The legal process of a divorce can be intimidating in the best, and terrifying in the worst, cases. There are foreign legal words, mysterious processes, and people who all seem to want a piece of you – or at least whatever money you have left.
So do you really need a divorce lawyer or can you just get a do-it-yourself kit? Every state is different, so it’s crucial to know what your state requires for a divorce. Usually this can be found on a government website. Look for Divorce Proceedings or Documentations, etc. Some states require you to file for a divorce and then wait for six weeks, while others require some form of counseling before they will grant a divorce, particularly if there are children involved. And some states are quite lenient when it comes to filing for divorce, merely requiring a bit of paperwork and signatures. Usually, you will be required to produce the original marriage license or a certified copy and current identification, such as a driver’s license or passport.
A do-it-yourself divorce is by far the cheapest option, but be careful not to mortgage your future just because you want to get the whole thing over with in an economical manner. Doing your own paperwork requires some level of trust in and from each person. You don’t want to find out after the fact that he’s been subsidizing his gambling addiction with your credit card or discover a hidden nest egg that should have been equally divided. But, if you think that both of you can be honest about your possessions and debt, and rationally divide up your property, a DIY divorce may be a good option. Just be very careful to read and re-read everything before you sign it.
The most common divorce proceedings include at least one lawyer. Unless you have very simple finances and property, my advice to you is to get a lawyer, even if you don’t think there is that much to worry about. Even if you think he would never go there or try that, get a lawyer. This country is full of divorced women blindsided by ex-husbands who took advantage of their trust or naïveté. Don’t be one of these women.
If you have minor children together, you must get a lawyer. And don’t just settle for any lawyer. Get a good lawyer. Ask around. Get recommendations. A good lawyer can make all the difference in the world for you and for your children. A good lawyer will know all the tricks that people use to get out of this or that, hide things, etc. A good lawyer will close all the loopholes and protect you from all sides. For example: My divorce decree requires us to exchange tax statements every year. Since the child support for my daughter is based on his income, it’s very important to know what he is making. My dear friend, Kayla, doesn’t have such a clause in her decree. As a result, her ex-husband lies about what he makes and gives her a pittance in child support.
Another example is requiring both parties to split the cost of daycare or childcare. After a divorce, many women must go back to work, but the cost of childcare can be so expensive they can’t make ends meet. My decree states that we split the cost of childcare, but my friend Sherry’s decree does not. As a result, she is stuck paying all the costs for her three children while she tries to earn a living and support them all. Your ex may do the right thing when it comes to the finances, the cars, the house, or college tuition—but don’t count on it. You must protect yourself and your future. Don’t think of it as being antagonistic or aggressive. Think of it as being smart. If you don’t have your best interests in mind, who will? Get a lawyer.
How do you pay for a lawyer if you don’t have access to the funds in the first place? Most judges will split the divorce costs between the two parties and take it out of the mutual bank accounts or property. Sometimes a judge may order one party to pay some or all of the costs. This can happen if one spouse is trumping up costs, being irrational, or dragging his feet in an effort to cost the other one more money. It doesn’t always work that way, but again, a lawyer can advise you on that and plead your case in front of a judge. Most lawyers will meet with you to discuss your options, how to proceed, and how to pay for their services. This initial meeting is usually free of charge, and many are willing to work out a payment plan.
You don’t have to be best friends with your lawyer, but it is important that you are comfortable with her. For instance, my lawyer understood that my number one goal was to try to save my marriage. I didn’t want to get divorced, but I knew I had to take steps to protect myself. So we went into the whole process hoping that, at any point, I wouldn’t need her anymore. Obviously, my marriage ended, and I did need her services, but I’m so thankful she respected my wishes and protected me in court.
Lawyers are also very good at taking the emotion out of the process as well as defining what’s really important. There were many times when I was too emotionally wounded to fight or defend myself as needed, but I needed someone to make a rational decision or defend against an attack. My lawyer fought hard for me. I will be forever grateful to her.
Another option to consider is a mediator. Again, in each state, the qualifications and definitions differ, so do your research. In addition to each of our lawyers, Phil and I also used a mediator together. We had some very complicated financial issues to work out and many details concerning our young daughter. We realized that we could either decide our future, or leave it to a stranger in a black robe who didn’t know either one of us or our child. Our mediator helped us decide multiple issues that otherwise would have been fought out in court—things we never would have thought of, but I am thankful she did. For example: putting in something about how I get my daughter for Mother’s Day, and she is with her dad for Father’s Day. Sounds simple, but my friend, Bethany, rarely gets to see her kids on Mother’s Day because her ex “happens” to be vacationing in Europe with them. This also happens to her on her birthday and the children’s birthdays as well. Not life- threatening, but certainly cruel, and easily accounted for in a solid divorce decree.
Phil and I interviewed three different mediators before we found one we both liked. She turned out to be a godsend, bringing up a wide variety of matters we needed to decide. For instance: My family lives across country, and I want to go home to be with them for Christmas. Usually, divorced parents alternate during their child’s Christmas holiday – the first week with one parent, the second week with the other. But for us, cross-country travel dictated a need for a longer length of time. We decided that we would alternate Christmas and Thanksgiving every year giving Molly more time to spend with her grandparents instead of choppy and tiring travel during the holidays. Our mediator helped us put this and many other issues in writing, and then we signed a tentative agreement on them. Our agreements weren’t technically legally binding until pronounced upon in the court, but they gave us the road map when our lawyers drew up our final decree. Although our mediator wasn’t cheap, it was still less expensive than hashing out all those details in court. Lawyers cost more than mediators. Use a mediator when at all possible, and use a lawyer when it’s not.
Divorces are hard, icky, and awful. But don’t let the shock of being in one numb your common sense. Don’t take anything for granted. Get a lawyer. We all know stories of someone who was taken to the cleaners by their ex. Don’t be one of those stories that people tell in hushed tones while shaking their heads. Protect yourself and your future. Get a lawyer.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from The Christian Chick’s Guide to Surviving Divorce, which provides wisdom and encouragement to women of faith who are going through divorce. Suzanne Reeves, a “Perky Texan” who now lives in Chicago, IL, is an author, speaker, actress, and director who has experienced divorce first-hand.