It’s hard to know what shape a case will take from the very beginning. Some cases resolve quickly, even amicably. It may not be immediately obvious, either, because even the amicable ones often wind up in our offices after nasty fights. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that, at some point, almost all of the people that we see have had horrible fights, have made threats, or even said some really unforgivable things.
If that’s a reel that’s playing in your head right now, you’re not alone. If you’re telling yourself that this means that your divorce is not going to be one of the amicable ones, you’re not alone in that feeling, either. In fact, many of my clients tell me, at the beginning, that they’re afraid their case will be one of the nasty ones.
I think that’s mostly a reflection of the way things are feeling at that moment. And there’s little question – to me, at least – that the moment where you find yourself seated in a divorce lawyer’s chair for the first time is a moment that follows a series of really difficult moments at home. It’s probably the moment where tensions are highest, where you’re feeling the most uncertain, and where the future seems the most intimidating.
Sure, some divorces resolve at trial. Some are long, drawn out, expensive, nasty affairs that hurt everyone involved. But in divorce, as in so many things in life, when it comes down to it, it’s not a ‘worst case scenario’ experience. It’s hard to speak in generalities or absolutes in these types of cases, because each divorce is different and brings its own unique qualities to the table, but it is safe to say that most divorces don’t resolve at trial. In fact, most resolve by agreement.
The path to get to that agreement is rockier in some cases than others. In many cases, we all start to think that maybe settlement isn’t possible. But, ultimately, settlement often is possible – in fact, is necessary, or even critical – and is often reached. It may be reached at the 99th hour, on the courthouse steps (or, more accurately, in a courthouse conference room) but it’s often reached.
Still, tensions are high. Emotions are running wild. Everyone is feeling uncertain about the future. It’s a lot to deal with, no matter how much you actually want to get divorced. Logistically and financially, there are a lot of details to work out.
So, do you need a lawyer?
In a word, I think, yes. It’s difficult, at such a stressful point in time, to think objectively and to make decisions that are designed to propel your life forward.
Our body’s ‘fight or flight’ responses are often triggered, which means that we’re not using the rational, thinking, calculated part of our brain to make decisions. We’re trying to make decisions that, in the moment, make us feel safer – but sometimes those decisions are unhelpful, damaging, avoidant, or create other unnecessary issues.
It’s not you. It’s us. All of us. It’s humankind. It’s our body’s automatic response to stressful situations when we feel triggered. But you need to NOT react emotionally. You need to respond rationally, and your divorce attorney can help you do that. Your divorce attorney can help you decide what matters to you, and then try to structure an agreement – or prepare for litigation – that protects what matters most to you.
Your family law lawyer can help make sure you don’t miss deadlines, that everything is filed on time and in a manner that will be accepted by the court, that the rules of evidence are complied with, that your evidence, witnesses, and exhibits won’t be thrown out, and that your points are intelligently, thoughtfully, and effectively articulated.
Having never prepared for a divorce trial before, you’ll likely find yourself quickly out of your element if you try to prepare yourself, draft your own documents, make your own objections, introduce your own evidence. Trials are hard. I think most people recognize that.
But you know what else is hard? Agreements. For a lot of the same reasons, but for more reasons, too – because your agreement needs to be clear, concise, unambiguous. Because it needs to have specific language in order for other entities – like mortgage lenders, retirement plan administrators, DFAS, and others – to be able to honor the terms contained in it.
Not to mention that it needs to have specific language in it to protect you in the event unforeseen things happen, like a bankruptcy, or if you have to take legal action to enforce the agreement later against your ex. These aren’t simple documents – ‘she gets the house, he takes the recliner’ – they’re complex documents that have to survive the test of time. And it takes an experienced attorney to get the strongest agreement possible in place.
Do you HAVE to have an attorney? No. You are legally entitled to represent yourself in any divorce (or custody) action in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But SHOULD you? Maybe it’s not for me to say, but in general I think that – especially given the complexity of even an average divorce and the emotional toll that it typically takes on the parties involved – its smart to have someone on your side, acting as your advocate, and giving you advice about how to make choices that put you in the strongest possible position post-divorce.
For more information, to request a copy of our free divorce book for Virginia women, for more information about upcoming seminars, or to schedule an initial consultation, give us a call at 757-425-5200. We’re happy to help.