Recently, someone very close to me consulted with me about their divorce. It’s always surprising when very, very close friends and family members divorce, and even more so when that means that they reach out to me in an attempt to make sense of it all.
In the very best of times – where I’m working with a client who, before she met with me, was a stranger to me – it’s difficult work. But bearing the emotional burden of a friend or family member is even more challenging, especially when I have or had a relationship with their soon-to-be ex spouse.
This isn’t about me, really, except to say that I really do understand how difficult it is to extricate yourself from a marriage. I feel the pain of my own clients – people who, for the most part, were strangers to me before they came into my office – and I feel it in my own personal life, too, when things like this happen. If you’re divorcing someone that you’ve known for years, or even decades, the ripple effect touches a lot of people. Your children, your other family members, mutual friends, and others are all impacted by your divorce.
It’s normal to think that, because of that, you want to keep things civil. You want to resolve things amicably, and to not involve lawyers. (Because don’t lawyers just make everything worse? Make everyone feel worse?)
Because of who I am and what I do, I see both sides of this. I think there’s a way to use a lawyer to great effect, and another way to use a lawyer to create more problems. It depends on the choices you make, and the issues that are presented in your case, which way you really want to go on this.
A couple points, though:
1. Don’t assume you and your soon-to-be ex are on the same page when it comes to your divorce.
Even if you’re both saying you don’t want to hire lawyers, I’d be careful. It’s easy to fall into the old, familiar trap of thinking of your spouse as a member of your team, even if you know, intellectually, that things have changed fundamentally now that you’re considering or pursuing divorce.
It may be that your spouse, I am sorry to say, has an ulterior motive. I’ve seen really nasty agreements presented from underneath of veneer of civility. I’ve seen two people who completely different ideas of what fairness or equity equates to. I’ve seen a lot of things, and I can tell you that you and your husband are NOT on the same page, and you should always, always, always double check his work, and what it means for you.
2. You don’t have to hire an attorney to consult with an attorney, and even just that interaction can make all the difference.
Look, I know that attorneys are expensive. I know that, when you’re separating from your husband after years of marriage and contemplating splitting all of your assets, hiring an attorney and spending, potentially, thousands of dollars is probably more than a little daunting.
But you don’t have to hire an attorney to talk to an attorney. You can schedule a consultation – sometimes, you can go back for a second, a third, or even a fourth! – to discuss your rights and entitlements, to go over your available options, or even to review documents (like a separation agreement or a divorce complaint that you were served with). Sometimes, we even try to help women create their own documents to represent themselves pro se (that’s a Latin phrase that describes a person who is pursuing a legal action on their own, without the help of an attorney).
We do this, too, for people who are in mediation, and it can be extremely helpful. You always want to beware a mediator drafting your agreement but, even if they do, it’s a good idea to have it reviewed before you sign it, just to be on the safe side.
3. Always, always, always be aware of your entitlements under the law before you start negotiating.
It’s tempting to start negotiating. You want some things, some assurances. Right? You’d feel better if you knew x, y, and z were constants. But don’t get too far ahead of yourself. As long as you don’t sign anything, you’re really not locked in – but, even so, prematurely agreeing to something and giving the other side the wrong impression, however innocently, is a recipe for derailing settlement later.
Take your time. Do your research. Understand how the home, retirement accounts, debt, and inheritances are divided in Virginia. Know how child custody and visitation work. Be prepared for calculations of child and spousal support.
There’s probably a lot you don’t know. The laws change ALL the time. Small details can make a huge difference. Ask questions. Get the answers.
I can understand not wanting to hire an attorney, but I also think that you should at least avail yourself of the resources on our site before you make the formal decision not to hire an attorney. Remember, once signed, a separation agreement can almost never be overturned – and, even if it could be, that would not be without SIGNIFICANT expense and time involved! (Safest bet: assume it’s written in stone, because it probably is!)
Consider alternative dispute resolution, too – mediation, and collaborative divorce, especially. But be sure you understand what those things mean, including their advantages and disadvantages. You may want to do it yourself, too, but that doesn’t mean that you have to do it totally by yourself. You can always consult with an attorney, or have your documents reviewed – and, in fact you should.
I always say that an attorney’s job is to do two things: (1) get you divorced today, and (2) minimize the possibility of problems later on down the line. In both cases, we’re dealing with problems that, if you run into them, could cost tens of thousands of dollars to resolve, or represent tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands!) of dollars in lost assets if, for example, you give up something that you might otherwise have been entitled to.
It’s not an easy process. There are other people involved, as well as you and your soon to be ex. Whether your marriage is over or not, you want to take care of those people, and it can seem like a good way to do that is by keeping lawyers out of it.
But you also have to consider that you owe it to them, and to yourself, to take care of you. Maybe you don’t need to hire an attorney. Maybe your divorce will be simple and uncontested. But you should always make sure that you go into it as informed as possible, and with as much information at your disposal as possible, so that you can make good decisions that carry you forward into the future.
For more information, or to schedule a consultation with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.