“Do I really need a lawyer for my divorce?”
If you’ve been married a relatively short time and you don’t have kids, if you don’t have many assets or much debt, of if you and your spouse have worked everything out, you might be able to proceed without a lawyer. Court clerks are usually not allowed to give legal advice, but that doesn’t mean they can’t tell you where to file certain papers. And these days, with the new trend toward pro se divorce, legal forms are available for the taking on many state websites. If all else fails, legal-form publishers sell “divorce kits”; that you can use to do all the paperwork yourself.
On the other hand, if you have children, if you have acquired assets (even if it’s just a house and a pension or retirement plan), or if you and your spouse cannot agree on anything, you would be well advised to seek legal counsel. Even if you agree on everything, getting a consultation is still money well spent. It’s perfectly acceptable to present a lawyer with the agreement you and your spouse have drafted and ask for comments. These days, with the new trend in “unbundled” and à la carte legal services, you may not need to break the bank to get all the protection you need.
One young father assumed that if his wife had custody of their young son, she would be free to move anywhere in the country. He was surprised, and relieved, to learn from his attorney that he could include a stipulation in his agreement that his wife not move more than 75 miles from her present location — provided he had not already moved himself. That was a provision he wanted, and got, in the agreement. For him, the attorney’s fees spent were well worth it.
Pamela Weintraub and Terry Hillman are co-founders of Divorce Central, an online service. This answer has been excerpted from their book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Surviving Divorce (Third Edition, Alpha Books, 2005).