Do You Need A Divorce Attorney?

Let's Untie the Knot | Do You Need A Divorce Attorney?

You know you want a divorce but you don’t want to spend absurd amounts of money in the process.  You have scoured the web and looked through Do-it-yourself websites and figure, “how hard can it be?”  You have heard stories of how attorneys make everything worse, turning a relatively amicable and straightforward process into a virtual bloodbath.  On the other hand, you know absolutely nothing about divorce law and realize how crucial it is that your case is handled correctly.  You know that even the most amicable divorces can get ugly and that moving forward with a divorce when you don’t know the law, can be disastrous.  So how can you decide when you need to hire an attorney?  The following are some considerations to keep in mind:

Do you have minor children?

If you have minor children, the short answer is YES, you need a divorce attorney.  The most common source of disagreements between divorcing couples relates to child custody and child support issues.  Even though states have formulas for calculating the amount of child support, parties still fight over the factors that are included in that formula, including how much income a spouse has.  Couples may also disagree about “add-ons” such as summer camps, tutors, day care and private school tuition.  In fact, when couples disagree about child support and/or custody, a divorce is likely to take significantly longer and cost substantially more than it would otherwise.

In determining custody, courts may award sole custody to one parent or joint custody to both parents.  There is physical custody, which addresses who the child lives with; and legal custody, which deals with who makes decisions about the education, health and welfare of the child.  The court will consider the custody arrangement in determining support obligations but that is not the sole factor.  A parent may be required to provide support payments regardless of whether he or she has joint or primary physical custody of the child.  It is exceedingly difficult for the layperson to understand the intricacies of child support and custody and the vast number of factors considered by the court.  Consequently, even assuming you have an amicable divorce, it is highly advised that you retain counsel to maximize your likelihood of obtaining the most favorable outcome.

Will you or your spouse need/want to receive alimony after the divorce?

If either you or your spouse is seeking alimony, the answer to whether you need a divorce attorney is simple:  YES.  The laws surrounding alimony are murky and involve a multitude of factors.  You must not only determine whether you or your spouse is entitled to support but also determine the time frame and amount.  This is not a determination you should make without legal counsel.

Do you have a complicated financial situation?

If you have a complex financial situation, you may need a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) in addition to your divorce attorney.  A CDFA can assist in determining the short-term and long-term implications of dividing your property and may also be able to help you find an alternative property division settlement that provides you with a better financial future.  The CDFA can also help you figure out how best to maintain your current standard of living.  In addition, a CDFA can assist in: (1) valuing and dividing retirement accounts, pensions and investments, (2) valuing assets and debts, (3) assessing the financial implications of a proposed settlement agreement, and (4) determining the tax implications of child support, alimony and property division.

Do you or your spouse have retirement plans?\

With the exception of your house, your retirement plans may be the most valuable asset you own.  Retirement plans can be straightforward or very complicated.  For instance, if you or your spouse has a pension plan or 401(k), dividing those assets can be difficult.  If you choose to do it yourself and are not equipped with a sufficient amount of skill and expertise in this area you may find that you’ve caused yourself to incur significant tax problems or that you have made such egregious mistakes that you will never end up being able to divide your retirement accounts as you had planned.  Now is not the time to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Hire an attorney.

Do you own real estate?

If you own real estate and you plan on selling it during your divorce, you may not need legal help.   If, on the other hand, you or your spouse intends upon keeping the house for any period after your divorce, it is essential to hire an attorney.  Your house is most likely one of the most valuable assets you own and you and your spouse need to reach a written agreement about how you intend to own and manage it from the day you divorce until the day that it is sold.  Without knowledgeable legal counsel, you risk losing a good deal of money.

Are you able and willing to navigate through a lengthy and tedious court system?

Even assuming you and your soon-to-be ex agree on EVERYTHING (which is highly unlikely), to complete the divorce process without an attorney, you must both be willing to take the time and exert the energy necessary to fill out a stack of forms and navigate the family court system.  Proponents of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) divorces argue that all of the information is online; you just have to dig for it.  They point out that as long as you agree on the division of assets and debts, alimony and the custody of any children; then you can handle your divorce yourself.  What these people fail to acknowledge is that the process of divorce is not as simple as filling out one or two forms and signing on the dotted line.  Most people are not adequately educated about the law. 

Although they may understand what they want in general terms, parties may fail to grasp the intricacies of the divorce process.  Common misconceptions include understanding:  (1) what is included in child support and how support is allocated if you have more than one child, (2)  what alimony is, how it works, who is entitled to alimony and for how long, (3) how the marital estate is divided, and (4) the importance of creating a written parenting plan. 

In virtually all cases, it is advisable to retain a attorney to help you navigate through the divorce process.  Even if your divorce is amicable and you believe that you and your spouse agree on all the key issues; a divorce attorney will ensure that you understand everything that is at stake and the implications of all of your decisions.  Don’t fall prey to the common misconception that an attorney will “rob you blind” and draw out the process for his or her own benefit.  Take the time to interview several attorneys and find the one whose style and price-tag work best for you.  Trying to go it alone may result in your forfeiture of important rights, causing significant negative implications and remorse for your future non-married life.

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