You want a divorce, but you don’t want to spend your life’s savings in the process. You know you need help, but you’ve heard so many horror stories about how divorce lawyers make everything worse, that you’re not sure that you want or need a divorce lawyer. You’re tempted to go for a DIY divorce. But a nagging voice in your head says: “Don’t be an idiot! Get a lawyer!” So, what should you do? Should you try get a divorce without a lawyer? … or not?
The Dangers of Getting a Divorce Without a Lawyer
While handling your own case might seem like a great way to save time and money, unless you happen to be a divorce lawyer yourself, you probably have NO idea how the divorce system works. That’s a problem.
No matter how smart or educated you are, the divorce system is unlike anything you’ve likely experienced before. It’s full of rules, forms, and paperwork. Mess any of those three things up, and you may end up paying a hefty price.
In many ways, doing your own divorce is like doing your own taxes. You can probably muddle through the forms yourself using TurboTax, but you have no way of knowing if the end product you created was right or not. As a result, you can find out years later that you owe the government a gazillion dollars. Or, you may find that you cheated yourself out of a ton of money because you didn’t claim expenses you should have claimed.
Either way, you screwed yourself.
But My Divorce is Going to Be Amicable!
It’s easy to think that, if you want to divorce amicably, you don’t need a lawyer. But, even getting an amicable divorce is not nearly as easy as it may seem.
To get an amicable divorce, you and your spouse have to agree about how you will deal with each and every issue in your divorce. Then you have to write down all of the terms of your agreement in a form that the court will accept. Then you have to go through the court process, present your documents to the judge, get the judge to approve them, and finalize your divorce.
Each step in that process takes time, effort, and energy. Each step is filled with potential problems and pitfalls. If you screw something up, you risk having the judge send you back to the drawing board to try again. Or, worse, the judge may grant your divorce. Then months, or years, later, when you realize you made a mistake, it may be too late to change it.
Then you’re really screwed.
… But I Don’t Want to Deal With Divorce Lawyers!
Divorce lawyers have a reputation for “stirring the pot.” They play on your emotions. They cause you and your spouse to fight. Then, they make a fortune while your personal life explodes like a mushroom cloud over a nuclear bomb. (At least that’s what everyone thinks.)
The problem is, divorce lawyers know the law. You don’t. What’s even more important: divorce lawyers know the judge. They know how the divorce system works. They know what they need to do to get your case done, and done right. Again, you don’t. What’s more, as a non-lawyer, you probably don’t even know what you don’t know.
Moving forward with divorce when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing can be disastrous.
No matter how much you want to keep divorce lawyers out of your life (and your checkbook!), getting a divorce without a lawyer can end up being the most expensive mistake you ever make. On the other hand, divorce is not rocket science, either. If your divorce is super simple, you may be able to hire a lawyer to get some basic legal advice, then do the rest yourself.
How do you know if you can get a divorce without a lawyer? Ask yourself these questions.
10 Questions to Figure Out Whether You Need a Divorce Lawyer
1. Do you have minor children?
If you have children, you are going to need a parenting plan and a parenting schedule. You will have to determine who will have legal custody of your children. (In Illinois, instead of “custody” you need to figure out who will make major decisions for your children post-divorce.) You also need to figure out where your children will live, and set some basic post-divorce parenting ground rules.
While you can try to draft a complete plan yourself, it’s not a good idea. If you mess something up, your post-divorce co-parenting can turn into your worst nightmare. Not only will that make your life a living hell, but it can really hurt your kids, too.
If you have kids, you should not try to get divorced without a lawyer.
2. Do you have real estate?
If you have a house and you’re going to sell it during your divorce, getting legal advice about how to handle the sale will be important. But, once your house is sold, it’s no longer an issue in your divorce. That makes your divorce simpler. In that case, maybe you can get by with minimal legal help.
If you or your spouse plans to keep the house for ANY period of time after your divorce, though, not getting a lawyer is foolish.
Your house is probably one of the biggest assets you own. If you don’t think through, (and write down) every detail of how you and your spouse intend to own and manage your home from the day you divorce, until the day that the house is sold you stand to lose a lot of money. What’s even worse, you could find yourself being held responsible for paying for a home that you don’t even own, or can’t even use.
The bottom line is that, if you have real estate that will not be sold before you divorce, you need a lawyer.
3. Do you or your spouse have retirement plans?
Your retirement accounts are probably worth more than anything else you own, except maybe your house. If you care at all about having enough money to retire someday, you need to consult with a divorce lawyer (and maybe a divorce financial planner) about what will happen to your retirement, and your spouse’s retirement, when you divorce.
Retirement plans can be simple or they can be extremely complicated. If you or your spouse has a pension, dividing it can be super tricky. It requires a special court order called a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). The same kind of order is required to divide 401(k) accounts, and many other retirement assets.
Drafting a QDRO properly requires skill, experience and expertise. If you mess it up, you can spend years chasing your tail in court. Or, you may find out that you’ve caused yourself to incur a huge, unexpected, income tax problem. Or, you may end having screwed up your paperwork so badly that you never end up being able to divide your retirement accounts as you planned.
If you plan on dividing up retirement accounts in your divorce, you need a divorce lawyer to guide you through the divorce process.
4. Will either you or your spouse need or want to receive support (a/k/a alimony or maintenance) after the divorce?
If either you or your spouse wants, or intends to get, alimony, you need a divorce lawyer. Period.
The laws surrounding spousal support/maintenance/alimony are anything but clear. Not only do you have to figure out if you or your spouse will be entitled to receive support, but you also have to determine how much support will be paid, and how long it will last. Each one of those determinations requires you to thoroughly understand the divorce law in your state, and to know how the law will apply to the specific facts of your case.
