It can be tempting to try to navigate the waters of your divorce on your own. After all, a do-it-yourself divorce is easily the least expensive method of finalizing the end of your marriage—in theory, that is. Trying to complete your divorce on your own can have serious implications for your financial future, especially if you are not considering all future possibilities.
Hiring a divorce attorney in the beginning is an absolute necessity to save you the financial and emotional headache that accompanies a do-it-yourself divorce. Where can you go wrong without a divorce attorney? You absolutely MUST hire a divorce attorney to help you for three main reasons.
1) Incorrect divorce papers can cost you time and money in the end.
The reality is that most of us do not have the expertise for filing our own legal paperwork. This unfamiliarity can lead to mistakes in determining which documents to complete and how to file them as well as obtaining a court date and managing any potential court proceedings. Many people are now turning to online resources, such as Legal Zoom, for advice on handling their divorce without an attorney. These sites fall short, however, as they do not and cannot cover all regulations for each individual state and circumstance.
Forgetting to file the proper paperwork or missing critical items in your settlement can also lead to added expense with future legal proceedings, leaving you financially strapped in the years ahead. Consider issues involved with alimony and child support. Laws differ from state to state, and these are definitely some of the more complicated aspects of a settlement to negotiate. Most individuals also have a hard time considering the long-term tax consequences of certain financial decisions and divisions regarding your settlement agreement.
Hiring an attorney to assist you will save you money and time in the end. Fortunately, you can even hire an attorney who will “unbundle” your services. If you and your spouse are relatively amicable and good communication is possible, you can sort out most of your divorce on your own. An attorney who unbundles their services can be used just for limited consultations, filing paperwork, or drafting your documents.
Unbundling a full-service divorce attorney can provide the legal assistance you need to file your divorce properly as well as save you money in the grand scheme of things by helping you avoid future court dates and proceedings to correct your mistakes.
2) Getting less than you deserve can hurt your financial future.
State rules differ on how they divide your assets, and not all states believe in splitting marital assets 50/50. You will also need to be aware that not everything is necessarily considered a marital asset. Do you know what you are actually entitled to during your divorce under your state laws?
Sticky situations regarding property that belongs to only one spouse as well as such things as retirement accounts and shared debt can be difficult to divide. If each spouse maintained his or her own property and retirement accounts before the nuptials, it may be difficult to determine what is considered a marital asset in the present situation. Most individuals cannot plan for the long-term tax implications of those divisions, and they lack the insight to know exactly what they could be entitled to receive.
If you get less than you deserve in the settlement now, your financial future is at stake. Hiring a divorce attorney can help you achieve a fair and equitable settlement with everything you are entitled to receive. Taking care of the division of property and assets properly the first time allows you to avoid future legal proceedings (and the costs associated with them) to make corrections.
3) You need to protect yourself from an abusive spouse.
In the case of an abusive situation (whether it is physical, verbal, emotional, or otherwise), you need to do everything you can to ensure your protection. Attempting to negotiate a divorce settlement behind closed doors with an abusive spouse is a recipe for disaster—both for your physical safety and your financial future.
If your marriage is coming to an end due to the behavior of your abusive or bullying spouse, you definitely need to hire a divorce attorney right away. The right attorney can help put distance between you and your spouse to prevent them from manipulating or frightening you into agreeing to an unfair settlement. Without effective communication, you are really putting yourself at risk for having an inequitable settlement that will put for your financial future further at risk.
A bullying or abusive spouse is also likely to seek his or her own attorney. Attempting to navigate your divorce on your own while your spouse has legal assistance does not set you up for success. Should your case make it to trial, it is likely that you will not fare well in the court proceedings on your own.
An attorney can help you think through every situation that could arise in the future that would be affected by your settlement and divorce negotiation. Their emotional distance from a highly charged situation can give you some much-needed perspective to protect yourself from your spouse and get what you are entitled to from what remains a marital asset.
You NEED a Divorce Lawyer
At a minimum, hiring a divorce attorney to provide legal assistance in filing your paperwork is a wise investment for your newly single lifestyle. Attempting to settle your divorce without legal assistance, especially in complicated situations involving alimony or children, can put your entire financial future at risk and cost you more in the long run.
