Our last post talked about how you can file for divorce by yourself. The paperwork is easy and readily available at the courthouse or online. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to hire a divorce attorney. Of course, you are going to think that, as a divorce attorney, I am just trying to drum up business for myself or my colleagues. However, I can tell you some of the horror stories of people who come to me after their divorce trying to “fix” their mistakes or address issues that they missed. Sometimes, such as in the case of property division which is final upon divorce, these things simply cannot be corrected later and you will be out of luck and could cost yourself thousands of dollars.
Here are some situations where we absolutely advise you to hire a divorce lawyer.
1. You don’t have an agreement with your spouse. There is no getting around this one. If you don’t have a complete agreement with your soon to be ex-spouse, your only option is negotiation and/or trial. Without an experienced divorce attorney, you will not be aware of all of the options to be able to come up with a creative solution to settle your case. We have been doing this a long time and will be able to pose a variety of options for you and to know what is reasonable in terms of settlement. And, when all else fails, you must try your case to the judge. There is no way that you can do yourself justice in this regard. We know the law, the judges and the procedures. Whatever you pay in attorneys fees, you could cost yourself in the long run in terms of what the court will award you at trial without an attorney.
2. You have children. In Wisconsin, there are three different issues related to children: custody, placement and child support, which can include the payment of children’s expenses. There are many different options when it comes to placement and many factors which must be taken into consideration. Therefore, by nature, custody, placement and child support can be complicated. Without a specific divorce agreement, difficulties and problems may arise in the future. An experienced divorce lawyer has handled enough of these cases to be able to point you in the right direction in terms of a placement order. Even though we are not child or family therapists, we have some ideas about what works best for kids. We also have experience in the types of issues which can cause disputes between parents in the future and how to address those.
For example, I sometimes have people who don’t want to be away from their children for a long period of time so they come in and tell me they worked out a schedule in which the parents will alternate placement every other day. This is a terrible schedule for most children! The transitions are very disruptive to children and they are never able to get settled. Or, similarly, parents come in and tell me they agreed to an alternating week or two week schedule. Again, except for teenage children, this is not generally a good schedule. Young children cannot handle being away from either parent for such a long time. However, if you have never been divorced before, you may not realize this or you may not be aware of other (better) options for placement. An attorney can help you with this.
Another common issue which causes disputes is the payment of variable expenses or uninsured medical expenses for children. Under a shared placement schedule in Wisconsin, variable expenses are shared. Medical expenses are always split. But, how does this work? Not very well, actually. Experienced attorneys have standard language or options to address the payment of these expenses and put into place a method which minimizes disputes in the future. If you fail to specify how these expenses get paid, it will be difficult to enforce this order in the future which could cost you thousands of dollars.
Not having an attorney to guide you through these complicated issues can cause you to have disputes and problems down the road. In the end, you may end up hiring an attorney anyway because you cannot resolve these problems yourself.
3. You have assets with value. Even if it is just house, there are numerous options when dealing with property. Do you know all of the options you have and the bases you have to cover when awarding or selling real estate? I had a situation once where the parties did their own divorce and simply agreed to sell the house and split the proceeds. Later, the husband, who was living in the house, was failing to maintain it, refusing to cooperate with the sale process and stopped paying the mortgage. Unfortunately, because their agreement was silent as to any of the specifics regarding the sale, there was little the Wife could do. Eventually, the judge did step in at my request and ordered the Husband to vacate the house so it could be sold. But, because the judgment did not indicate who would pay the mortgage during the sale process, she could not order him to make up those back payments. A very costly mistake for my client.
If you have a business, investments and/or retirement accounts, there are various considerations which go into a divorce judgment regarding those assets such as value, taxes, capital gains, etc. Even though an attorney is not an accountant or financial advisor, experienced divorce lawyers can navigate you through these waters. Did you know there is a special type of order which is needed to divide a retirement account? Again, if you try to save attorneys fees, you may just cost yourself more money down the road by missing a crucial point or dividing your property in a way that is financially harmful to yourself.
4. There is abuse or a power imbalance between you and your spouse. We are seeing more and more cases in which there is an abusive or controlling spouse. If you are on the wrong end of this relationship, it is very difficult to stand up to this person and make good decisions for yourself. Often times, even with lawyers, the abused or controlled spouse doesn’t want to fight and just wants to get it over with. This can have a devastating financial impact on your or your children down the road. A lawyer is a buffer and someone to stand up for you in these situations. You are getting divorced to break away from this toxic relationship – don’t let your spouse poison your freedom by bullying you into leaving the marriage in a detrimental financial position just because he or she wears you down and you are not able to stand up to them. A lawyer is there to protect your interests and fight for what you are entitled to – not what your spouse thinks you deserve.
5. Your spouse is hiding assets/income or being dishonest. An experienced divorce attorney will know where to look to uncover hidden assets or income. They also will know how to conduct discovery in a way which does not rely solely on your spouse. For example, attorneys can subpoena employers, bank accounts, etc. A party cannot do that on their own. For more information on this topic, see our website at Uncovering Hidden Assets in Divorce.
6. Your spouse has an attorney. You don’t absolutely need your own attorney but you do need to realize that your spouse’s attorney is only representing his or her interest. People often try to minimize costs with only one lawyer and that can work if you are cooperating and are able to reach an agreement between yourselves. However, if that is not the case, then you need your own attorney. If you are uncomfortable or if you don’t agree to what is being proposed, you also need your own attorney. Again, regardless of how nice or civil they are being to you, your spouse’s attorney can only represent their interest and cannot give you legal advice. At your final hearing, the judge will question you extensively about your right to have your own attorney. If you choose not to and later you determine that the agreement was not in your interest or more beneficial to your spouse, you will not be able to change your mind – especially in the case of property division or a waiver of maintenance.
There are other situations as well where you will be better off with an attorney. I cannot cover them all in this article. Just remember – if you are uncomfortable, overwhelmed or feel like you are getting the short end of the stick, consult with an attorney! You may feel that you cannot afford the attorneys fees or simply don’t want to waste the money. However, you need to ask yourself – what are you really saving if you cost yourself money with an unfair agreement or if you create a situation where you end up having to go back to court because of a deficient divorce judgment? I have a saying – “don’t step on dollars to pick up pennies” which certainly applies in this situation.
If you have any questions or would like to meet with one of our lawyers for a free initial office consultation, please call us at 414-258-1644. You can also visit our website for more information.
-Teri M Nelson