To women who tell me that they can’t afford to hire an attorney to represent them in their divorce cases, my first question is always, “Can you afford NOT to hire an attorney?”
So, can you afford not to hire an attorney? What’s at stake in a divorce?
A divorce is one of the biggest financial transactions in most women’s lives. This sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Sure, you’ve spent years carefully contributing to your 401(k), planning and purchasing life and disability insurance policies, reading up about the benefits packages offered by your employer, and minimizing your debts and other liabilities. You pay your credit card bills every month, make sure your mortgage payment is never late, and know all about interest rates and your credit score. You file your tax returns on time every year, and you carefully monitor your student loan debt. If you’re like most women, you’ve done all sorts of things all throughout your adult life to help safeguard your financial future.
Up until now, probably the biggest financial transaction you’ve been through was when you bought your house or your car and, at the time, it really was. Still, divorce is more all-encompassing, and can have many more far reaching intended and unintended consequences.
In your divorce, you will divide everything, including (but obviously not limited to) real estate, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, pensions, and insurance policies. Not to mention all the personal property, including all your bath towels, small kitchen appliances, cars, furniture, dishes, wine glasses, silverware, artwork, photo albums, miscellaneous tools, lawn mowers, fishing rods and reels, and pretty much every other tangible physical thing either of you have accumulated during your marriage.
As you can probably already tell, dividing all these things to the satisfaction of both parties involved is difficult, and sometimes borders on impossible. Especially without professional help, it can be difficult for people to know how to handle dividing everything. Tensions are already running high, especially if there is fault on one side or the other (or even both). Obviously, if your marriage had been a blissfully happy one, you wouldn’t be where you are now. So, there are residual feelings that, for many couples, make handling the dissolution of a marriage even more complicated.
What kinds of things do attorneys do for their clients?
That’s where a divorce attorney steps in. Divorce attorneys do all sorts of things for their clients, but they have two chief concerns. Mainly, it is their job (1) to help make the divorce process run as smoothly as possible, and also (2) to help ensure that each client’s future is adequately protected. Those two things are incredibly important, and it’s impossible to adequately represent a client without being equally concerned about the here and now as well as the future.
Whether your divorce looks like it’s going to be contested (meaning that you can’t agree about how everything will be divided) or uncontested (you can reach an agreement and won’t have to go to court to fight about it), there are a lot of things that you’ll need help with as you move through your divorce, and there are some types of help that only an attorney can provide. It’s not just about providing guidance through the whole courtroom experience (in fact, you may not ever go to court at all); it’s also about the process of discussing options, weighing consequences, negotiating results, and carefully drafting documents. All of these things have to be done both with your current situation and your ideal (but still hypothetical) future situation in mind, so that you’re protected against any possible unintended consequences. An attorney considers everything, including taxes, social security, and other things that sometimes surprise people who don’t hire attorneys later on.
An attorney brings with her detailed, in-depth knowledge of family law specifically, which is critical. They know the law, understand the court system, and have experience with the local judges. Because they know the law, they know how to advise you, and they can tell you what’s worth fighting over and where to give way, if necessary. An attorney is aware of any recent updates, changes in the law, or new case law, which can impact your case (sometimes a lot).
Am I allowed to represent myself in my Virginia divorce?
Can you get divorced without an attorney? Absolutely. In Virginia, you’re definitely allowed to represent yourself in the courtroom. The question is, though, do you really want to? Well, of course you don’t really WANT to, but can you do it well enough that you don’t make the situation worse?
If it looks like your divorce is going to be contested, or if your case presents some kind of complicated issue, you may have no real choice but to hire an attorney to represent you. It’s not against the rules to represent yourself, but you have to wonder whether you’d be doing more harm than good. When you consider the assets and liabilities you’ll have to divide in your divorce, it’s not hard to imagine that it might be worth your while to make sure that you can pay to hire an attorney to represent you. It’s inconvenient and can sometimes be expensive, but you have to recognize the importance of what you’re doing. Whether you’re signing a separation agreement (which is just a legal contract that explains how the assets and liabilities in your marriage will be divided) or letting the judge decide how to divide it all, you’re creating the blueprint for your fresh new start. The money that you get (or give up) will be the money that pays (or doesn’t pay) for your mortgage or rent, your utilities, and your groceries. Not only that, but you’re also presumably going to get a share of the retirement accounts that you contributed towards during your marriage, so the shares that you get in your divorce will impact you for years and years to come, even through retirement.
In some cases, especially where the divorce is uncontested, it is definitely possible to represent yourself, but you should be aware of all the possible consequences of your decision. Even in cases where money is tight, lots of women find resources so that they will be able to hire an attorney to represent their interests. They borrow money from friends or family members, get loans, or even put it on their credit cards, just so that they won’t have to come face to face with their husbands in the courtroom alone.
If I have to represent myself, what should I do? Can’t I just call Legal Aid?
Of course, if you just can’t afford an attorney at all, you just can’t afford it, no matter what the possible consequences to you later. You’ve got to make sure that your rent is paid, the lights stay on and the groceries can be purchased before you worry about hiring an attorney. If you don’t have friends and family available to help you, you’re not alone.
The problem is that you probably won’t be able to get much help, if any at all, from Legal Aid. Legal Zoom doesn’t have a divorce package in Virginia. There are plenty of form documents and other information that you can request online regarding divorce in Virginia, but I don’t know anything about the credibility of those sources. I don’t know who the author is, what their level of training might be, or what kind of experience they actually have with divorce. I don’t know if these authors are attorneys, mediators, former judges, jaded recently divorced people, students, or con artists trying to earn a quick buck by capitalizing on a lucrative market. You have to be careful when you’re getting information from a nameless, faceless internet source. Is the information you’re getting correct? Is it current and up to date with the latest changes in the law? Is the information Virginia specific? It matters, and you want to know the answers to these questions.
So, what options are there for people who want to do it themselves?
To be honest, there aren’t a lot of good options available for people who want to handle their divorces themselves (even though there are a lot of people who want to handle it without hiring an attorney). Non-lawyers aren’t qualified to help, and lawyers typically want to represent their clients by establishing a typical attorney/client relationship.
Ultimately, you have to make the best choice for you, whatever that may be. Meeting with an attorney is a great start, and you can also request a copy of one of our free divorce books, What Every Virginia Woman Should Know About Divorce, or What Every Virginia Military Wife Needs to Know About Divorce. Good luck!