You can do lots of things without professional help: cook a gourmet meal, tile a bathroom floor, cut your own hair. But just because you can do something on your own doesn’t
mean that you should. Some DIY projects have higher stakes than others. If you burn the gourmet meal, delivery from a local restaurant can save the evening. If you botch the haircut, you may have to suffer for a month while it grows out. If you mess up the floor, you may have to live with it for years or pay through the nose to have it fixed. Divorce without a lawyer is a very risky “do it yourself” project, and one that an increasing number of couples are undertaking.
Not many people choose self-representation in a divorce because they don’t want a lawyer’s guidance and advocacy. Rather, they choose DIY divorce because they think hiring an attorney will be too expensive. An attorney’s services in divorce or dissolution may be costly but often not nearly as costly as representing yourself. Let’s talk about why that is.
Dangers of DIY Divorce or Dissolution
Naturally, as divorce attorneys, we have a vested interest in people continuing to hire lawyers to represent them in divorce and dissolution. Notwithstanding that interest, we would still advise people considering terminating their marriages to work with an attorney. The more you have at stake, the more it makes sense to have experienced representation.
Certain aspects of a divorce or dissolution can’t be altered after the divorce is final. For instance, property division can’t be relitigated absent very limited circumstances. An experienced family law attorney can help ensure that all marital property is identified and properly valued so that you don’t agree to a settlement that you will later regret. If your attorney can negotiate a more favorable property settlement for you, it may more than offset what you pay in attorney fees.
If you need (or fear paying) spousal support (alimony), an attorney can be instrumental in ensuring that issue is resolved fairly. An attorney will help negotiate a good outcome if possible. If no agreement is reached, and the court must decide the issue, a good divorce attorney can persuasively argue for your position. Courts decide the amount and duration of spousal support based on a number of factors, many of which are subjective. An attorney will understand what the evidence the court, and the particular judge, need to see and hear to rule in your favor.
Child support, unlike spousal support (alimony), is determined by formula. But the result of that formula is only as good as the data that is put into it. A family law attorney can ensure that your child support is calculated using the right information, including ensuring that your spouse’s income information is complete and accurate. Deviations from guidelines can be made, for reasons such as parenting time, but again those decisions turn on arguments made to the court or negotiated with the other side.
Of course, not everything in a divorce boils down to dollars and cents. For most parents of young children, their children’s well-being during and after the divorce is paramount. If the allocation of parenting rights and responsibilities (custody) or parenting time (visitation) are in dispute, you really should have the advice and advocacy of an attorney who knows how Ohio courts deal with these critical issues, and how the factors of the statute come into play when advocating for sole parenting or shared parenting.
Unlike division of marital property, child custody and support can be modified after a divorce. Depending on the circumstances, spousal support (alimony) is sometimes modifiable. But there is typically a high threshold for modifying an order (unless you and your ex-spouse agree). It is much easier, and more cost-effective, to get a good outcome the first time than to fix a bad outcome later. And it is much easier to get the outcome you want with an experienced attorney’s help.
Last, but not least, is the intangible benefit of having an attorney at your side. Divorce and dissolution is stressful and unfamiliar for most people. Nothing will make terminating your marriage pleasant or fun. But having an attorney to guide you through the process and answer your questions can make your experience much more positive.
Can You Ever Get a Divorce Without a Lawyer?
There are times when it does make sense to get a divorce without an attorney. If your marriage is short-term, with no minor children and little property, and you and your spouse generally agree on the terms, a do-it-yourself divorce or dissolution could work. Even then, you might want to have a family law attorney look over your settlement agreement to make sure you understand all terms and agree to them. However, we have had such a short-term marriage case where one spouse, by checking the wrong box on a pre-printed form, obligated himself to provide health insurance for the other for the rest of his life with no modification possible, then came to us and asked us to fix this issue. Fortunately, we had experienced counsel on the other side and were able to work out a reasonable conclusion. People do not always get so lucky.
Most of the time, though, you really should have an attorney represent you in your divorce or dissolution. You should almost always have an attorney’s help if any of the following are true:
- You and your spouse have minor children
- You and your spouse have been married more than a few years
- Either you or your spouse might need spousal support
- You and your spouse have accumulated assets or debts together
- You don’t trust your spouse to negotiate fairly or to be transparent, or suspect there are hidden assets
- Your spouse has been abusive or controlling
- You expect to have a high-conflict divorce
- Your spouse already has an attorney
Keeping Divorce and Dissolution Affordable
The reality is that most people don’t really want to file for divorce without a lawyer; what they want is to preserve their financial resources as much as possible, and to have a peaceful resolution of their marital difficulties. Many people don’t consider the fact that having an attorney can lead to a better outcome in divorce or dissolution, and can help smooth the way for a reasonable, appropriate, and respectful conclusion.
That said, we understand that the prospect of paying attorney fees can be daunting. Ethical attorneys are willing to work with their clients to keep attorney fees under control. If you are thinking about filing for divorce or dissolution without a lawyer, you should at least consult with an attorney to discuss your concerns and whether you might be better off with an attorney’s help. The real bottom line is that the outcome of your divorce or dissolution will profoundly affect your life for years. Working with an attorney helps you to lay the groundwork for the future you want. A few dollars spent now can save thousands later that are needed to fix a problem. We invite you to contact Melissa Graham-Hurd and Associates to schedule a consultation.