YOU'VE MADE THE DECISION: You don't want to be married to that person any longer. How do you go about it? If you walk into one Los Angeles divorce lawyer's office, he will offer these five choices--"Negotiate, litigate, procrastinate, capitulate or assassinate." Under the first two choices, here are some specific ways to untangle yourself from a marriage:
Free legal aid
There is precious little of this available in Los Angeles, particularly in the arena of family law. In South Central Los Angeles, the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law (partly funded by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.) provides free or low-cost legal aid. In other areas a source of referrals is the United Way information line; telephone (213) 298-1441.
do it yourself
This can be the simplest and least expensive route as long as the split is amicable; it works best in uncontested affairs in which no children are involved and there is less than $10,000 in community property to divide. "In pro per " filings are said to have increased in Los Angeles County from .4% in 1968 to as much as 40% of all divorces today. Charles E. Sherman's book, "How to Do Your Own Divorce in California," gets much of the credit. Since its publication in 1971, 490,000 copies have been sold. The book costs $14.95 and comes complete with tear-out filing forms. Add the $135 filing fee for a "joint dissolution" and six months' standard wait for a final decree, and you've got the quickest, cheapest divorce in the state.
Also worth checking out is the Superior Court clerk's summary dissolution kit available at the court's form window. Said to be best for marriages of fewer than five years, for couples with less than $10,000 in community property and no children, this, too, is only for the uncontested.
If your divorce will be uncontested but you are intimidated by doing it yourself, paralegal services will type, file and serve all the necessary papers. You can find them through classified ads and in the Yellow Pages under Divorce Services. Costs can run from $100 to $200. Sherman, who helped create the industry 15 years ago, says quality can vary greatly; the best paralegals are associated in some way with a reputable attorney.
When both parties are agreeable, a mediator might be able to handle the divorce better and more cheaply than separate lawyers hired by either side. More typically, mediators are used in lieu of litigation, but with each spouse's attorney reviewing their work.
"A mediator can help you to focus," Sherman says, "to control the conflict." At $120 to $150 per hour, retaining a mediator can save considerable costs if the alternative is two lawyers waiting at the courthouse for a trial date.
There is virtually no regulation of the practice, though, and mediators must be chosen with care. Consider attorneys familiar with mediation and family law who have been recommended by friends or by the local bar association.
And then, you can go the traditional route--each person hires a lawyer and hopes for the best. How much is it going to cost? Least expensive is the legal-supermarket attorney--a flat-fee package, which usually runs about $500 to $600. If it looks as though the divorce is going to get ugly and there are children and a great deal of community property to divide, you'll probably want to go for an attorney who specializes in family law. These lawyers usually charge from $150 to $400 an hour, and some ask for a retainer. Costs for the average divorce run about $2,000 per side. And then there are the megabucks divorces for which Los Angeles is so famous. Legal fees in those cases can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hugh McIsaac, director of Family Court Services for Los Angeles County Superior Court, recommends interviewing three or four attorneys who specialize in family law before settling on one. "You want someone who's going to resolve the dispute, not exacerbate it," he says. "You definitely don't want an ('L.A. Law' 's) Arnie Becker."