Divorce is a business transaction, and protecting yourself both physically and financially should be a top concern for you. A divorce attorney could be just the ally you need to ensure that you have the emotional distance necessary to fight for all that you are entitled to receive during the divorce process. It is well worth the expense of some minor legal fees to be in the best spot for your financial future.
Do It Yourself Divorce? Don’t.
Some people think they don’t need to hire an attorney because they don’t have many assets to split, and an attorney is not worth the cost. Many online resources can do the job of attorney, so here are some reasons why you should consider DIY (or “pro-se”) divorce.
Every state has different requirements regrading divorce. You need to follow many specific rules and complete certain forms and documents. If you fail to do so, your divorce may be delayed. Court clerks cannot help you legally in this matter, as they are not attorneys. Some of these forms are very complicated and can be difficult to understand. Online help does not necessarily apply for every state, so this seemingly simple process can end up costing you greatly.
Consider these three financial and legal reasons why DIY divorce can be a bad idea.
- Not knowing your rights
- Not considering tax consequences
- Losing sight of the bigger picture by focusing on short-term matters
Divorce is a complicated process, and you might not be aware of your rights. Each state has varying rules on the amount of alimony and child support that needs to be paid. You could be losing a significant amount of money by following this path. In case of an abusive or bullying spouse, having an attorney by your side can potentially save you from agreeing to a settlement that is not good for you. Don’t take the word of your spouse or use their attorney. Your attorney can protect you, your interest, and make sure you take all legal implications into consideration. Your attorney can also protect you and ensure that you receive what you are entitled to during the divorce process.
The next most important issue is not understanding the financial picture after the divorce, both from a taxation and budgeting perspective. Divorce can have drastic tax implications.
Losing sight of the bigger picture by focusing on short-term things is another drawback of this method. The expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees” often applies in divorce where you can put yourself in a bad position. Professionals can help you, as they have a better perspective and will potentially save you from making a decision you will regret later.
How Do You Choose a Divorce Lawyer Near You?
A divorce attorney is the single most important individual of your divorce team. Just as a good attorney can get you a good settlement, a bad attorney can hurt your settlement. As divorce is a legal transaction and process, the attorney is in charge during this whole process.
When you think about your divorce attorney, you should know that they will need to know everything about your married life. They will dig deep into details of your marriage and the factors that might have contributed to the divorce. They will have a close and intimate relationship with you during this whole process, which is why it needs to be someone you are comfortable with as you deal with them on a regular basis.
Litigation, Mediation or Collaborative Divorce?
Before doing anything, you need to take a step back and determine the right process that you might want to pursue for your divorce. These options are litigation, mediation, and collaborative divorce. Once this choice is made, choosing an attorney will become much easier.
Choosing a divorce attorney is a 3-step process.
- Make a list of potential candidates.
- Interview the candidates.
- Select an attorney.
1) Get a Divorce Attorney Near You
Laws can vary greatly, depending on the state where your proceedings are taking place, which is why you need an attorney who is an expert in divorce settlements of your state. The first step in the process is making a list of potential candidates. You can get referrals from friends or family, and the American Association For Matrimonial Lawyers has attorneys listed by state. You should have at least three, but five or ten would be great.
2) Consider a Free Consultation with a Divorce Attorney
When you meet with the attorney, you will go through a prescreening process. Once that is done, it is time for the initial consultation session. You can ask such questions as does the attorney regularly represent the husband or the wife? Is the attorney going to handle your case or hand it to a junior associate? What is their likely strategy and timing? You also need to know how much the attorney costs. You need to ask if they have any expertise in your particular case. Your attorney needs to be well versed in the area of your case. You need to ask them about the experts they work with and plan to bring in.
3) Choose the Best Divorce Attorney for You
Once the second stage is over, you can now pick the right attorney for your divorce case. You need to know what you can afford, if they have a friendly personality, did they impress you with their strategy, and if you felt comfortable and were able to get along with them well. You need to use your best efforts in making this critical choice.
