Maybe I’m just tuned in to these sorts of things, but it seems like everywhere I go, I see bright yellow signs that say things like “DIVORCE $199”, or “DO IT YOURSELF DIVORCE”. Most people know all about sites like Legal Zoom (which doesn’t currently have a divorce package for Virginia) and just the other day I found out that Virginia’s Legal Aid office is offering a free do it yourself divorce guide.
It seems like these kinds of people are popping up right and left. If you’re headed towards divorce, you’ve probably noticed there are a lot of free and low cost resources out there. Maybe there aren’t a lot of lawyers who are willing to take on entire cases pro bono, but there are plenty of reputable sources willing to share divorce information online.
Everyone wants to move with the times, and also provide information to help guide women out there who aren’t able to afford traditional legal representation. Obviously, it’s probably best to hire an attorney, if possible, especially if your case is complicated. Still, it’s not always possible—a reality of which most of us who work in the legal industry are pretty acutely aware.
But what are you really getting with these sites? As you’re no doubt already aware, divorce is a big deal. Financially, it can be ruinous. It doesn’t have to be, but sometimes it is. And you don’t want to be one of the women who falls into that category. You want to do everything you can, whether or not you can afford to hire an attorney to take on your case, to make sure that you’re equipped to give yourself the best, freshest brand new start possible after your final divorce decree is entered.
So, who can you trust? Legal Zoom is a big name, and Legal Aid—well, who hasn’t heard of them? But, still, you can’t just automatically trust it all to a nameless, faceless source. And how do you know what—exactly—they’re offering, and whether it will even help you in your unique situation? It sounds like it’s “one size fits all,” but the reality it anything but.
…So, will it work in my situation?
First we need to flesh out exactly what your situation is. Divorces can move forward in all sorts of different ways, and it definitely affects whether these types of sites or programs will work for you.
One of the first distinctions we make between different types of divorces are whether they’re going to be (or look like they’re going to be) contested or uncontested.
What’s the difference between a contested and an uncontested divorce?
So glad you asked! An uncontested divorce is one where an agreement can be reached about how all the assets and liabilities will be divided. An uncontested divorce is also no fault (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t fault grounds; it just means that the parties have agreed not to move forward without regard to fault), and is achieved by negotiating a separation agreement. A separation agreement is a legal contract that divides everything in the marriage, and it can be achieved through a couple of different methods, including through negotiation (which you can do yourself or hire an attorney to do on your behalf), mediation, or even collaboration.
A contested divorce, on the other hand, is one where resolution regarding the division of the marital assets and liabilities can’t be reached through an agreement. When an agreement can’t be reached, there is no other option other than going to court.
A contested divorce can be either fault based or no fault based, depending on the facts of the case. A fault based divorce is more difficult than a no fault one, because you there are two parts of the case: (1) proving that your fault based grounds exist and are valid, and (2) litigating over how the assets and liabilities should be divided. Either way, though, you forfeit your right to decide things for yourself and, instead, a judge decides.
These days, most divorces are uncontested, no fault divorces. They’re cheaper and easier, and allow the parties involved to make decisions themselves regarding how things will go down. As you can probably imagine, contested divorces are much more difficult, take a lot longer, and cost exponentially more. Because of your involvement in the court system, there are also a lot more rules and procedural steps involved, including a number of different hearings, documents that must be filed within a certain time period, settlement conferences, briefs, and more.
Why are you telling me all this? Does it matter whether my divorce is contested or uncontested?
Yes, it does! It matters a lot. The complexity of the case has a lot to do with whether or not it’s something that would be possible to do on your own.
Generally speaking, contested divorces are NOT something that we recommend women handle on their own. It’s not that they can’t; in fact, it’s definitely allowed. It’s just that contested divorces are complicated, and usually involve a much more in depth knowledge of the legal system to navigate. When it comes to something that matters as much as your divorce, you definitely don’t want to take any chances. If you’re headed towards a contested divorce, you may have little choice but to hire a lawyer to represent you.
Divorce, when it goes the wrong way, can be incredibly financially costly. You don’t want to avoid paying $5,000 to an attorney, only to lose out on way more than that in your final divorce decree.
If you’re expecting an uncontested divorce, on the other hand, you may be able to handle things on your own. (Don’t worry, though, if things seem contentious right now; often, things start out volatile and then settle down as time goes on. Just because it seems tough right now doesn’t mean you’re doomed and absolutely headed towards a contested divorce.) Uncontested divorces are based more on your ability to reach an agreement than anything else; you, for the most part, don’t have to file complicated petitions, litigate in court, or leave the ultimate disposition of your case up to a judge.
So, if my divorce is uncontested, I’m good to go. One do it yourself program is the same as another, right?
No! Actually, they’re not all the same; in fact, what you get may vary widely from one source to another. (And, you know what they say, you really do get what you pay for.)
Most sources only provide assistance with the actual process of getting divorced, including filing the complaint and getting the rest of your paperwork in order to have a final decree of divorce entered for an uncontested divorce. You’re probably thinking, “Well, that sounds pretty good, what else would I need anyway?”
You can get a divorce that way, but, without signing a separation agreement or having a hearing, you won’t have resolved any equitable distribution issues. What does that mean? Well, in Virginia, equitable distribution is the fancy word we use to describe how the assets and liabilities of the marriage are divided. Everything is included in equitable distribution—the house, cars, retirement accounts, spousal support (if applicable) and even personal property. If you have children, custody, visitation, and support are also issues that need to be determined. Without negotiating a separation agreement (the easy way) or going to court (the hard way), you’re not really done with your divorce just because you’ve filed a complaint.
The Legal Aid program will help you file the complaint; likewise, the Norfolk Circuit Court has a divorce handbook that will do the same thing. These resources are free for you to use, but they only solve a small part of the problem. They’ll give you divorced, but they won’t touch any of the other issues resulting from your marriage.
Is it possible that the Legal Aid program is all that I’d need?
Even though the Legal Aid program only takes you through the uncontested divorce process (and doesn’t help you divide any of the marital property between you), it might be an okay option if (1) you don’t have any children, and (2) you don’t have any assets to divide. For a couple who were only married a very short time, don’t own a home or any vehicles, and don’t have any children, it’s possible that this is all you’d need. You may want to talk to an attorney about your individual situation, or attend one of our monthly divorce seminars where you can ask your questions directly to an attorney to find out whether this is a reasonable option for you.
If you still want more, or you’re ready to take the next step, consider attending one of our divorce seminars. We teach them on the second Saturday of each month in both Virginia Beach and Newport News, and on the third Tuesday of the month in Virginia Beach. It’s a great way to get information directly from one of our divorce attorneys—because each seminar is taught by one! You can ask your questions and get the information you need to decide what to do next.
For more information, visit our site by clicking here.
If you’re ready to talk to an attorney one-on-one, we can help you with that, too! To schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.