Legal troubles don’t just strike those who can afford to invest funds into winning. Divorce can happen to anyone, and attorneys' fees can add up to something you have no hope of paying if your income is low. Fortunately, state courts are aware of this and most have implemented procedures and programs to help those who can’t afford legal representation.
Most states offer legal aid programs for low-income individuals. Services range from full representation to a free consultation with an attorney, depending on how much you earn and your particular problem. For example, if your divorce involves domestic violence, the income requirements for free legal aid are usually more generous to handle this particular aspect of your case. For other help, states base their income guidelines on a percentage of the federal poverty level. Texas offers legal aid to individuals who earn 125 percent of this level. If you have two children, you can earn up to $440 a week and qualify.
Earning more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level does not necessarily mean you can afford a lawyer. If you can’t get state help because you earn too much, you can download the documents you need to file for divorce from many state court websites. Other websites sell them at moderate cost. Some states also offer free self-help legal clinics to guide you in preparing the documents. If you have a particular question, most attorneys will consult with you on an hourly basis, so you can get the answer you need without coming up with an entire retainer fee.
After you prepare your divorce paperwork, your next hurdle is filing it. State court filing fees can be expensive, up to several hundred dollars. If your budget can’t accommodate this, you can apply for a fee waiver. Most states require that you do this at the time you file. When you take your documents to the court clerk, ask about your state’s procedure. You can usually fill out a form request right on the spot. The clerk will accept your paperwork and hold it pending a judge’s decision to waive your filing fee, either in whole or in part.
Some states, such as New York, have special legislation if your spouse earns a good income but you don’t. A judge can order your spouse to pay some or all of your legal fees. Call legal aid in your area to find out if your jurisdiction offers this kind of help. Other states, such as Illinois, have special simplified divorce procedures if both you and your spouse are low-income earners. If you have limited property and no children, the cost of your divorce can be significantly less. Some states restrict free legal aid to only custody and child support issues, so if you do have children, you might be able to resolve this aspect of your divorce first at little or no cost, before filing for divorce. After you have a custody and support order in place, if you don’t own any significant property, you may be able to use your state's option for simplified divorce. The judge would include your custody and support order as part of your decree.
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