Do I have to tell him I met with a divorce attorney?

Posted on Nov 8, 2023 by Katie Carter


There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to separation and divorce.  While many decisions that you make are going to be up to you, I would always point out that, in general, the time after a woman makes the decision to separate from her husband is potentially particularly dangerous.

I don’t have a way of predicting what men under which conditions might become violent or even just intimidating.  Instead, I just issue a general warning: your safety may be in jeopardy.  If you are at all concerned that things between you and your soon-to-be ex may become violent, I urge you to assume that it’s a certainty and take all necessary safeguards to ensure your (and your children’s) safety.

I’ll start out this article by stating what I think is obvious: you do not have to tell your husband that you met with a divorce attorney.  But there are a lot of factors involved, so let’s discuss.

The initial consultation

Your first time meeting with the divorce attorney would be in an initial consultation.  A consultation is, generally, just an opportunity to discuss what’s going on and to come up with a customized plan of action for how to move your case forward.  It’s a chance to ask questions, discuss advantages and disadvantages of a potential course of action, and set specific goals for the process.

At the end of a consultation, assuming that its appropriate, a retainer agreement is offered and a retainer fee is set.  If you decide to move forward with your case by hiring that attorney, you sign the retainer agreement and pay the retainer fee.  At that point, your file is formally opened with the firm.  Prior to that point, there was nothing to report – you had a meeting of indeterminate outcome.  After that point, you’ve retained an attorney to represent you.  You can say, “My attorney,” or “My lawyer.”  But nothing has really happened yet.

What happens next will depend on the type of case and the specific issues involved.

In a separation agreement case

If yours is a separation agreement case, the attorney will prepare a separation agreement.  In most cases, this happens pretty quickly, though I have had a few clients over the years who want me to wait for some point in the future or other.  Either way, it’s your case, and you’re in the driver’s seat, so this can move fast (almost) as quickly or as slowly as you like.

Once the agreement is prepared, there’s nothing else to do but show it to your husband.  That doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself, though some wives prefer to.  It can also come directly from the attorney, if you think that would be more productive.

I always ask my clients how and when they want to broach this discussion with their soon-to-be ex.  After all, there’s no separation agreement and uncontested divorce without his signature, so we’re going to have to start negotiating with him at some point.

Some women feel that their husbands would be less threatened if the conversation about the separation agreement came from them.  They may do it on their own, at a specific, strategic point in time, or they may enlist the support of a third party to be there to help them have the conversation.

Others feel that their husbands will be dismissive or not take the agreement seriously unless it comes from an attorney.  Either that, or they just feel unsafe about sharing the contents of the agreement with him on their own.  It’s totally fine for the attorney to send the agreement along, too.

I’d encourage you to think about what you feel will be most effective with your husband, and then to follow your gut.  He will know about the agreement at some point, but you don’t necessarily have to tell him.  In fact, from the point that you hire your attorney and onward, you don’t have to talk to him about the divorce at all.  If you have children in common, there may be no way around talking about the kids, but you don’t have to talk about the divorce.  It’s perfectly fine to tell him to address any of those questions and/or concerns to your lawyer directly, rather than to you.

Negotiations can go a number of different ways, too.  In some cases, attorneys email or send letters back and forth regarding the changes they want made.  In other cases, judicial settlement or four way settlement conferences are utilized to help the parties reach an agreement.  Though you may talk to him at some point, again, you really don’t necessarily have to – though the cat is more or less out of the bag at that point.

In a contested case

If your case is contested, you’ll file a complaint with the circuit court to formally open your case.  At that point, you have one year before you either (1) have him served, or (2) the case is purged from the docket.  Most people choose to serve their husbands pretty quickly, but you could also wait for the right time – whatever that is.

If you are represented by an attorney, the firm will likely use a private process server.  You can tell them when and where to serve him, and even make sure that it takes place when you’ll be safely out of the way, if necessary.

If you’re not represented by an attorney, he’ll be served by sheriff (unless you want to arrange for a private process server yourself).  It’s much more difficult to determine timing when the sheriff serves process.

You could, if you wanted, tell him before he’s served – if you think that’d be helpful.  Or you could wait until he’s served, if you don’t want him to find out until the last minute.  Once he’s served, he’ll have 21 days to respond, so it’ll really be crunch time for him to find a lawyer and get a response in to the court in that time frame.

It’s ultimately up to you how you want to handle sharing information with him about the case, and I’d suggest that you do a bit of thinking about what will be least likely to create a tense and dramatic situation.  Some of that is unavoidable, especially if you’re filing a contested, fault-based divorce, but I do think it’s always important to remember that a good outcome is the goal.  Unless and until he forces your hand, it’s a good idea to try to maintain at least a veneer of civility.

For more information, to schedule a consult, or to get more details about one of our upcoming monthly divorce seminars, visit our website at or give us a call at 757-425-5200.