Divorce is the most emotion-filled, vulnerable, and sometimes frightening time in many people’s lives. It is a complicated process, and without legal knowledge, it can be very confusing. You will be called upon to make decisions that will probably affect the rest of your life. This is also perhaps the worst possible time for you to be making these decisions, given your likely emotional state. A lawyer is not necessary in every divorce case. Many have successfully navigated the divorce process without one. For those whose marriages have been short (less than six or seven years), without children, and with no real estate and few other assets, and when neither party is requesting alimony, self-representation may be an acceptable option because legal forms and procedures for proceeding without a lawyer are obtainable through local bar associations, legal aid organizations, volunteer legal services, and/or online resources. Nevertheless, having an experienced lawyer “in your corner” can often be in your best interest and can even save you time, money, and peace of mind. This is particularly true if your spouse has retained counsel or your divorce is contested, has complicated legal issues or significant assets, and/or involves children.
Your lawyer will be your advocate and counselor—the person who you will need to feel comfortable communicating with about private, personal, and sensitive issues. Whoever you choose must be able to understand you and give you the confidence and trust to know that your best interest is at all times his or her highest priority. The family court judge who will be hearing your case generally understands what you’re going through, likely lives in your community, and often shops in the same grocery stores as you. So do the lawyers. Selecting a lawyer from your community, one who knows the court and the court staff and has a good professional relationship with the judge, can only help you.
Choosing the right lawyer for yourself can also help in ways not readily apparent. It can help with the seemingly little things, such as needing an order signed on a Friday afternoon, scheduling an emergency hearing before a judge or referee whose clerk is already looking at a full court docket, or appearing before a judge after violating a provision of an order. Your lawyer is often viewed by court staff, and sometimes even by the judge, as a reflection of the client. Even though the client may in some instances be undeserving of that recognition, the right lawyer can sometimes provide
Published in Family Advocate, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Summer 2017). © 2017 American Bar Association. All rights reserved.help with situations such as those just described, situations that are not well-known to the general public but that can impact a case. The value of such help is difficult to quantify—but it is significant nonetheless. Children’s Well-Being Nothing is more important than insuring the ongoing physical and emotional wellbeing of a child whose parents are going through a divorce. Your lawyer needs to be able to understand that without you even mentioning it. You shouldn’t have to interview a lawyer very long to recognize this capacity.
If you are fortunate enough to have significant assets and/or a business, your lawyer also needs to have business experience, or at least the ability to read and understand a spread sheet, and to have a basic sense of economic realities. Not all family lawyers have the necessary business acumen, and their lack of such knowledge can negatively affect your settlement.
Everyone everywhere is a self-proclaimed divorce expert, since nearly everyone knows someone who has been divorced. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and colleagues their opinions of and experience with their attorneys. Recommendations from others who went through divorce can be helpful to narrow the list of possible lawyers you may want to hire.
Interviews If you can, interview a few lawyers, and if you’re the least bit emotional, bring a friend with you who can take notes. Be prepared and ask questions: How much will you be charged? How does the lawyer bill, specifically? Who else in an office will be working on your case experience? What part of the lawyer’s practice is family law? What additional costs can you be expected to pay? The questions could go on endlessly, but you will soon develop a sense as to whether the lawyer you’re interviewing is someone who can relate to you and your issues and who can insure the best possible outcome
Once you hire a lawyer, never be afraid to ask questions throughout the divorce process if you don’t understand something. It is your case, and the lawyer works for you. As you ask for recommendations and guidance, remember that your lawyer is the expert. At the same time, however, your lawyer should always ask for your input and listen to what you want. After determining which outcome you want, your lawyer and you will devise a strategy to reach that goal. fa
Hon. David L. Stowe (ret.) ([email protected]) retired after many years of service as Chief Probate Judge and Family Court Judge of Michigan’s 13th Judicial Circuit Family Court. He was instrumental in initiating numerous programs addressing domestic violence and children’s mental health and substance abuse issues, and he has presided over thousands of divorce proceedings. He currently serves as a fiduciary and mediator in northern Michigan.
Published in Family Advocate, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Summer 2017). © 2017 American Bar Association. All rights reserved
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