Whenever I’m trying something new, I wonder, “What should I know that I don’t know?” Sometimes, I try to ask that question, too, even when I’m not entirely sure what else I need to know or what I should be asking. When I was buying my house, I asked people things all the time, like, “Is there something that I should be asking that I’m not?” or “What are some other commonly asked questions?”
There are a lot of things that I don’t know a lot about. Masonry, for example. Or electrical engineering. I know very little about engines, and I have absolutely no experience with construction. I do, however, have a lot of experience with divorce and custody cases in Virginia. I’ve met with a lot of women and talked to them about their concerns, so I like to think I’m pretty savvy when it comes to two things: (1) what they usually ask, and (2) what they really should ask. Usually, these two things are completely different.
I’m usually surprised at the things we end up spending most of the time in our initial consultation discussing. But if you haven’t been through a divorce before (and, for your sake, I hope you haven’t), you may genuinely not know what to ask. You may think, at the beginning of the process, that one fact or detail will be the detail that means everything, and so you have a hard time focusing on anything else.
If you (1) don’t want to waste your initial consultation, and (2) want to get as much important information as possible before you decide which attorney to hire, you’ve come to the right place. Here, I’ve gathered 6 of the questions that, in my opinion, don’t get asked enough. Usually I feel like the true frequently asked questions aren’t the most productive questions, or the ones best calculated to give you the kind of information you need to make the kinds of super important decisions you need to make right now. So, I’ve gathered the 6 “should ask” questions here for you.
1. What are my divorce options in Virginia?
This should probably be the question you ask right away. Usually, when I have an initial consultation with a potential client, we start out by talking about what happened that brought her in to my office that day. I need to know the details, of course, because every case is different. Depending on what’s happening in your case, there may be different options available to you or different strategies that we consider before we settle in on one particular thing.
When you sit down with your potential attorney, you should talk about your unique situation. But, as soon as you’re done doing that, you should ask this question. Early in the process, you have a lot of decisions to make about how your divorce will move forward, and you don’t want to get so caught up in how you’re feeling that you forget to make the best decision for your future.
I think a lot of women come into our office expecting us to tell them what to do. Really, what we want to do is engage in an open and honest dialogue with you about where you are, what your goals are, and where you’d like to wind up. The best, most productive divorces are the ones where we can talk about our options and both come to an agreement about what is the best course of action.
Your attorney can help explain to you what the different types of divorce are in Virginia, and give you a better understanding about how all the different pieces work together. The conversation should be framed more like, “where can I go from here?” rather than “here’s what’s happening, tell me what to do.” Be an active participant. Ask questions where you don’t understand. Make sure you understand all the options available to you. Ask now about whether it’s possible to have a collaborative divorce, work with a mediator, schedule an immediate settlement conference, draft a separation agreement or do it yourself. By talking over what options are out there, you won’t wonder later whether you might have done things differently had you known all the information. Take this time now, and ask about your options.
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these options, including the difference in cost?
Along with finding out your options, you should also ask what the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action is. Again, this is all part of you being an engaged and active participant in your own divorce. You need to know, ahead of time, where the common problems and pitfalls are.
Not only that, but you need to understand how different the costs associated with each option can be. When your attorney presents you with options, whether you’re talking about collaborative divorce versus mediation or uncontested divorce versus a contested divorce, there’s definitely a difference in price. There’s a difference in level of service, too. There’s a difference in the level of education and credentials in the people involved helping you through the process. There are a ton of things that are different, so the best way to help weigh the pros and cons when you’re making a decision about how you plan to move forward is to ask your attorney directly what the differences are.
You need to identify what your priorities are, and use those priorities to find a type of divorce that matches up. You can’t do that if you don’t have this conversation with your attorney relatively early in the process.
If you don’t have an attorney, or aren’t quite ready to set up an appointment with one, you can always go to one of our Second Saturday seminars. They’re called Second Saturday because that’s when we offer them—on the Second Saturday of the month (and, for those of you who can’t make it on Saturday, we also offer a Third Tuesday seminar). What they’re really about, though, is what every Virginia woman needs to know about divorce. They’re taught by one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, and they’re offered in two locations. On Second Saturdays, they’re offered in Virginia Beach at the Friends Meeting House, right across from Hilltop East shopping center, and Newport News at the Hilton Garden Inn by the Regal movie theatre near Kiln Creek. The Third Tuesday seminar is offered in Virginia Beach only, again at the Friends Meeting House. It’s a great way to learn about divorce in Virginia, whether you’ve hired an attorney or not. For more information, check out our website at monthlydivorceseminars.com.
3. What do you recommend that I do?
I know I’ve been telling you all along that you really do need to be an active, engaged participant in your own divorce process, but you also need to be prepared to listen and take your attorney’s advice. You definitely do. But you also need to be prepared to listen and take advice when it’s offered, too.