Questions to Ask a Divorce Lawyer during the Initial Consultation
Starting the search for a brand new divorce attorney can be stressful and overwhelming. Just a quick glance through the phone book reveals countless options, but how will you know which attorney is the right one for your divorce? You should know what you are looking for from the very first phone call and know what to expect from your initial consultation meeting. Head into that first meeting educated about what services they can provide and what you believe will work best for your divorce.
A relationship with your attorney is the same as any other business relationship you maintain. Can you work with this person? Do you actually want to work with this person? Making key decisions such as this one at the very beginning of the process is far better than making them six months into your divorce proceedings.
When you are beginning a relationship with a new divorce attorney, here are a few tips for determining if they are the right fit for you:
Is the divorce attorney experienced and persuasive?
When you first meet an attorney, take note of whether or not you feel they have a particularly powerful presence. Are they persuasive enough to represent your interests and persuade the opposing counsel? This character trait cannot be underestimated when you are initiating a business relationship with an attorney. After all, your settlement is uncertain if they cannot convince opposing counsel or a judge of all that you deserve.
Another key characteristic of having a successful divorce attorney and client relationship is their experience level with family law. Ask questions regarding how many years they have been practicing family law, what other trades they serve, and how many divorces they process each year. You are keeping an eye out for an attorney that is highly specialized in family law and divorces, not a “jack of all trades” who dabbles in family law, construction law, and seven other specialties.
The amount of experience they have can be a good predictor of whether or not they have enough knowledge of the laws surrounding divorce to handle your case quickly, efficiently, and ensure that you receive all you are entitled. When they are highly specialized, they should have a greater amount of education regarding the laws and more experience in putting it into practice – both of which are great attributes for you as the client.
You also need to consider their experience and relationship with your spouse’s attorney, if you are privy to who that may be. A hostile relationship between your attorney and the opposing counsel could take the focus off your proceedings and shift it toward their relationship and motives with the other attorney.
How will you interact with them?
Customer service is a critical consideration, beginning with the very first phone call. Is the receptionist polite and informative? Does the attorney return your phone call in a timely manner? Answering either of those questions in the negative could be an indicator that you will not be pleased with the customer service they will provide throughout your proceedings.
Ask what the policy is regarding your communication with them. You should know what days they spend in the office, and what timeframe you can expect them to return your phone calls and emails within. If they spend several days each week out of the office, inquire whether someone else in the office will be well-versed with the specifics of your case in case you have pressing questions when the attorney is not available.
Furthermore, how will they charge for the work and communication that is involved in your case? You should have a detailed account of how the billing rates work, including if they differ among categories such as legal advice, filing paperwork, and making copies. Knowing how they count the minutes that you are in communication with them is an important consideration as well. Does your attorney charge per hour, in fifteen minute increments, or do they tally up each individual minute? The billing schedule can make a substantial impact on what the final bill for your divorce will be.
What service options do they provide?
Entering into an attorney-client relationship, you should already have a fair idea of what you believe you will need for your proceedings. The first question might be whether the attorney or their firm has relationships with other qualified professionals who can assist in trickier situations. Do they have a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, forensic account, mediator, or other attorneys they can consult with in the event of needing outside advice and opinions from specific experts? When your attorney manages close relationships with other trades and services, it is far more convenient for you to reach out for additional assistance if necessary.
You should also inquire whether they offer “unbundled” legal services or mediation. This allows you to cut some of the costs associated with divorce proceedings by only paying for the specific services that you are in need of. Whether you desire just legal advice, someone to help draft and file documents, or whether you need someone to manage all of the proceedings from start to finish, knowing what your options are can be helpful.
This even allows you to determine if you want to make the switch to a more do-it-yourself approach if you see your bill rising faster than you anticipate. This is a good time to begin asking questions about what you can do yourself to speed the process along and save on the costs. Are they open to a more do-it-yourself arrangement with you when it comes to documentation or filing paperwork? Asking upfront can save you money in the end if you decide that you are capable of handling some of these issues on your own.
Come to the initial consultation prepared.
