Do I Really Need to Hire a Divorce Lawyer?

Question:

Do I really need to hire a divorce lawyer?

Answer:

It depends on two things: whether your case is complex and whether you and your spouse can compromise.

Many divorcing spouses want to save legal fees by representing themselves. Whether it’s a good idea to proceed “in pro per”—a term derived from the Latin “in propria persona” meaning “for one’s self”—depends on the facts of your case and your ability to resolve issues with your spouse.

Simple Divorces: No Fault, No Property, No Kids

This is the easiest type of divorce case to resolve—one where there’s nothing to fight about. Now that all states offer some form of a “no-fault” divorce, spouses don’t have to argue in court about who did what to cause the breakup. Instead, they can just cite “irreconcilable differences,” which means the couple can’t get along and there’s no chance of reconciling. Most states also allow couples to file based on a separation of a certain length.

If you don’t have minor children, you won’t have to negotiate child support or custody issues. And if you don't have any marital assets to speak of, such as real estate, retirement accounts, stocks, savings, or a big income disparity—where one spouse makes significantly more income than the other—then you won’t have to determine property division or alimony.

If you and your spouse have a simple divorce case, and you agree on everything, you may be able to proceed in pro per with an uncontested divorce. Most states have simplified divorce procedures to help couples complete uncontested divorce cases. The rules vary from state to state and some require that couples have no minor children, while others will process a simplified divorce involving children as long as the couple has an agreement on custody and child support.

Your local court may provide special resources for pro per spouses, and you may be able to get help with a simplified divorce from the court’s legal staff or volunteers. In some counties, like Marin County, California, self-represented spouses can speak to volunteer attorneys and ask for help with legal questions and divorce forms. The attorneys may also meet with divorcing couple to help them iron out troublesome issues and create settlement agreements.

Complex Divorce Cases: More Money, More Problems

It’s probably a good idea to at least consult with an attorney if you have a complex divorce case, which involves disputes over any of the following issues:

  • property and debt division
  • child custody and visitation issues
  • spousal support
  • child support, or
  • reimbursement claims for separate property contributions or wasted marital assets

There are a variety of ways to deal with complex divorce cases.

Consulting Attorney

Even if you and your spouse agree on everything, if you have a complicated legal case, you may still want to hire a consulting attorney who can work behind the scenes and give you as-needed advice on specific items. A consulting attorney can:

  • provide targeted advice or answer specific questions about your case
  • explain your legal rights and make sure they are protected
  • run a spousal support or child support calculation to tell you how much you might owe or receive, and
  • review proposed agreements to make sure they’re legally enforceable and fair.

You’ll want to make sure your attorney reviews any proposed divorce settlement agreement before you sign off.

Limited Scope Attorney

If you and your spouse are battling over one or two major issues, like child custody and support, you may want to hire a limited-scope attorney who can negotiate those matters on your behalf and represent you in court or at a custody trial if necessary.

Mediation

In mediation, a specially-trained neutral mediator helps you and your spouse find ways to agree on difficult issues. Some mediators may have the spouses’ attorneys join the mediation sessions, while other times, just the spouses will participate. In either case, you’ll want to talk to your attorney about any proposals before you agree to them and have your attorney review any written agreements to make sure you’re getting a fair deal and your rights are protected.

Full Scope Attorney and Litigation

If you and your spouse can’t agree on anything in your divorce, you’ll probably end up in trial, asking a judge to decide your divorce-related issues. In this case, it’s probably best to hire a full scope lawyer to handle every aspect of your case from beginning to end. When the stakes are high, and you end up in court, expert help may be worth the cost. The rules of evidence and courtroom procedures are quite complicated, even for seasoned attorneys. If you can’t afford a lawyer, contact your local bar association to see if you qualify for programs that offer pro bono (free) or reduced-rate legal services. If your spouse makes substantially more income than you, your lawyer can also ask the court to order your spouse to contribute to your attorney’s fees.

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