You’re in a difficult position. No matter what happened to bring you to this point, making the decision to end your marriage is never an easy thing. You may be feeling all sorts of different emotions—angry, sad, jealous, bitter, hopeful, or scared. The truth is that it’s hard to make thoughtful, rational, well-considered decisions when you’re feeling this way. You’re capable of it, for sure, but you’re also capable of letting your emotions run away with you. After you’ve asked the first two questions to your attorney and started to draw some of your own conclusions, ask your attorney for her advice, too. Sit back and listen to your attorney give her recommendations and her reasoning behind her recommendations. Think about it, especially if her advice doesn’t immediately align with the direction you thought your divorce was headed. Ask questions, consider alternatives, and have a discussion with your attorney about any goals or concerns you have that you don’t feel like your attorney has adequately addressed. Together, you should be preparing to come up with a specific plan of action that you understand, feel comfortable with, and will ultimately address your unique concerns about the future.
4. Is there anything unusual about my case that you haven’t seen before?
The next question you should ask is whether there is anything that, in your attorney’s opinion, sets your case apart from the others. In most cases, the answer is probably no, and that’s good to know.
If there is, however, something that sets your case apart from the others, it might be good for you to know ahead of time. If your case is going to be more difficult because of, for example, your husband’s mental illness, or the fact that your husband is deployed, it’s nice to know ahead of time which things can cause difficulty or delay. The more you know now, the more prepared you’ll be if (or when) situations arise in the future.
Chances are, your divorce is totally typical and you’ll have no truly surprising facts or circumstances—that’s a good thing! It’s nice to have the reassurance but, more importantly, if there is a problem or a red flag that the attorney can readily identify, it’s better to know about it sooner rather than later.
5. Am I justified in asking for _____?
If there’s something you’re really hoping to get, like permanent spousal support, it’s a good idea to ask your attorney, early on, whether or not it’s likely that you’ll get it.
Attorneys aren’t magicians, and we can’t make things happen that are unethical or against the law. There are certain areas of the law where what we can do is restricted, and there’s really nothing we can do about that. Some women come into our office and have their minds already made up about what they deserve to receive, and it’s very hard to have the conversation where we try to tell them that what they want is either impossible or unlikely.
If you’ve never been through the process before, though, how are you supposed to know what’s likely? What’s realistic or unrealistic? What the law says? You have no way of knowing, and that’s fine. But, before you start planning on asking for the sun, the moon, and the stars, double check with your attorney about what she expects you to receive. You can be sure that your attorney will certainly do everything in her power to get you everything possible, but getting absolutely everything is completely unrealistic.
Ask yourself what is truly important to you, and take some time coming up with a list of priorities. There is no way you’ll walk away from your divorce with everything but, if you plan carefully and bargain effectively, you may walk away with more of the things that you wanted than you thought possible. After all, it really doesn’t all matter; there are plenty of things you can let go. It’s up to you (and your attorney) to identify the truly important things.
6. If I hire you, what happens next?
An initial consultation is a meeting where you talk to the attorney about your situation and come up with a plan of action. At the end of the consultation, the lawyer presents you with a retainer agreement. It’s a legal contract that sets forth the retainer amount (the amount of money the attorney will need to start working on your case) and explains how the law firm will handle your case. It usually tells you everything from how the law firm handles billing to exactly who will be responsible for working on your case (and what each person’s separate hourly rate is). In order to start work on your case, you’ll have to pay the retainer amount and sign the retainer agreement.
But then what?
From that point, every attorney is different. We all handle our cases a little bit differently, so it’s hard to know ahead of time exactly how things are going to happen once your money is paid and your case is opened. Your lawyer will probably give you some details, but you should press for more if you’re unsure or confused about what’s going to happen next.
This is a place where I see people get confused. They don’t understand what is supposed to happen or how long it’s supposed to take. They don’t know when they’ll talk to their attorney again, and they’re afraid to call because they’ll get billed for it. Or they do call, but the answer leaves them as confused as they were before.
The law is confusing, complicated, and constantly changing, so the fact that you’re confused is not surprising. It doesn’t make you stupid, and your attorney will be more than happy to explain to you what’s going on—but, if you don’t ask, your attorney doesn’t know you don’t know! This is a good, general, broad question that will help you ask what you need to know and let your attorney fill in the blanks. Your attorney can give you a good idea of timeline or general schedule and when to expect to hear more information. You can ask who to follow up with if you need an update, and find out how long it usually takes her to respond to emails or phone calls. Does she prefer email over phone, or vice versa? Find out whatever you need to know so that, after you pay your retainer fee, you feel like you understand where you are and where you’re headed. You’ll be much happier and more at ease, and your attorney will know for sure that the two of you are on the same page.
Like I said, these aren’t questions that every woman asks. In fact, these are pretty rare questions. The questions I get are usually more along the lines of, “Can we be separated in the same house?” and “What if I want to relocate with the kids?” These are good, substantive questions, but they only answer a very small part of the question. Asking these 6 “Should Ask” questions will give you a broad overview of the divorce process and how everything works, which should help you make better informed decisions now and in the future. Good luck!