While not a requirement, it does not hurt to come to the meeting prepared with the important documents that you will need to discuss. These could include a selection of recent tax documents, paystubs, bank statements, proof of adultery or abuse, and more. It may even be helpful to have your marriage license and important documents relating to you children (health papers, psychological papers, addresses, etc.).
By bringing all of the additional documentation that you believe is pertinent to your case, you are granting the attorney a clear look at what marital assets and liabilities will need to be divided. What do you have in retirement accounts, real estate, savings, and investments? Looking at the bigger picture may allow them to make clearer determinations of what the next steps and plans might look like.
Before you leave your initial consultation, you should receive some proposed game plan or plan of action from the attorney regarding what they believe the best steps to take are. You will need to evaluate whether you agree with their evaluation, especially if they believe it could end up going to trial. If you believe that your divorce could be settled more amicably (and for less cost), then you might want to reconsider your relationship with this attorney.
Because this is a significant business relationship that you will be a part of for the coming months, you should consider meeting with multiple attorneys if you are not satisfied with the initial consultation. There is nothing wrong with moving back to the drawing board before you commit to an attorney for the long haul. You never know how long your divorce proceedings could last, so be certain that you are satisfied with your attorney’s experience, qualifications, customer service, and cost.
How to Get a Low Cost Divorce Attorney
Divorce can be many things: emotional, messy, frustrating, and stressful. But more than anything else, divorce can be expensive. The price of splitting your life in two could include court costs, attorney fees, financial experts, and therapists.
These expenses may be hard pills to swallow, but they can quickly become detrimental to your financial future if you’re not careful. To protect yourself, you want to ensure that you stay in control of both the process and its price tag. Here are a few things you can do that will minimize the cost of your divorce:
1) Reach Agreements Prior to Meeting with Your Divorce Attorneys
Cutting down on your divorce attorney’s billable hours is one of the easiest ways to save money during a divorce. Rather than hashing things out in front of your divorce lawyers, consider how much you’ll save if you and your spouse are amicable enough to work things out together. Provided that you’re on speaking terms, it’s very likely that the two of you can be successful in negotiating initial agreements.
This phase is a good time to discuss the specific arrangements of your children. Try to come to an agreement about the topics of custody and support. Being their parents, you both need to have their best interests in mind.
By privately drafting a list of negotiations, you could save thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
2) Keep Attorney Correspondences Short and Sweet
Don’t waste your money on communications with your lawyer. Each of those emails and phone calls costs money, but you can lower these costs by keeping correspondences brief. It’s guaranteed that you’ll have questions, but write them all out first. Then call your lawyer and ask all of your questions at the same time.
Your attorney’s receptionist is usually your first point of contact, so see if he or she can answer those questions for you. In addition, when providing information, be direct. But still provide enough detail to avoid back-and-forth emails that can hike up your bill.
3) Hire a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst
You’ve already hired an expensive lawyer. At first, hiring yet another professional may sound counterintuitive to minimizing the cost of your divorce. But when it comes to consulting with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), the long-term savings ultimately outweigh the short-term costs.
A CDFA will be able to paint you a picture of your financial future. He or she can help you draw up budgets before and after your divorce. A CDFA is trained to know the tax benefits you’ll be able to take advantage of. He or she can assist with the long-term planning that you would otherwise hire a financial planner to do.
4) Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
In many divorces, an excess of time and money is spent on couples squabbling over how to divide up the little things. To avoid this, brainstorm a list of the items you’ll need to settle on. Rank everything on the list by its importance to you. Then next to your rankings, note how your spouse might prioritize each item.
See if there are any proposals you’ll be able to bring to the negotiations. If you agree to let your spouse keep the boat, maybe he’ll let the dog live with you? In the end, drafting a list of your priorities will allow you to know which points you truly want to push for—and which you’re willing to let go of. The less time spent arguing, the cheaper your divorce will be!
Signs That You Might be Getting Screwed by Your Divorce Attorney
Whether you are far into the divorce process or are just dipping your toe in the water, you likely already know that attorneys are a necessary part of the process. As critical as they may be during the finalization of your divorce, they are professionals who have the potential to profit from your emotions. When your emotions make it difficult to sort out your case, you can quickly see your bill going up.
