SELECTING A FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY
I have been practicing family law in the Central Florida area for nearly 17 years. During this time, I have seen very good people at their absolute worst and witnessed people do and say things that they would later come to seriously regret. I have also been through the system myself (I’m a single father of an 8 year-old daughter) and have firsthand knowledge of divorce on a very personal level. Many attorneys do not like practicing family law because of the drama typically associated with divorcing parties. It is true. This is often because family and divorce clients (“family law” clients) encounter high levels of stress. These stress levels, left unabated, are toxic to the client and nearly everyone with whom the client has contact.
Everyone knows somebody who has been divorced. Divorce is so common that is hard to imagine someone whose life has not been touched by it in one way or another. Nowadays, marriage is less prevalent and parents are having children out-of-wedlock at a higher rate than ever. So while divorce or technically “dissolutions of marriage” have been very common legal proceedings, the non-married versions or “paternity petitions” are becoming increasingly more common. These are technically called “Petitions to Establish Paternity and for Other Relief.” They allow for non-married parties to have a Florida Court determine their respective rights and obligations to their minor children born out of wedlock.
The one thing that both legal proceedings have in common is a high level of stress on the parties and, if they have kids together, then the minor children, too. It is fairly common knowledge that divorce is the second most stressful thing that an adult can endure, with the death of a spouse being number 1. In fact, psychiatrists have indexed the effects of divorce as being a “73” in “life change units” with the death of a spouse being “100.” This information is based upon the work of psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. Interestingly, a modified scale has been developed for non-adults (read: minor children). And similarly, the death of a parent equates to being “100” in life change units while the divorce of parents results in a very scary “90” in life change units for the little ones.The bottom line is that stress has been shown unequivocally to increase the chances of disease and adversely affect health in both adults and children. So keep in mind that decisions made during this time period can have serious consequences.
Family law attorneys are experienced at navigating the stress and loss caused by these types of legal proceedings and can make a huge difference in determining how a client and the client’s minor children will ultimately fare during the process. It is a sad commentary to think that many of these family law clients will not even contact a family law attorney because they think that they cannot afford one. The true question is whether you and your children can afford not to hire one. This guide is intended to help potential clients select and retain a family law attorney who is right for them. Importantly, it contains key information about how to afford one when one’s financial situation is less than ideal for hiring an attorney.
I am passionate about family law because it is the one area of the law that I have found where I can make the biggest difference in my client’s lives. Because even if Mommy and Daddy both get lawyers, and they often do, the children don’t get lawyers. Sure, they sometimes get advocates if the parents can afford and agree to hire them to help the court make decisions that are in the best interest of the minor children. (Such as Guardian ad Litems, “GAL”s and so forth). But the reality of any family law matter involving minor children is that the children are frequently unrepresented. And as an attorney and human being, I feel a direct responsibility to minor children such that their interests are protected as best as reasonably possible even while I advocate for one party or the other. If parents in divorce or family law cases put the needs of their children first, our society would be much better. “Single” household families would have much more support because the “other parent”, although absent, would be more involved, more supportive, and more willing to assist financially when needed.
People are often ignorant about their rights to a minor child born out of wedlock if the parties split up when a court order has not been previously entered. The reality is that the birth mother, irrespective of whether the father has signed or is on the birth certificate, has complete control and authority over a minor child born out-of-wedlock.
Finally, the other major distinction between the two proceedings is that dissolution of marriage proceedings allow the court to take jurisdiction over all of the marital assets and liabilities as well as alimony and other issues. Whereas paternity petitions concern only minor children born of the relationship; not out of marriage.
LEGAL AID SERVICES, PRO BONO SERVICES, FREE ATTORNEYS
Depending on your financial resources, you can always try to contact your local Legal Aid office. But don’t be surprised if you find that they are “not taking any new cases.” Also, if you are simply seeking to establish a child support obligation, the Department of Revenue might be able to help you. They are fine people but they are also extremely overloaded with work. Many people find that the Department of Revenue takes “too long” or is not responsive to their needs. This is because they have thousands of clients! In conclusion, while there are certainly exceptions to every rule, it is important to keep in mind that when dealing with attorneys, you generally get what you pay for. There is no substitute for an attorney that has been retained by you for you because he or she has a duty to zealously advocate for you to the best of their ability. No attorney should take your case if they are unable or unwilling to do just that.
WHEN SHOULD I CONSIDER NOT HIRING AN ATTORNEY
It is true that you do not need to have an attorney at all in order to get divorced or in connection with every family law legal matter. However, if you do not, you do so at your own peril. Do not rely on the advice of non-attorneys, friends, family, paralegals or anyone other than a family law attorney in connection with getting legal advice. You invariably have seen people advertising signs that say “Divorce $300.00” or you may be aware of non-attorneys/paralegals that will offer to “fill out the forms” for a fee. People offering such services are not legal professionals and can’t legally give you any legal advice.
With that said, I do believe that there are times when you do not need to hire an attorney. If you have a short term marriage with little or no assets and little or no debt, then it will almost certainly save you money to either fill out the forms yourself, or get assistance from someone who is paid only to fill out the forms, if you like. However, I would still contact an attorney to confirm that actual legal representation would not be necessary, if not advisable, under your circumstances.
WHEN DO I NEED TO HIRE A FAMILY LAW ATTORNEY
You should hire a family law attorney whenever the collective “stakes” of your divorce and/or family law matter are of such consequence that losing most or all of it would prove to be financially and/or emotionally crippling to you. You should always hire a family law attorney whenever the divorce/family law matter involves your minor children. You should also hire a family law attorney if you have been contacted in connection with a child support obligation through the Department of Revenue. If you are seeking to modify a support obligation, then you should definitely contact a family law attorney. You can also seek to hire an attorney with Legal Aid, the bar association or the Department of Revenue, (under some circumstances) with the same caveats mentioned above.