He already met with a JAG attorney! What do I do?

If you’re in the military (or your husband is), chances are you have a lot of faith in the military JAG attorneys. In general, military families use JAG attorneys for all sorts of legal issues, so it makes sense that one of the first place you’d think of going when you make the decision to end your marriage is straight to the JAG attorney’s office. After all, you want someone who understands the whole military thing, right? And military divorce is just soooo different than civilian divorce. Right?

JAG attorneys are limited in a number of ways – some that are exactly the same as what attorneys like me (who are licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth of Virginia) face, and some that are entirely different. For one thing, an attorney’s office can’t talk with both a husband and a wife in a divorce case. If a firm or an attorney has already met with one of the parties, the rest of the firm is conflicted out – meaning that they can’t even meet with the other spouse. For our office, since we represent women only, that’s generally not a problem. (It could be, of course, with a same sex marriage, or a marriage in which one party or the other is transitioning – but I digress.)

That’s a problem in the JAG attorney’s office, too. If your husband beat you to the punch, you can’t talk to the JAG attorneys where you’re stationed. You could, theoretically, go to a different post or base and talk to a JAG attorney there, but… We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

If you were expecting to go straight in and get good divorce advice from a JAG attorney, your hope is probably misplaced anyway. Though I can certainly understand how intimidating and off putting it would be to know your husband has already thought of (and taken) a step before you could, I want to caution you not to place too much faith in the JAG attorneys, at least as it relates to divorce.

We’ve all got strengths and weaknesses, right? JAG attorneys are smart (hey, they’re attorneys, too!) and they do all sorts of things very, very well. When it comes to military law, they’re top dogs. I’d never dream of going head to head with a JAG attorney on a military law issue.

But comparing me doing military law with a military JAG attorney is a bit like what you should be thinking when you think of a JAG attorney giving information on divorce or custody. Remember: a military JAG attorney is licensed to practice military law. That means that, though he or she passed a bar exam to practice, he or she isn’t necessarily licensed in the state in which he or she is stationed. In fact, in most cases, it’s unlikely that the JAG attorney is licensed in the state where he or she is stationed and, as such, he or she probably has very little actual working knowledge of the specific laws in that state.

Divorce and custody are heavily state specific. The laws (like laws in most other areas) also change very frequently. It’s not necessarily similar in geographically close areas, either, so you can’t assume that because your JAG attorney is from, say, North Carolina or Maryland, that the laws in his or her home state will be substantially similar to the law in Virginia. In some cases, that may be true – but in other cases, it may be vastly different.

Military JAG attorneys CAN NOT represent you in your case in Virginia court, either, so if you need more than, say, general knowledge about Virginia divorce (which, incidentally, I do not advise that you get from a JAG attorney anyway), they can’t help you anyway.

But a JAG attorney wrote a separation agreement for a friend of mine!

Yes, it’s true. JAG attorneys do sometimes overstep their bounds. I have heard of JAG attorneys writing agreements for unsuspecting military members. I’ve even read one or two of them. In my experience, they’re not particularly good or comprehensive documents. It’s actually really scary to me to think that someone could rely so completely on an attorney who doesn’t even know all the things he or she doesn’t even know about Virginia divorce law.

Though some JAG attorneys will do things that they really shouldn’t do, it’s not wise of you to rely on a JAG attorney to practice outside of their sphere. If you came into my office and asked me about military law, I would advise you to talk to someone who actually knows about it!

Be very, very careful when dealing with JAG attorneys. If you must, go to them for general information – but always follow that up with talking to a licensed, experienced VIRGINIA divorce attorney, who can give you information about how things really work in Virginia. The JAG attorney may have a general idea, but if you want specific, comprehensive representation – well, the JAG attorney is not the appropriate choice.

But my husband already saw the JAG attorney!

Well, then, you’re probably not able to meet with the JAG attorney, at least on your base or post. You could go somewhere else, which is pretty easy in our area – we’ve got military bases out the wazoo. But is that really a good use of your time? You’re probably much better off having a real appointment with someone with specific Virginia knowledge. In fact, you’re certainly better off.

I know it’s off putting to think that your husband might be ahead of you, but consider that the information he got may or may not be accurate. You should spend your time gathering REAL information about Virginia divorce and custody law.

I’m happy to help you get started. I can even offer you help getting started for free.

How do I get started gathering Virginia divorce and custody information for free?

First thing’s first: Request a copy of our divorce book for Virginia military wives. We may not be affiliated with the military or actual JAG attorneys ourselves (but, hey, that’s for the best, since we actually do divorce and can represent you in the Virginia courts!) but we do have a lot of experience with military divorces. We’ve got a regular divorce book, too, but our military divorce book explains the ways that military divorces are different than civilian divorces. In many ways, it’s not too different – but there are things, like dividing a military pension or a TSP, that are a little bit unique. You can read about all of those things in our book, and get an idea of how a military divorce works.

You can also consider attending one of our divorce or custody seminars. They’re not free, but they’re super low cost (actually, the cost associated just covers our room rental and our material preparation; our attorneys volunteer their time when they present) and they’re a great way to ask your questions live to a real licensed attorney without paying the cost of a consult.

And, hey, if you want a consult, we can do that, too. Our consults aren’t free, but if you do come in for a consultation, we’ll waive the fee for the divorce seminar.

So, anyway, all of that to say that there are lots of ways for you to take back that perceived advantage and get up to date, Virginia specific divorce and custody information directly from an attorney who is licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth. That means not just writing agreements that take into account all the recent changes in the law, but also the ability, if necessary, to take your case in front of a judge.

JAG attorneys are wonderful, but we all have our sphere. It’s impossible to know everything about everything. I know that when they do give divorce information, they do so to be helpful – I get it! But when you don’t know all the things you need to know, giving advice can be more dangerous than telling someone that they really should talk to someone else with more knowledge.

For more information, to schedule an appointment, or to request a free copy of one of our books or reports, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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