Summary on how an attorney can help you safely navigate the raging waters of divorce.
A paralegal is not a lawyer, and forms are not all you need.
Every day I see signs posted in various places with the wording "uncontested divorce $250" littered across street corners, most commonly at Wal-Mart. While it wouldn't totally surprise me to hear of a lawyer advertising that way, magic markers on poster-board typically aren't our thing. I've called a couple of the posted numbers out of curiosity to see who's running these offers. Typically it is either a notary, paralegal or someone who worked for a lawyer at one time. These people think that forms are all you need. Law school would have been a lot easier if all we learned was how to change people's names in forms.
The truth is, possession of forms can never take the place of a competent divorce attorney. A good paralegal may know a lot, but the devil is always in the details. For example, a paralegal may know how to describe division of retirement assets in a decree, but most won't know how to effect that division through a qualified domestic relations order. A paralegal may know how to run numbers through a spreadsheet to calculate child support, but most don't know how to identify the correct numbers to plug into the equation. An equation doesn't do a whole lot of good with the wrong values. A paralegal won't have the experience to foresee pitfalls from a vague, non-specific joint parenting plan. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. You need more than forms to give competent divorce advice. You need a competent lawyer.
Do I have to get a lawyer for my divorce?
This question evokes memories of tic tac commercials from my childhood. The spokesperson would say "Can you breathe without a tic tac? Sure. But I don't recommend it." The same applies to having a divorce lawyer, only the consequences of not having one far exceeds breathing without a tic tac. Under the Constitution, you have the right to represent yourself in any court proceeding, but that doesn't mean you should. As explained above, there are a lot of things of things the average person wouldn't think about while negotiating an agreed divorce or pursuing a divorce trial. Can you get divorced without a lawyer? Sure. But I wouldn't recommend it.
What should I look for when choosing a divorce attorney?
The maxim "you get what you pay for" typically rings true with lawyers as with other things. If you hire a cheap lawyer, you will get a cheap result. Of course, sometimes that's all you need if the situation isn't complex. A have-nothing-owe-nothing divorce can be done by someone who doesn't have a lot of experience. A divorce where the spouses lived like single people throughout their marriage (e.g. separate bank accounts or credit cards with no access by the other spouse) can typically be handled by an inexperienced person also. In these cases, the only thing to be done is dissolving the marriage because there are no assets to divide. It should be noted that just because a debt or asset is held in one spouse's name doesn't mean the asset can't be divided in divorce (division of property will be discussed in a future post). It's just that people who live that way usually want to keep things that way, so there aren't any extra steps necessary beyond dissolving the marriage.
In contrast, a high asset divorce will require a thoroughly experienced lawyer. The identification of marital assets and valuation of those assets is a very complicated process. Furthermore, support alimony, another complicated concept, is almost always an issue in high asset cases. You will want to look at and ask about the lawyer's track record before hiring a lawyer. Ask specific questions about experience with cases similar to yours.
The same principle applies with contested custody cases. Someone who isn't used to the rigors and stress of a custody battle probably won't be a good fit for a nightmare custody case. Take your time to find the right lawyer. This involves more than the lawyer's experience. Pay attention to the way the lawyer interacts with you. If it doesn't seem like a good fit, it probably won't get better. Ask around and see what other lawyers say about that person. Time spent finding someone who not only has the right experience, but the right personal appeal, will be invaluable. It is very hard to be successful when lawyer and client are out of sync.
What is the cost of representation for a divorce?
This question deserves the quintessential lawyer answer: it depends. I usually give people a ball park range broken down into three tiers. The first tier is for uncontested cases, ranging from around $1,500 to $2,500. Most truly uncontested cases aren't costly. However, I routinely find that the case is not in fact uncontested once I start representing the client in the case. Don't rely on a quote for an uncontested divorce unless you're sure you're in complete agreement.
The second tier is for mid-case settlements, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. In this tier, people fight in the beginning, then realize they're being petty, and also that fighting is expensive. They will turn focus toward settlement. In my experience, most divorces fit this category. When the divorce case is first filed, the wound is fresh, and it hurts like crazy. People want blood, and they see their spouse as the enemy. After a couple hearings, and more importantly, after experience living apart, the mirage of the other spouse being the enemy will fade. You may recognize that you didn't actually marry a pedophile or sociopath. You married an imperfect person who you are not compatible with for whatever reason. The emotional haze brings out the worst in the best of us. Most clients are able to recover from initial divorce insanity, but some are unable to see past hurt feelings. As you go along, and settlement options come up, think to yourself, "am I unwilling to compromise because it will harm my children, or am I unwilling to compromise because I don't want my ex to win?" If you fall in the latter category, I would invite you to rethink that position, or else be prepared to pay as described below.
The third tier, ranging $5,000 to over $30,000, is for trial cases or brink of trial settlements. As you can see, there is wide disparity in this category. The higher end is for cases lasting more than a couple days of trial, and the lower end would be for a half-day trial. Bear in mind, most lawyers will use three to five hours of preparation for each hour spent in trial. Think about how much that will be for a three day trial. For a modestly priced lawyer ($175 per hour) that would be $12,600 to $21,000 which would be just for trial, not the time leading up to the home stretch.
Sometimes trials are necessary, even if they are extremely expensive. There are some cases where the opposing view is so unreasonable that you have no choice but to take the case to trial. If your case is likely to go to trial, start saving, or even consider taking out a loan. If you run out of money along the way, your lawyer may quit the case. Divorce has far-reaching effects for a lot of people, and a short-term loan is well worth it for certain situations.
Is there any hope?
The foregoing discussion may leave some people feeling hopeless or helpless. But fear not, there is hope. The majority of divorces handled by a competent and conscientious attorney will result in greater peace of mind. Once you have a solid ground through effective representation, the time for posturing is over. People typically realize that even though they're not married anymore, they still need to work together as parents.
Also, good advice goes a long way. The seeds of divorce are laid with mistrust. Competent advice can help people learn to work together, rebuilding trust to form a functional post-divorce partnership. Good advice helps clients prioritize conflict and make goals based on what is really important. The best part of my job is taking a hot and chaotic mess of a case and restoring order and stability. Sometimes that involves hard realizations for clients, but a good lawyer will be there for you every step of the way through that journey. Realizing what you can and can't have is empowering. Most of the time, clients will be able to keep what matters most to them, while casting aside the things that only give temporary satisfaction (e.g. the guilty pleasure of facebook bashing your ex). A good lawyer will show you the way. I promise there is hope if you're willing to make the time and money investment for a competent divorce attorney. Don't settle for the temporary cost-benefits of a counterfeit substitute. The costs are far greater than the benefits.
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