If my divorce seems amicable, do I even need a lawyer?

Posted on Jun 21, 2024 by Katie Carter


I’ll be the first to admit: I have a bit of an unfair sampling.  As a family law attorney, the cases with which I am familiar are the ones where the individuals involved – or at least one of them – sought the advice of an attorney.

I know that not everyone does.  I’m on social media, too; I see all the posts from people who say that they filed and did it all themselves and it was really easy and everyone else can, too.

I do always wonder, though, what the terms of that divorce were.  After all, there’s a lot I don’t know.  Did she get spousal supportChild supportCustodyRetirement?  Did she get her fair marital share, or did she waive things just to get it done?  Is the agreement comprehensive?  Did it set deadlines?  Did everyone do what they were supposed to do, or did issues come up later?  How much – all told – did it cost her, including waiving whatever she waived that she might otherwise have had an interest in?  It’s impossible to say.

When it comes to divorce, they’re not all created equal.  GETTING a divorce is one thing.  It, for the most part, requires drafting and signing a separation agreement (not easy, unless you waive everything – which I don’t recommend), filing the right documents in the right court (which isn’t easy), paying a filing fee, having the opposing party served (sometimes not easy; other times a complete non issue), and then filing all the appropriate documents to finalize your divorce.  In Virginia, that can mean not only the separation agreement you drafted, but also a final decree of divorce, a child affidavit if you have minor children in common, a VS4 form (for vital statistics purposes), a name change petition if you’re changing your name, and even orders related to division of retirement assets.

Can you get divorced without some of these things?  Yes – but at what cost?  Can you even do it yourself?  Maybe!  You might get tripped up, but, then again, some courts are a little more relaxed than others.

But that’s just getting the divorce, right?  That just means your marriage is ended.  You may be able to do that by yourself, depending on the court and your savviness.  I wouldn’t suggest that you could walk in off the street and, say, take a case to trial any more than I’d say you can perform brain surgery.  It’s not that you don’t have the skill; it’s that the training and education is missing.  The risk is high and, by comparison, the reward is low.  But just filing an uncontested divorce based on a signed separation agreement?  It’s possible.

I don’t know how many people do this.  Like I said, I have an unfair sampling.  I hear it a lot, but without context, it’s difficult to know whether it’s true or whether – which leads me into my next point – it was a good divorce or a bad divorce.

There’s a difference, you know.  There’s a difference between simply having had a marriage legally ended and of going through it, getting what you are entitled to receive, and dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s.  Not just getting your percentage of the retirement, but formally effectuating a transfer.  Not just establishing support, but establishing a deadline and consequences for its not having been paid.  Establishing a custody and visitation arrangement that allows you to build a foundation for coparenting, rather than finding yourself fighting and back in court again 6 months to a year later every single year until your youngest child turns 18.

If you don’t know the law, or how to draft the agreement, or what creative solutions to put into an agreement, there are a lot of potential missed opportunities.  Does it matter?  Well, again, that’s another question that I don’t necessarily know the answer to.  It depends, as always, on the facts involved in the case.

It’s hard to justify hiring an attorney on “it depends,” though, isn’t it?  Especially when you don’t know precisely how much it’ll all cost and there’s no question that, in this economy, it matters.  I’m not some celebrity divorce lawyer dealing in tens of millions of dollars; I see regular families with regular lives and all-too-empty bank accounts.

In every single case, I think one thing is true: it’s worthwhile to have at least one consultation with an attorney.  To talk about the specifics of your case and get an idea of what you might be entitled to receive.  Could you research and figure it out yourself?  Maybe.  But it would probably take a lot of time and, even then, you’d probably second guess yourself.  Meeting with an attorney can cut the self doubt and help you – whether you decide to hire that attorney, a different attorney, or no attorney at all – prioritize what will help you the most as you move forward.

At our office, an initial consultation is $300 as of the date of this writing.  In general, family law attorneys don’t do free consultations; it’s just a different practice area than personal injury.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a prospective client that she’s entitled to more than she thought she was – far more than she paid me to meet with me for the hour.  If that’s you, and then you go forward to negotiate your own agreement (truly on your own, through mediation, or some other way), well, it’s worth it.

If you decide, based on the attorney’s analysis, that it’s just too complicated for you to manage on your own, well, then, that’s worth it, too, right?  After all, at least you didn’t try and either bungle it completely or waive far more than you should have waived!  A bad divorce can be a terrible thing and, in many cases, its women who bear the consequences.

People do get divorced without attorneys.  Being an attorney, it’s hard for me to know much of anything about those kinds of situations.  Is it a good divorce?  Did she get what she was entitled to receive?  Did she file the appropriate documents?  Did she take care of it all?  Is there unfinished business?  Did issues come up later that could have been avoided?  I have no idea.  But did it happen?  It certainly looks like it.

You can not go wrong with asking an attorney’s opinion and taking the time to look at the specific facts involved in your case.  You can also download our free guide to divorce for Virginia women, or even consider attending one of our low cost monthly divorce seminars.  At the seminar, you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions to one of our attorneys, too, so that can be a great opportunity at significantly less than the price of a consultation.  (Though we do ask that we keep the questions general; we can’t analyze the ins and outs of one case in this setting.)

What do you have to lose?  Well, if yours is like most marriages, a lot.  Because, in equitable distribution, we divide everything accumulated during the marriage.  Even if yours is a marriage with mostly debts, avoiding too much liability can be a major win.  If you have children in common, a parenting plan can be crucial.  If you need support, it may be difficult to navigate on your own.

Ask questions.  Or, at least, start with the book.  Then, consider the seminar.  A consultation is the next step, but that doesn’t mean that you have to hire an attorney.  You can still choose to do it yourself; people do, all the time.  No one will be offended or surprised.  In fact, if you want, you can draft it and bring it back for review; you don’t necessarily have to retain an attorney to work with one.  After our initial consultation, we meet with the same prospective client again at our hourly rate – there’s no limit to the number of appointments you can schedule.

You can do it alone, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it entirely alone.  And, probably, you’d be unwise not to at least try to avail yourself of the options that are available for either free or low cost – or that, from a cost/benefit analysis perspective, are likely to yield far more than they cost.

For more information, to request a copy of our book, register for a seminar, or schedule a consultation, visit our website at hoflaw.com or give us a call at 757-425-5200.