If you are getting your divorce advice from your friends who have been through a divorce, your minister or priest, or your bartender, you will probably hear one of two "truths". First, that you need to get the meanest, "baddest" lawyer you can find to take the errant spouse to the cleaners. Or, alternatively, that hiring a lawyer is a waste of your money and that you can do it yourself.
While these friendly advisors mean well, if you really want to know how much legal help you need or whether adversarial legal process will be required in order to obtain an effective settlement of your divorce or parenting dispute, you are better off going to a reputable family law attorney.
What follows are some tips on how to prepare for a visit to a lawyer and some perhaps surprising ways a lawyer can add value to your family law matter.
Prepare in advance. By all means, go online, but do not assume that what you find there is all the information you will need.
There is a ton of information on the internet about the fundamentals of family law. That is both a good thing and a difficult thing. Because there is so much, how can you get a grasp of the whole picture? Is the information accurate in your state? Did the posting person have an ax to grind?
It makes great sense to do some reading before making an appointment with an attorney or beginning a dialogue with your spouse or partner about your family law matter. There are many books available at the library or bookstores on the essence of getting a divorce or settling a parenting time dispute. And, there are some excellent websites with good basic information on the internet. At a minimum, having some idea of the information that you will need to gather before making any important decisions will be useful preparation for you, whether you decide to talk with an attorney or do the divorce on your own (called pro se, which means "for oneself" and refers to people who represent themselves in court).
Is your case really a "simple" one?
Pro se filing can work well in simple divorces. If you have no children, own no real estate, are not arguing about the division of the cars and furniture or anything else, and you are both adequately employed and do not need support from the other, you may be a great candidate to work out your own deal and then represent yourself in getting the divorce.
Michigan does not have a simple divorce procedure. It can be hard for lay people to figure out the procedure for getting a divorce, let alone the content of a settlement. You may be able to find the necessary forms online or purchase a kit. And, some jurisdictions have legal assistance centers where paralegals and attorney volunteers will guide you in how to process the forms. Still, the only time to prevent the loss of major rights or assets is before you sign a settlement. You need to know that you have at least considered all that might be your lawful settlement before signing a deal with the other partner. After a Settlement Agreement is signed, a lawyer is pretty useless to you unless there is a serious and mutual mistake of fact on which you based that agreement.
Could you be missing something?
Retirement, for instance, can be a large marital asset that gets overlooked or left with the earner spouse. Or, you may be nearing the ten year mark on your marriage and could benefit from delaying the divorce until you have qualified to take Social Security under your former spouse's Social Security Number, especially if your income is relatively low compared to the spouse's. Is your name on credit accounts that you could be held liable for after a divorce? Could the spouse have hidden assets in employer benefits such as excess vacation time? Is there cash value in a life insurance policy?
Essentially, what harm is there in having an attorney at least review the basics with you before you negotiate your own deal and then go over the proposed Settlement Agreement before you sign it. Two key appointments could net you substantial savings.
Besides Pro Se divorce, what other affordable options are available?
Attorneys can be useful as advisors, whether in mediation sessions or before or after the sessions but without having responsibility to do interrogatories or depositions or subpoena records. You might have an appointment with counsel before a negotiation or mediation session and not return for another appointment until there is a draft of an agreement. The attorney can review the draft Memorandum of Agreement to see if it makes good sense and covers all that should be included in your agreement.
In these ways, with intelligent use of legal resources, you may be able to work through all your differences and come to good decisions which the mediator or counsel then captures in a memorandum of agreement. Then, if you think you can navigate the procedural complexities of filing your case and getting through the court process, you are a superior candidate for a pro se divorce.