Forward Thinking Family Law Since 1994

Representing Yourself in a Divorce

Do you have to have a lawyer representing you in a divorce? Legally, people can represent themselves in civil court. Lets say your spouse and you have been talking about divorce and have agreed on the terms of a settlement. With the internet and the self-help products out there, can you do it yourselves?

Legally, yes.

The real question is whether it is wise? Often the answer to that is you are being penny wise and pound foolish. Why? Because divorce fundamentally changes your relationship to each other, to your children and to your property, including future earnings. A misstep, even a smaller one, can be expensive later. It can also place you in a position where, if your former spouse and you cannot get along well later, you may lack the tools to correct the situation. Sometimes, as described later in this article, it may be legally impossible to correct a mistake.

Hiring a lawyer is an important decision. Recently, people have cited that when lawyers get involved, they pit the husband against the wife and drive up the cost of the divorce. There is no denying that there are lawyers who will do that. Sometimes, the couple themselves become angry about certain aspects of their situation and cannot work to resolve it.

Your job in selecting a lawyer is to find someone who will help you resolve the issues that come up in FULLY NEGOTIATING your settlement. As part of the interviewing process, look for lawyers who have good negotiation skills and who are committed to helping people resolve their problems; not enflame their clients. Lawyers who have mediation and collaborative practice experience should have those skills and commitment.

During the initial interview, check that out. Mention an issue that may pose a problem for your spouse and you. Ask the lawyer how he/she would deal with this. If it sounds as though they would antagonize your spouse, then keep looking.

If you sense from the lawyer that he/she does not really have your best interests at heart, find another lawyer. There are many committed attorneys who really want to assist you reach a complete settlement that will last for a minimum of the cost necessary.

Divorce is such an emotionally charged time, that it is difficult for one of the parties to objectively look at all the issues and consider all the implications. Few people have the training to understand all the implications of their settlement.

For example, many of my clients do not understand the need to have the party who is retaining the house refinance the mortgage. Most of my clients believe that signing a quit claim deed will "get them off the house." True, it will get them off the title. It will not get them off the mortgage. They could end up releasing their interest in the house, but remain obligated on the mortgage.

Many do not understand their entitlement to share in their spouse's retirement. If they do, they may not understand that this includes pre-retirement benefits, cost of living benefits, post retirement benefits and death benefits.

Many clients have their vehicles titled in both names. They are not aware of the liability that this imposes.

Many clients do not pay attention to joint debts. They think by requiring their spouse to pay all of a joint credit card, that they can shift that responsibility.

Some clients feel overwhelmed by joint debt and have no idea how they may use joint assets to reduce or eliminate debt, so they can begin their new lives debt free.

A good attorney can actually end up saving you money. In some cases, they can help you avoid mistakes that cannot be reversed. Many clients do not know, for example, that under Michigan law, property settlements cannot be changed unless both parties agree.

Let us take the example of the wife who signed the quit claim deed for the house to her husband as part of the divorce. Two years after the divorce, husband loses his job and stops making the mortgage payments. The house is foreclosed and wife is sued along with husband for the deficiency. She wants the mortgage obligation corrected to remove her from the responsibility. There is no way to do that unless husband AND the mortgage company agree. An unlikely outcome.

Living costs money. Major life changes cost money. Invest in yourself and your family and obtain the services of a professional who really understands divorce.