Nine Questions to Ask if You are Thinking About Representing Yourself
Divorce lawyers are not the most popular people on the planet. They charge a lot of money, speak in language that only other lawyers understand, and often seem like they care more about arguing in court than they do about their client’s overall well-being. While that’s not exactly a fair picture of divorce lawyers (I happen to know a lot of really reasonable, qualified and caring divorce attorneys … including, of course, myself!), the bottom line is that divorce lawyers are expensive, and getting divorced usually costs a lot of money. It’s not surprising then that a lot of people consider getting divorced without a lawyer. The question is: Do you really need a divorce lawyer, or can you “go it alone?”
While handling your own case might sound good when you’re first considering divorce, the problem with doing your divorce yourself is that you don’t know what you don’t know. And in this case, what you don’t know can hurt you and your family. Doing your own divorce is like doing your own taxes: you can probably muddle through the forms yourself, but unless you have a very simple situation, you stand a really good chance of making an enormous mess and owing the government (or your spouse) way more money than you ever dreamed, just because you screwed up the paperwork or didn’t understand the law!
All that having been said, not every divorce is complicated, and filling out the paperwork isn’t rocket science. Yes, most people are going to be better off using a divorce lawyer, and its never a good idea to settle your case without understanding what the law says and how it applies in your case, but in some cases, particularly if you have no money and no choice, you might be able to get by on your own. To figure out whether you need a divorce lawyer, ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you have children? If you have children, you need a divorce lawyer, or other certified divorce professional, to draft a parenting plan. Even if you try your best, there will be parenting issues that you have not considered that should be part of your ultimate custody judgment. If you don’t have children, and you don’t have a complicated financial situation, doing it yourself may be a viable option.
2. Do you have real estate? If you do, you need to make sure that property is dealt with properly in your divorce. That means that, for you, doing your own divorce will probably not be your best choice. On the other hand, if you and your spouse sell your real first, and then get divorced afterwards, you may not need a divorce lawyer.
3. Do you or your spouse have retirement plans? If so, you should consult with a lawyer or other financial professional to determine the value of the plans, the best way to divide them, and the tax implications (if any) that will result from the division. If you and your spouse will each keep whatever money is in your own respective retirement plans, this may not be a problem. But you still need to know the value of the retirement plans before you agree on how they should be divided.
4. Will either you or your spouse need or want to receive support (a/k/a alimony or maintenance) after the divorce? If so, you need a lawyer. There are so many nuances in the law regarding spousal support that entering a court order requiring support without knowing what the effect of that order will be is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with your future. Its just a bad idea.
5. Do you have a complicated financial situation? If you or your spouse owns your own business, or if you own a lot of stocks, bonds, or other investments, don’t even think about doing your own divorce.
6. Do you and your spouse have complete information about your financial situation? You can’t divide what you don’t know exists. If either of you won’t provide the other with full financial information, that means someone is hiding something. Trying to resolve a case like that without a lawyer will almost guarantee that someone is going to get shortchanged. If you don’t care, then maybe getting a lawyer won’t matter. Otherwise, you need a divorce lawyer.
7. Is your case agreed, or are you and your spouse fighting? If your case is agreed , going to court without a lawyer may be do-able. If you and your spouse are fighting, then going to court without a lawyer can be a nightmare (especially if your spouse has a lawyer and you don’t.)
8. Can you do your paperwork yourself? The court system operates on paperwork … which you have to write If you are not comfortable with that, don’t even think of representing yourself.
9. Are you willing and able to invest the time it will take to navigate through the court system yourself? No matter how smart you are, or how simple you think your case is going to be, getting through the court system takes time. You will not just show up one time and be done. You have to figure out what documents you will need. Then you have to figure out how to complete and file those documents with the court. Then you have to figure out how to get a court date. Then you will probably have to show up in court to testify. Doing all of that takes time and patience. If you don’t have both, don’t try to represent yourself.
Nobody wants to spend money on a divorce lawyer. But, unless you have a fairly simple, agreed case, “going it alone,” and the mistakes that you will inevitably make when you do so, will probably end up costing you more than what you would have spent by hiring a good divorce lawyer in the first place.