Unfortunately, when all is said and done, some divorce attorneys may try to manipulate your emotions to score a higher paycheck. Your relationship with your attorney can be compared to relationships with other professionals (e.g., your plumber, your accountant, and even your personal trainer). You hired them to complete a specific job, and you need to manage your relationship with them accordingly.
Want to know how to respond more effectively in each situation? Here are a few items that attorneys tend to focus on:
Warning Sign: Your attorney is not a family law specialist.
Hiring an attorney is a significant investment of your resources, and you will want to hire someone who knows what they are doing in a courtroom. If your attorney seems clueless about family law, you may not get all that you are entitled to during settlement negotiations. Because your divorce decree and settlement are final, it is imperative that you ensure that your attorney is working as hard as they can to get an equitable resolution on your behalf.
How will you know if your attorney is not a divorce specialist? Your attorney could be a “jack of all trades, master at none.” In other words, he or she regularly practices family law, construction law, and personal injury lawsuits. If so, he or she may be lacking the in-depth knowledge and finesse needed to handle divorce cases with the attention, diligence, and education that they require.
Each area of law requires attorneys to stay abreast of upcoming legal changes through continuing education, which is common with most professions. To have the most up-to-date knowledge and expertise that you will need to win, an attorney that claims to have multiple specialties will not be able to comply with all possible continuing education courses. Costly mistakes can occur when your attorney lacks the expertise for completing a routine case or a more complicated divorce.
It might be acceptable for your attorney to have to research a specific question once in a while. After all, nobody knows everything. However, if you find yourself asking general questions and being met with silence or uncertainty, it may be a sign that your attorney is not as well versed in divorce proceedings as you need or want them to be.
Warning Sign: Your attorney wants you to focus on smaller items.
In the end, does it really matter which spouse got the spatula or the serving spoons? Do not allow your attorney to distract you by focusing on items that are of inconsequential value. It could take forever to divide up each item within the household, especially if you have a vast amount of bric-a-brac.
Every item that you and your spouse argue over adds expensive minutes to your attorney’s final bill. The reality is that paying your attorney to split up these insignificant items will likely cost more than those items are truly worth.
Instead, you need to focus on which items are priorities for you. If the dining room table that your great grandfather made has extreme sentimental value for you, make sure to put it on your settlement list. However, if you could care less about the ceramic carafes your spouse uses for coffee, there is no point in arguing about them.
Because attorneys are paid by the hour, the longer you and your spouse spend fighting over trivial items, the more you will both be paying your attorneys. Try to focus on the big picture, and settle amicably with your spouse (if possible). Keeping open, healthy communication with your spouse can allow you to quickly and efficiently divvy up those household items, without costly over-involvement from your divorce attorney.
Warning Sign: Your attorney encourages you to discuss emotional details.
Does it really matter what the last intense argument you had with your spouse was? If the details do not specifically pertain to the case and questions at hand, then they do not need to be discussed with your attorney. Your attorney is not your therapist; he or she is not specially trained to help you sort out any lingering emotional drama that you may be experiencing about the dissolution of your marriage.
When you find yourself recounting the latest episode that proves your spouse’s incompetence, stop immediately. If you find yourself needing to spend those precious, expensive hours with your attorney detailing the drama, it is time for you to consider other outlets for your frustration. Hire a therapist who can help you work through the situation, or head out for a drink with your friends. Either way, it is likely to be both more cost-effective than venting to your attorney.
Warning Sign: Your attorney wants you to go to trial, instead of taking the settlement.
When you and your spouse can reach a reasonable settlement, you might be tempted to sign on the dotted line. However, what happens when your attorney insists that you go to trial? Attorneys will sometimes lobby for this next step because it adds a hefty number of hours onto their final bill. Reaching a reasonable settlement makes going to trial an unnecessary expense.
As we discussed in the first section, amicably sorting out your settlement with your spouse can save you a ton of money. If you can reach an agreement with him or her, you will save money upfront, and you will not be leaving the situation in the hands of a judge (who could rule against you). An amicable resolution could save you a ton of attorney fees and court fees.
