SAN DIEGO, February 24, 2015 – Reading the news about high profile divorce cases, it’s natural to assume everyone who gets divorced has a pricey lawyer at his or her side, and they and the soon-to-be-ex go through a long, ugly battle in court over their kids, their stuff, and their circumstances. There is a winner, and a loser, or sometimes everyone ends up unhappy.
But the reality for most people is far different. In California, an astonishing 70 percent of all couples handle their divorce on their own, or “pro per,” meaning no lawyer assists or represents either spouse in any way. They fill out and file their own paperwork, create their own agreements about custody or division or property, and get it all stamped by a court staffer. Maybe they get a little help from a document preparer or paralegal. Maybe they attend a workshop or a low-cost legal clinic. Maybe they get some guidance from a Family Law Facilitator’s office at the courthouse.
The reason most people go through a divorce on their own is due to the cost, at least the perceived cost, of paying attorneys to take care of it for them. But is this a good idea? Should you try to represent yourself and your interests in your divorce?
In some situations, you should be able to handle a simple divorce yourself with a little education and perhaps a little help or a review of your paperwork, as long as these circumstances apply.
- You have been married less than 10 years.
- You do not have any minor children.
- You do not own any real estate, such as a home, either seperately or together.
- You do not own or have interest in a business, either seperately or together.
- Neither party has any interest or ownership in any retirement benefits.
- Your incomes are relatively the same; no one makes a great deal more than the other.
If you can answer “yes” to all six of these questions, you are a good candidate to go ahead and navigate your divorce on your own, or at least give it a try in the early stages. You are not at great risk for making any mistakes that will cost you any lasting harm. If you change your mind, you at least took it as far as you were comfortable.
But if even one of the six questions touches on a situation that describes you accurately, you have a lot at stake that could greatly affect your future and the future of your children, both financially and emotionally. This makes a do-it-yourself divorce much more difficult. If you get any part of it wrong, a mistake could cost you and end up making things much harder for you.
Many couples try to avoid the short-term expenses involved in paying an attorney’s fees. Sometimes couples will try to save money using just one attorney to represent both of them. They will go along to get along, fearing the financial consequences of going to court and working out disagreements about property, support, or custody.
There are important considerations of law involved with child custody, child support, spousal support, valuing and dividing real estate, retirement and business interests. You may be unaware of your community property rights. You could overlook this without the proper legal guidance. Even if you honestly think you agree with your soon-to-be-ex about custody arrangements for your children, how might things change if one parent wants to move far away? Or change schools? Or if there is a new spouse waiting in the wings?
While most courts do offer some sort of free legal service, courts across the country are being significantly impacted by budget restrictions. You may wait in line to see a facilitator for hours, or return several different times to get basic advice. If you have to take days off work, or pay for additional child care, you can run up your costs quickly. If your situation is unusual or complicated, you cannot be sure the advice you receive takes all of this into consideration.
As with so much in life, it is better to do things right the first time, and it is far less expensive in the long term than having to go back and fix things if you get it wrong. You may not have a complete understanding of your rights, or your childrens’ rights. You may leave money or property rightfully yours on the table. You may find out months or years later you were lied to, or simply didn’t know the full truth of the situation at the time of your divorce.
If your budget is limited, you can help keep costs down by listening to and following your attorney’s instructions and being as helpful and forthcoming as possible providing information. Spend time outside the attorney’s office working through problems and try to find ways to reach agreement in a timely manner. If you need help, seek a licensed mental health professional. Many have specific expertise working with divorcing couples.
Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra. Fleischer can be reached via Google +
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