When you're going through a divorce and looking for an attorney, remember that you don't have to hire the first attorney you meet. Choosing the right lawyer to guide you through your divorce is one of the most important divorce-related decisions you'll make.
Even if you've received a referral to a family law attorney from a friend or another lawyer, you should still do your homework; check the attorney's qualifications, and make sure he or she has enough experience to handle your case.
There are lots of lawyers out there, and many advertise themselves as "family law" or "divorce" attorneys. However, family law is a subspecialty that involves complex legal principles, which take time and experience to master. Within the area of family law, there are even further subspecialties, such as custody law, international custody law, guardianship, and an area of the law involving Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs), which are special orders required to divide certain types of retirement benefits.
In addition, there are various financial aspects of divorce, including:
- financial disclosure requirements between spouses
- restraining orders prohibiting spouses from changing beneficiary designations or transferring assets before and during the divorce
- alimony (how to calculate income available for alimony and the special factors courts consider when determining setting payments)
- child support (how to calculate child support in your state)
- the division of property and assets, including real property, collectibles, venture capital interests, stock option portfolios, good will, or other business interests, and
- the division of retirement benefits.
There is a vast body of law (which will vary from state to state) that applies to these issues. These laws are frequently updated or overturned by the legislature and/or the courts, so you'll need to find an attorney that's familiar with the new rules and cases that apply to your divorce.
If you have a very simple case, with minimal financial issues and no children, you may feel comfortable hiring a less experienced family law attorney. However, if you're facing a contested divorce case that involves substantial assets, complicated financial questions, or a complex custody dispute, you should look for an experienced attorney that specializes in family law and has experience with the particular issues involved in your case.
Click here for some tips about hiring a divorce lawyer to handle some or all of your divorce case.
We've provided a few questions you might consider asking during your initial interview with a family law attorney. These may help you determine whether this lawyer is right for your case.
1. Do you specialize in divorces, or are divorces just a part of your practice? How long have you been practicing family law? How many family law cases have you handled? Are you a "certified family law specialist?"
2. What is your strategy for my case? How long will it take to resolve my case?
3. How long do you take to return phone calls? How do I get a hold of you if there is an emergency? What do you consider to be an emergency?
4. Will anyone else in your office be working on my case? What experience do they have? Can I meet them?
5. How will you charge me? What is your hourly rate? Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate? What is your retainer up front?
6. What costs (other than your own) do you expect will be involved (for example, for private investigators, forensic accountants, physicians, and/or psychologists), and how will you charge me for them?
7. What's your estimate of the total cost of this divorce? (Do not be alarmed that most divorce attorneys will resist answering this question as the cost of the divorce depends greatly upon the level of conflict in your case. However, the way attorneys answer this question may help you size them up. An honest attorney will often answer that it is difficult to estimate the costs in advance. An attorney that gives you an unrealistically low amount may just be trying to get your business).
8. Do you allow me to negotiate directly with my spouse? How can I keep the cost of my divorce down? Are there tasks that I can do myself to cut down on the amount you will charge me?
9. Based on what you know about my case, how would you predict a judge would rule on it?
10. What can you do to help me understand the tax effect of the decisions I will have to make?