I want to get my divorce resolved with as little expense possible, and have decided to represent myself to avoid lawyer’s fees. How much will it cost me to get this done?
To initiate your divorce you will need to pay a basic filing fee to open and move along your case. The statewide uniform fee to start or respond to a family law action is typically $435, but some counties have a higher fee (like San Francisco’s $450 fee). It is good practice to call your county district clerk or check your local county’s Superior Court’s website to confirm the filing fees. The fees are virtually the same for the Petitioner (who files the first document) or the Respondent (who responds to the initial filing). Most of the time additional filings do not cost anything else, but there are exceptions. Court fees fund courthouse operation costs and pay the clerks and bailiffs, and provide equipment for trials and hearings. Complete breakdowns of fees are usually published online.
If your divorce is straightforward, you can expect to pay only the initial filing cost and perhaps a $20 fee for a final judgment, if done without a hearing. In other words, if you have an uncontested divorce and you and your spouse agree on everything, you will defray most of the costs. However, if the case is highly contested, there could be multiple additional fees. The most expensive aspect for these kinds of cases (without considering lawyer’s fees) are experts, counselors, or lawyer’s that are appointed for children. A court can require a custody evaluation, a psychiatric evaluation, drug/alcohol testing, family counseling, or appoint a lawyer to represent the child’s best interest. All of these things will cost money, which will be determined by the judge in each case, based on the facts and circumstances as applicable.
If you are below a certain income, however, you might be able to avoid having to pay any court costs whatsoever. You might be eligible to receive a waiver of court costs if you receive governmental assistance (like SNAP, welfare, or the like), if the court finds you cannot meet basic household costs and pay the court fees, or if your gross income (before taxes and deductions) is below a certain threshold. You will need to ask the clerk for form FW-001, fill it out and make copies. You will then need to file this form with the clerk, who can give you an idea of how long it will take to process. You must be truthful in every detail – anything filed with the court requires honesty, or it can be deemed perjury, which is a crime. Additiionally, if the court suspects you misled them in providing them with basic income information your credibility for more complicated requests, like custody, will be shot. If your fee waiver application is granted, you will not have to pay any filing fees and other associated court fees like telephone hearings or court reporter costs. The fees associated with experts, counselors and the like can also be waived, but you must file more documents for the court to consider.
Overall, you can always lower court costs if you and the opposing party can get along, be reasonable, and communicate. This will result in fewer filings, fewer hearings, and lower the likelihood of additional experts being appointed. The more often you and your former spouse or partner can agree, the less the court will have to decide for you, which results in a more predictable and inexpensive court case.