What are my options if I can’t afford to hire a Virginia divorce attorney?

Posted on May 20, 2016 by Katie Carter

It can be hard to afford to hire an attorney to represent you in your divorce case, even if you wish you could. If the money isn’t there, it just isn’t there—no matter how badly you need the legal help. I get it. In fact, I see it all the time. Lots of women come in to our office for an initial consultation, but ultimately can’t afford to pay the retainer.
It’s not that we’re the most expensive law firm in town. Of course, it’s also not like we’re cheap. Excellent legal representation costs; it always has. But we’re still conscious of the financial situations many divorcing women are facing.

If you, like thousands of other Virginia women, are facing a divorce and are financially unable to hire an attorney to represent you, what are your options?

There are lots of free resources online, but it’s tricky to know what to trust. For most of them, they’re nameless and faceless. Who wrote them? When were they written? Under what state’s law were they written? You see, the law changes. All the time, in fact! In Virginia, almost every single year on July 1st, there are relatively major changes to family law rules. So, if your source is older than last July, you can almost automatically count on it being out of date. Not only that, but it’s important that your resources be state-specific. North Carolina and Virginia, even though geographically very close, are legally very, very different, especially when it comes to family law. And if what you’re looking at wasn’t written by an attorney (or, really, you’re not sure who wrote it at all), you could be in trouble, too. Paralegals aren’t attorneys. Legal “experts” aren’t attorneys. Mediators aren’t attorneys. Be sure you look at the credentials of the person whose resources you’re using—you don’t want to rely on someone who doesn’t know firsthand about the law.

Why should I be careful about using materials that weren’t drafted by attorneys?

Keep in mind that attorneys do more than just fighting to ensure that their client gets the best possible result on the day of trial (or negotiating the best result, if you’re drafting an agreement). Attorneys also do their best to protect their clients far beyond the divorce. Attorneys make sure that their clients are protected, later on, in case a whole host of other issues pop up. Attorneys draft documents that are clear and concise, and try to forestall the need to go back to court on enforcement issues later. It’s not foolproof, but attorneys work hard to protect their clients best interests.
Attorneys have represented hundreds if not thousands of clients with the same or similar issues. They’ve had to defend against poorly drafted agreements, and they’ve seen the worst that can happen in cases that are mismanaged. When they turn a critical eye to your case, they’re looking for the types of things that might trip you up later on. If, for example, one of you declares bankruptcy later—how is your agreement affected? Attorneys think about the “what if’s” in every single case, and protect their clients (and, of course, their client’s money) far into the future. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we know what works—and what doesn’t—and we’ve seen the worst of the worst. It helps.

I’m scared to even ask, but can I represent myself? What are the risks?

You can represent yourself in your case, but you have to know a lot about the law. Think about it. It’s not just a matter of finding a blank form on the internet and filling it in. You have to know a lot of other things. What would the law automatically give you? What’s a bargaining point, and what’s a given? How are child and spousal support calculated? What happens if you get back together? How do you know, in short, that you’re drafting a good agreement for you—and not one that’s actually WORSE than what your husband’s attorney would draft on his behalf? Because I’ve seen it happen, lots! Women think they’re drafting a fair and reasonable agreement when, in reality, their agreement is insufficient, doesn’t protect them against basic (fairly commonplace) problems that might arise later on, and doesn’t give them anywhere near as much as a judge would if they went to trial. (And that’s pretty bad, because judges aren’t overly generous.) You have to know the law, in short, to know where to ask for what you deserve and where to capitulate.
Having an agreement that’s done is good, but, if it’s not well written and doesn’t protect you against potential eventualities, it’s not doing enough for you. Just getting it done isn’t where you want to be, even though it’s often a step in the right direction. For others, though, getting a signed agreement can be a major step in the WRONG direction. What happens when you sign a bad agreement? It’s a little bit beyond the scope of this article, but you can read more about it by clicking here.  Just..be careful.

So, yes, you can represent yourself… The question is, do you really even want to?

I really can’t hire an attorney, so I HAVE to look at other options, whether I want to or not. What kind of choices do I have?

Like I said earlier, I get it. It’s not always financially feasible to hire an attorney, even if you’d like to. I started off the article talking about how much I understand, and then I rambled on for awhile about why attorneys are so great. If you can’t afford one, you probably feel like you’d rather not hear about all the ways attorneys are awesome. Still, though, I feel like I have to tell you, not so much to sell using an attorney through the divorce process, but to show you what you need to be looking for and what questions you need to be asking. Whether you hire an attorney or whether you represent yourself, you want to know that your agreement is a good one, relatively speaking, for your particular situation, that it will protect you against possible future legal conflict, that it’s legally valid, and that it gets you successfully divorced. Right? That’s a LOT of big, big goals for a couple pieces of paper.
So, how do you balance your financial goals (to not spend a lot on the divorce process, since you don’t have extra to spare) with your legal goals (getting the best agreement in place for the least amount of money possible)? It’s tricky, but it’s doable, and there are definitely some options out there for you.

Represent yourself, but consult with an attorney.

You don’t have to actually hire an attorney in order to work with one. A lot of times, people choose to just meet with us for an hour or two at a time as they do the bulk of the work on their own. You could, for example, draft your own agreement, and then bring it in for review. You wouldn’t have to pay to retain the attorney; you’d just have to pay the attorney for the time spent working on your agreement (or whatever you needed done in that appointment time).
This way, you can get feedback on what you’ve got in place, take notes on things that could be added, and get general feedback about how good your agreement really is. No need to hire the attorney at all.
It’s a good way to combine the two approaches—using an attorney (at least to a limited degree), and doing it on your own. After all, not everything needs to be done by an attorney. If you want to cut corners and save money, there are lots of parts of the job that you can take on yourself, and that won’t prejudice you in the long run. So, if you’re really wanting to save money (but don’t want to sacrifice on being able to ask your questions to an attorney), you may want to meet with the attorney one on one so that he or she can review what you’ve prepared, and provide you with feedback. Is it the best of both worlds?

Maybe. Of course, it does require a lot of work on your part, because it’d be very nearly impossible to come in with just a few provisions handwritten on a notepad and expect the attorney, in an hour or two, to give you full and complete feedback. Still, it’s a way around hiring an attorney, without precluding you from being able to seek the advice you need.
Sometimes, it’s best to meet a couple of times, and you may even want to meet at least one more time before you actually sign your agreement. Remember, there’s really no backing out of it once it’s signed, so you’ll definitely want to be careful. Still, we, as attorneys, are here to help. We don’t help everyone the same way, so ask questions and get the representation you want. Only want a few questions answered, and need to be pointed in the right direction? Why not just meet with the attorney for an hour or two and get advice on what you’ve already begun to do yourself? It’s a great way to get a little advice and save money by doing it yourself.

I have nothing. Like, literally, nothing. I can’t pay to meet with an attorney. What are my options?

There aren’t a ton of options out there, but you should definitely give Legal Aid a call first. They only take a small number of cases (and almost always uncontested cases), but they definitely can’t take your case if you don’t give them a call.
Additionally, Legal Aid has created a do it yourself program for people facing uncontested divorces. It doesn’t provide you with any assistance drafting an agreement at all, and certainly not one that is as good as what an attorney would draft on your behalf, but it does help you with the court process. For more information, or to check it out, click here.

I can’t really vouch for the site; I haven’t been through it all myself, but it’s a new feature that is being offered through the state, and I’ve heard it’s pretty helpful.
For more information, or to go ahead and schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.