That isn’t easy for a lawyer to figure out. For a non-lawyer, it’s almost impossible.
There are so many nuances in the law regarding spousal support/maintenance/alimony that trying to figure out how to calculate, pay, or receive support without engaging a divorce lawyer is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with your future.
5. Do you have a complicated financial situation?
The simpler your financial situation, the less you need a lawyer to help you sort it out and protect it. If you and your spouse have regular jobs, don’t own real estate, don’t have much in retirement, have few assets and don’t carry a lot of debt, you may not need a divorce lawyer. (Unless, of course, you are fighting over your kids.) Your divorce should, theoretically, be fairly simple.
But, if you own a lot, owe a lot, or have your own business, then you probably shouldn’t get a divorce without a lawyer. The same is true if you are a high-level employee who gets a large, complex benefit package as part of your job. Sorting through and separating your shares in an employee stock option plan, or valuing restricted stock that has been earned but not vested, is complicated. You don’t want to delve into those kinds of complicated financial issues on your own.
In short, if you have assets that are worth protecting, then it’s worth investing in some good legal advice to make sure that when you divorce, you do everything right.
6. Do you and your spouse have complete information about your financial situation?
One of the first things you have to do in any divorce is figure out what’s at stake. To do that, you need documents … a lot of documents!
You need to review income tax returns, and bank statements and credit card bills. You need to get all of the documentation that will prove what your financial picture really looks like. Once you have all of that paperwork, then you can start figuring out who gets what in your divorce.
If someone isn’t willing to provide the financial information you need to understand what’s at stake in your case, you’re divorce is going to be an uphill battle. You can’t divide what you don’t know exists. To find out what exists from a spouse who isn’t willing to come clean with financial information, you need a divorce lawyer.
Trying to resolve a case with a spouse who won’t provide documentation isn’t easy. It takes skill, knowledge, determination, and a willingness to go to court over, and over again. In other words, it takes a lawyer.
7. Can you do your paperwork yourself?
The court system operates on paperwork. Lawyers typically write that paperwork. They know what to write, and how to write it in a form that judges will accept. If you’re going to try to get a divorce without a lawyer, you are going to have to do all of your paperwork yourself.
These days there are plenty of places you can get your divorce paperwork done for you online. You go to some website, pay a fee, answer a bunch of questions, and their software spits out your divorce documents for you.
The problem is: you get what you pay for.
While the online document production services probably produce legal documents that are better than what a non-lawyer could write, they are not nearly as good as what a lawyer would write. Whether those documents will be good enough for what you need in your divorce depends, again, on what’s involved in your divorce.
The more complicated your divorce is, and the more you have at stake, the more it makes sense to hire a divorce lawyer to do your divorce documents for you.
8. Is your case agreed, or are you and your spouse fighting?
If you and your spouse agree on everything in your divorce, then maybe you can manage to get divorced without a lawyer. (I say maybe because you still have to consider how complicated everything else is in your case. If you and your spouse are both multi-millionaires, and you own several businesses and multiple homes, you are going to need lawyers even if everything in your divorce is agreed!)
If everything in your case is NOT agreed, though, then you are definitely going to need lawyers. Fighting your own divorce case in court without a lawyer is never a good idea. Fighting without a lawyer when your spouse has a lawyer is an even worse idea. You will be at a tremendous disadvantage. That’s not something you ever want to do unless you absolutely have no choice.
Finally, even if you and your spouse settle all of your issues through mediation, you still are going to need lawyers. A mediator can’t write up all of your legal documents. S/he also can’t walk you through the court system. Only a lawyer can do that.
While it’s easy to think that, once you’ve negotiated a settlement in your divorce, you’re done, that’s not at all true. You’re only done when the judge proclaims you divorced. Getting to that point is much easier if you are working with a lawyer.
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.
First you have to figure out what documents you will need. (Here’s a hint: the online document production services rarely give you everything you need. There are usually still some other court forms you are going to have to fill out yourself.) But, getting the right documents together is only your first step.
You also have to figure out where and how to file those documents with the court. You have to get your spouse served with copies of those papers, or your spouse has to file an appearance on his/her own. After that, you have to figure out how to get a court date. Then you have to show up in court. And, that’s just the process you go through if your case is agreed. If you and your spouse are fighting, you will go back and forth to court over and over again.
Doing all of that takes time and patience. If you don’t have both, don’t even try to represent yourself in your divorce.
10. Are you an emotional basket case?
Divorce touches upon every major area of your life. It profoundly affects your finances, your family, your lifestyle, your home, and your psyche. To get through your divorce well, even with a lawyer, requires you to have your head together (at least a little bit). When you don’t have a lawyer AND you’re an emotional wreck, you risk making a wreck of your life.
While divorce lawyers are not therapists, there is a reason why lawyers are called “counselors.” They can listen to your complaints, help you formulate your goals, and make a legal strategy that will help you achieve your goals in your case. If you are so upset, angry or emotional that you can’t move forward toward your goals productively, they can do it for you. But, when you have no lawyer, there’s no one there to catch you if you mis-step.
If you were completely blind-sided by your divorce, and you’re still reeling from the fact that your marriage is suddenly over – you need a lawyer. If you are consumed with anger, sadness, depression or pain – you need a lawyer. Finally, if you are terrified, horrified, or baffled about what you’re going to do now that you are getting a divorce – you need a lawyer.
Getting a divorce while you’re riding an emotional roller coaster is only going to make you throw up all over yourself. Do yourself a favor. Don’t do it.
So, Should YOU Get a Divorce Without a Lawyer?
No sane person wants to spend their life’s savings on a divorce lawyer. But, unless you have a fairly simple divorce, and it is totally amicable, “going it alone,” can end up costing you way more than anything you would have spent on a divorce lawyer.