Vernon Ellicott, family law attorney at The Bloom Firm, also contributed to this article
You’re going through a divorce or ending a domestic partnership. When can this be handled simply (and cheaply) and when do you need to lawyer up? Here are answers to some of the most frequent questions we get as family law attorneys.
What’s the cheapest way to end the relationship?
An uncontested divorce, hands down. If you and your soon-to-be-former spouse can sit down amicably and agree on all the issues, including the division of assets and debts, support, and what happens with the children, you can go together to one attorney who will then prepare the necessary documents to sign so that no one has to go to court. You will not necessarily have to attend a court hearing if both of you can truly resolve all the issues together. You will have to file certain documents with the court, but the attorney can handle that for you relatively cheaply. This is called an uncontested dissolution.
What if we can agree on some issues but not others?
What if you don’t agree on everything? After all, you’re getting divorced, which probably means you’ve had a major breakdown in communication. Then a judge will make the decisions for you. You can agree on some things but still have a trial on other items where you can’t agree. This is called a contested dissolution and it usually requires a skilled family law trial attorney.
It’s still to your benefit to resolve some issues if you can. Perhaps you can agree that the bank account should be divided 50-50, for example, which is how the judge will probably divide it if the money was earned during the marriage and there’s no prenup. Or you can work out your own custody and visitation schedule. Unless a parent is abusive, they will almost always get joint legal and physical custody of the children and a judge will award as equal amounts of time as possible. (I joke that when spouses are divorcing they say, “I want the kids!” A year later, it’s “you take the kids!”)
Attorneys are expensive. Consider the costs of fighting and the dollar amount of the assets you’re fighting over. Don’t spend $20,000 in attorneys’ fees fighting over $5,000. You’d be surprised how many divorcing spouses do this. The more you can agree on before sitting down with a lawyer, the better.
What’s the best way to keep my costs down in a contested divorce?
Family law attorneys charge by the hour. You can keep your bills down by getting organized before you go to a lawyer. Write out a short, concise narrative including the dates of marriage, description of assets and income, names and birth dates of children, and anything else that’s relevant. Get your documents together and organize them.
Judges rarely care any more about relationship dramas: who had an affair, who said something mean in an argument, who returned the baby with a dirty diaper. Stick to the major issues when laying them out for your lawyer. Talk to your therapist or friends about the emotional issues. Talk to your lawyer about the legal stuff only, and keep your billing down.
I can’t wait years for a trial. My situation is urgent. Will the court help me right away?
You don’t have to wait months or years down the road for a trial in order to get custody and support orders. A judge can make orders about your money and children immediately. Often, the temporary orders a judge makes end up becoming the final orders in the Judgment.
Temporary orders are something we family law attorneys are used to requesting and getting for our clients on short notice. This is especially true when domestic violence happens. If you are in danger, go to a lawyer right away and get protective orders to keep yourself safe. If you can’t afford a lawyer, go online and find out how you can do it yourself. Most jurisdictions have self-help forms for restraining orders. If you have been assaulted, go to the police as well. Immediately.
We know that the family law system can seem daunting. But remember, millions of people have been through it and have gone on to happy lives – including us, as divorced (and now happily remarried) people. Stay centered, and if you need a lawyer, choose one you can trust to see you through it with skill and compassion.
This too shall pass. We promise.