Make sure that you understand all of the options available to you. Mediation, collaborative divorce, and settlement are less expensive options than going to trial. If your attorney encourages you to go to trial, but you believe you can settle in less time via one of these other avenues, do not hesitate to speak up for yourself. You should be comfortable voicing your opinion with any professional that you hire. After all, you are the one who issues his or her paycheck at the end of the day.
Warning Sign: Your attorney does not know your case well enough.
Some attorneys can find themselves swamped with too many cases at once. Unfortunately, that means that each individual case suffers. Then it is impossible for them to remember all the intricate details of each client’s unique situation. An inability to remember the details from your specific divorce case can lead to long-term mistakes that you will have to live with.
Without remembering the information you present, they may struggle to help you divide your assets with your spouse, as well as offer legal advice about the best next steps. Also, if they are spread too thin across a multitude of cases, they may have difficulty staying up-to-date with legal changes. They may make mistakes as they struggle to keep up with the amount of work they need to do.
It should be a huge red flag if your divorce attorney continuously asks you the same questions, especially if it pertains to your personal information. Hearing the same questions over and over again indicates that they either did not adequately record the information the first time, or they cannot remember who you are. In either scenario, it could be a sign that your attorney does not know your case well enough, and you should move on to another firm.
Warning Sign: Your attorney does not value relationships.
Under the best of circumstances, divorce is a painful proceeding. Attorneys who do not value relationships can make the experience even more grueling than it already is. Working with them becomes a difficult chore in the midst of emotional turmoil.
Furthermore, they might not just struggling to maintain their relationships with their clients. If divorce attorneys cannot maintain professional demeanors with their opposing counsels, they may be unnecessarily antagonistic. Achieving a settlement or handling negotiations will be a more laborious process, and it could be more time-consuming as well. Keep in mind that attorneys typically charges by the hour. Therefore, the more time your attorney spends negotiating a settlement with his or her opposing counsel, the higher your bill will be at the end of the day.
You need to determine if your attorney falls into this category, but fortunately, it should be apparent rather quickly. When you first enter an office, a cold, unfriendly staff can indicate a poor working environment. If you get the same chilly vibe from the attorney, it is likely a sign that he or she does not value his or her relationships.
What are some other signs? They will likely be difficult to get in touch with— dodging phone calls and rarely replying to emails. If this behavior only occurs once, it simply is an oversight, but if it becomes a pattern, it is a sign that your attorney will not make your business a priority.
If attorneys speak to you in a condescending manner, it is another sign that they do not know how to communicate with others. If they struggle to be respectful and communicative toward you (a paying client), how much worse will it be in the courtroom when they must persuade the opposing counsel and the judge of your proposed settlement?
Remember that Divorce is a Transaction
Do not forget that divorce is little more than a business transaction. As you divide up your assets and finances from your married life, try to keep your emotions surrounding the process from interfering. Take care of yourself as you need to (by venting to friends or hiring a therapist), but do not allow your feelings to sway your decision-making during the divorce process.
The goal is not to make your spouse suffer, but to make sure that you both get an equitable settlement. An attorney can capitalize on the emotional turmoil you are going through, which could cause you to fork over more money than you anticipated. Play it smart; know in advance when you are being manipulated into increasing your attorney’s billable hours.
Your attorney is a professional that you have hired to protect your interests and help you obtain what you deserve during your divorce. You should feel comfortable and confident about speaking your mind and managing the relationship you enacted. You should be in charge of your attorney during your divorce.
Recognize the Red Flags
Your divorce attorney may be waving warning signs right in front of you. If you notice even one of these attributes in their practice, it could be enough to make you consider moving on to another attorney—before you are too far along in the proceedings. Having a subpar divorce attorney can be costly in the end; it may mean that you do not receive all you are entitled to, that they are prone to legal mistakes, or that they will make the overall process more expensive and miserable than it needs to be.
Keep your eyes open and your mind sharp for situations that make you feel uncomfortable. Ultimately, your instincts regarding your divorce attorney will prove correct. Hiring the right attorney can mean the difference between a settlement you are pleased with and a settlement that leaves you disappointed and bitter.