Don’t I Need a Divorce Lawyer?

Usually the very first person one calls after making the decision to divorce is a best friend. That friend, who has always been there, listens to all of the reasons why this is happening. But as a friend, divorce advice must be given. Or should it?

Bill and Nancy

When Bill and I went through our divorce, I used this great family law attorney. He got me everything that I wanted and the kids spend their time mostly with me. I’m getting child support and I can see a bright future. I’m even getting some alimony.

Gary and Julie

You know Steve, I should call my friend Gary. When he separated last year, he had this divorce lawyer negotiate his deal for him. He didn’t get taken to the cleaners and he’s seeing his kids half the time. Yeah, he is paying child support, but who isn’t? I’ll get his lawyer’s name for you.

Have you ever heard stories like these? Couples are constantly being referred by family and friends to the best divorce lawyers in town. But do you really need one to do all of your talking for you? Take Bill and Nancy for example. They both used great divorce attorneys to do all of their talking. As a result, the kids spend the school nights with Nancy and three out of four weekends with Bill. But that is the way Bill and Nancy would have wanted it anyway. Bill is in sales – always gone during the week – but always home on the weekends. Nancy is receiving alimony for a short period so she can finish her Master’s degree because she wants to be self-sufficient. The end product worked perfectly for the both of them. But they did what they thought they had to do. They called divorce attorneys. All along, they wanted to keep it civil but weren’t aware that they could make their own decisions concerning their divorce. In other words, they wasted a lot of time and money when they could have had the same end-result themselves.

What about Gary and Julie? They went through a divorce last year and both retained divorce lawyers. “Don’t talk to her unless you talk through me”, his attorney told him. “You want to see your kids don’t you? Do you want to get taken to the cleaners?” he was asked. Terrified, Gary retained counsel. Actually, Julie is a pretty good person. She wanted the kids to see their dad and wasn’t interested in a child custody fight. They had been partners for 16 years and she felt she deserved half of the assets. She had worked for a while before the kids came, then became a stay-at-home mom. Seemed reasonable. She knew that she would need a financial base to move forward. Julie’s lawyer made sure she got it. What Julie’s lawyer didn’t realize was that since nobody was talking to each other, nobody knew that Gary also thought that Julie should have half of the assets. They each spent $12,000 finding out that they didn’t really need the attorneys to do what they could do themselves.

Most couples with whom I mediate are reasonable people who arrive in my office for a variety of reasons. Rarely do I find couples who wish to keep the children from the other parent, don’t want to pay child support, or don’t want to share the assets. A funny thing happens: When they talk, they listen. She remembers he is a miserable husband, but is a great daddy. Or she cheated on him, but the kids couldn’t ask for a better mom. A lousy spouse does not necessarily mean a lousy parent. It’s funny. When mom and dad talk about the kids, their differences, at least for the time being, shift to the kids and what is best for them. I think that children need two parents. But can that be argued when a divorce attorney represents only one parent? Maybe. But not usually.

It’s like a multiple choice test. Joan’s lawyer’s answer is “A”. Nick’s lawyer’s answer is “B”. With whose plan shall we go? But wait! There is also a “C”, a “D”, and the ever popular “E – all of the above”. You mean “A” and “B” can coexist? We can both have what we want? In many cases, yes. In just as many cases, the other answers are sufficient enough to satisfy both spouses in their quest for a reasonable agreement.

When do I need an attorney?

You need an attorney when you need or believe you need legal advice. You may also need one if you feel overwhelmed or confused about the divorce laws. However, you can probably make your own decisions as to whether Junior is with you on Christmas morning or who will pay for his summer camp. There are so many questions that you can answer yourself because it is you who is the parent and it is you who is accustomed to making decisions that affect them.

After your mediator helps you and your spouse arrive at an agreement in all areas, you will receive a document known as a Memorandum of Understanding. This memorandum is used by a referral attorney to author a separation agreement that puts your decisions of child time sharing and decision making, asset and liability division, and support issues into a legal format.

Since a separation agreement is legally binding, now would be a good time to get a separate legal opinion on a document that will affect you for the rest of your life. Have an attorney review it and offer you advice. Once you sign it, it’s a done deal.

So let’s recap. You made your own decisions. Your mediator put them in writing. You had a divorce lawyer draft your separation agreement for you both to sign. Before you signed, you got an hour or two of a lawyer’s time to read it over. What did you save? Time and money. You mediated and got your separation agreement inside of a month. What you didn’t do was stretch the process to almost a year, have a vicious child custody battle, go broke during the process, and end up hating your children’s other parent. What you also didn’t do was sit in fear wondering if you will ever see the kids again or have enough money to survive.

Congratulations. Your mediation is complete. You can now move forward as you saved about $10,000 each. With a custody battle, add another $15,000 – $50,000 each to the mix.