on your specific needs and requirements.

    Once connected with a potential attorney, it’s crucial to discuss their billing rates and explore the possibility of an initial payment plan. Openly communicating about your financial circumstances and affordability is essential to avoid any surprises regarding the cost of your case.

    Taking these steps will enhance your chances of finding a suitable attorney who can offer the assistance you need while accommodating your financial limitations. Keep in mind that through careful consideration and research, you can find a capable attorney who aligns with your needs and represents your interests effectively. 

  4. Legal Aid

    Lastly, it’s essential to know that some states offer free or low-cost representation through Legal Aid for individuals involved in civil matters. Legal Aid organizations understand that not everyone has equal access to navigating the legal system, and their primary goal is to provide the right knowledge and guidance to advocate on your behalf. It’s important to recognize that Legal Aid attorneys have received the same education and possess similar qualifications as other attorneys. Despite their lower costs, they can still offer quality representation and act as your confidential advocate, always keeping your best interests in mind.

    SAS Note: When contacting Legal Aid in your area, be prepared to share your annual income and that of your spouse’s to hear if Legal Aid can help you.

    When working with a Legal Aid attorney, it’s crucial to communicate your needs openly and honestly. Take the time to determine if they effectively represent your interests and be the advocate you want in your corner. Remember that having proper legal representation doesn’t always have to come at an exorbitant cost, and Legal Aid can be a valuable resource for individuals seeking affordable and competent legal support.


If you need to end your marriage, the cost of a divorce attorney should not be the one thing that holds you back. There are a variety of alternatives for those who cannot afford a divorce attorney. The first step is sitting down, determining if you need a divorce attorney, and then finding your budget and researching your options. If you are in a position where your spouse is making significantly more than you, you may be entitled to have your spouse pay your attorney’s fees. Research attorneys in your area or call the American Bar Referral Service to find an attorney who is confident in your case and can help you.

If you and your spouse only have a few contested issues, you can also consider hiring an attorney for limited-scope representation. This way you can handle the trivial areas of your divorce and allow an experienced attorney to handle the more complicated issues. Finally, just because your attorney doesn’t come from an exclusive and prominent private law firm doesn’t mean they won’t make your case a priority. Consider hiring a novice attorney with lower rates or contacting Legal Aid in your city to find affordable representation. You have options, and don’t let the cost of an attorney stop you from beginning the life you deserve.


Teresa is a third-year law student in Chicago committed to advocating and supporting survivors of gender and power-based violence. With a longstanding interest in family law, she aspires to pursue a career in this field after graduation. Her goal is to create a meaningful impact by being a voice for those who may struggle to find their own, providing the necessary support and empowerment they need to navigate the legal system and achieve justice.


Since 2012, SAS for Women has been entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists, and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected.


*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

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