Forward Thinking Family Law Since 1994

Thinking of Doing Your Divorce Yourself? What Can Go Wrong?

It is enticing to think that you could save the money of paying lawyers to represent you in the divorce. Unfortunately, lawyers also have the reputation of stirring things up, so let's keep it amicable and keep the lawyers out of it.

What can go wrong?

I probably see at least two people every month who confer with me with the expectation that I can "fix" their divorce. Some have been represented by lawyers; some not. Many times I have to give them the bad news that there are parts of their judgment that I can help them fix, but other portions that I cannot.

Recently, a very decent woman came in who wanted to stay "friends" with her husband after the divorce. He convinced her that if they worked with lawyers, this would not be possible, because the lawyers would raise the conflict. They would part as enemies. So, she avoided using a lawyer. Unknown to her, he did not.

He owned a business from which derived over $200,000 in income every year, not counting the vehicle allowance, the credit card, the depreciation and other perks. He convinced her that the business is worth only $100,000. For those who do not value businesses for a living, you should know that it is highly unlikely that a business that generates that much income is worth less than half of the annual income. In 35 years, I have never seen such a result. She settled for far less than the business was probably worth. This business could easily have been worth 3 times this value. Since this is part of the property settlement, no lawyer can fix this after the judgment has been entered.

How would a lawyer have dealt with this issue? If you worked with a mediator or a collaborative professional, they would have suggested the parties hire a neutral business valuator who would conduct an informal valuation for them. The neutral is a CPA with special training in valuing businesses. For under $5,000, they would have found out what the business is really worth and figured out a way to pay wife her half of the value, without destroying the business. My client lost a lot by trying to appease her former husband. As you might guess, he is entirely unapologetic about this.

The problems were compounded in that he under reported his income to her. She received less than half the child support and less than half the spousal support she should have received. The good news here is that this can be fixed. However, she cannot recover the months of underpayment. During that time she and the children really struggled. Support cannot be fixed retroactively. Also, the judge took the position that the amount of spousal support can be modified, but the duration cannot. If he had accurately reported his income, she would have been entitled to receive support for a longer period of time.

This very decent woman had tried to do the right thing for her family, but unfortunately her husband was not worthy of her trust. The cost of a lawyer would have been much less than the financial losses in this case. Yes, parts of this case can be fixed, but other parts cannot. The lack of trust and betrayal that she feels probably can never be overcome.

In another case, husband kept the marital home on which there was a mortgage. They were unrepresented. He asked her to sign the quit claim deed after the divorce was final, which made sense to her. She did not understand that in order to be relieved of the obligation to pay the mortgage, he needed to refinance the house. He did not refinance. He filed for bankruptcy, which resulted in discharging the mortgage as to him. She was now fully obligated to pay the mortgage on a house she did not own. Her only alternative was to also file bankruptcy to discharge the mortgage unless she wanted to pay a mortgage on the house owned by her ex-husband. Her credit had otherwise been in good shape.

It is possible to have an amicable divorce while you are receiving good advice from lawyers or mediators. Admittedly, the up-front costs are higher. However, after you discover you have made such costly errors, it's hard to feel collegial towards that former spouse who put you at such a costly disadvantage. You deserve better and so do your children or others who depend on you.