My JAG attorney gave me a form separation agreement
It’s not the first time I’ve written about JAG attorneys, and it probably won’t be the last, especially given that these same issues keep popping up time and time again in my practice.
I’ve said it before: JAG attorneys are usually not licensed in the state in which they are stationed. If you’re military (which you probably are, or you wouldn’t have contact with a JAG attorney and you wouldn’t have found your way to this article), you probably know that. Where you’re stationed has very little to do with where you’re actually from. Though it’s possible that someone at Naval Station Norfolk is a Virginia native, it’s probably not likely.
And, even if your JAG attorney was a Virginia native, it doesn’t follow that (1) they went to school in Virginia, (2) that they were barred in Virginia, or (3) that they’ve ever spent any time practicing law (let alone family law) in Virginia. JAG attorneys don’t practice in the state courts. Your JAG attorney probably isn’t licensed in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which means that he or she can’t draft any documents on your behalf or appear on your behalf in court. JAG attorneys practice military law – it’s a total different animal.
And divorce is a complicated area of law. To a certain extent, every area of law is complicated, but divorce is especially so because it’s so incredibly state-specific. Even nearby states – like North Carolina, Maryland, and West Virginia – do things WAY differently. So, just because you were familiar with family law even in a neighboring state doesn’t mean that you have any familiarity with Virginia law at all.
Aside from that, the law is constantly changing. You have to work to keep up at it. And, chances are, if you’re practicing military law, you’re licensed in a different state, and you’ve never practiced family law at all anywhere, you’re probably not all that up to date on the changes in Virginia law in recent years – except, maybe, as it relates to military retirement.
Which is why it’s so alarming to me when I hear – as I sometimes do – that JAG attorneys are out there giving out form separation agreements! I came across one just today, and was horrified (I promise, I’m not being dramatic) at what I saw.
I’m not sure of the extent to which the language was provided by the military and how much embellishment was added by the woman with whom I spoke, but the agreement was a complete disaster. It was everything you don’t want to see – vague and ambiguous, biased towards the military service member (who was not, by the way, the woman I was speaking to) and incomplete. Everything from the way the refinance of the marital residence was handled, to the division of the marital bank accounts and joint credit card debt, the spousal support provisions, and especially the military retirement section, was wrong, inadequate, incomplete, or misleading.
I’ve said this before, too, but I’ll say it again: getting divorced is only part of the goal your attorney has for you. Sure, that’s important; in fact, its why you’re here. But there’s so much more to it! We have to protect your interest in the marital assets, and we also have to minimize the potential for problems later on down the line. After all, what good is a separation agreement, even if you save a ton of money on it, if you end up in court later on, arguing about what it should have meant? That kind of stuff can cost you tens of thousands of dollars, too! And it’s so easily avoidable.
I get it. A JAG attorney will talk to you for free. And they sound good, right? Probably, on a few points, they’re even right – just enough so that you begin to trust them. But then they hand out form agreements like the one I saw today, and it can really wreak havoc.
I understand. Divorce is expensive. And everyone is on a budget. You maybe can’t afford to have an attorney represent both of you from beginning to end. But that’s not reason to rely blindly on resources provided to you by unqualified sources. Sure, a JAG attorney is an attorney, and, in their fields, they’re super knowledgeable. But we’re all only as good as the experience we have. If I tried to take, say, a personal injury case, I’m sure I’d do my client a disservice (which, incidentally, is why I wouldn’t ever do that without some actual training).
You don’t have to rely on subpar sources, though, just because you’re on a budget. And, in fact, almost any other source could give you better information than a military JAG attorney can, at least with respect to divorce and custody. And ESPECIALLY where military retirement is concerned!
You can always have your agreement reviewed by a licensed, experienced Virginia divorce attorney without actually hiring that attorney. And that attorney can point out the problems with your proposed agreement, and can even help you fix some of the issues.
Not only that, but there are other free resources available out there. Legal Aid will help, in some cases, and can at least point you in the right direction. Their website has some great free resources as well, especially if you’re trying to represent yourself.
Additionally, we offer free books and resources (you know, like this article you’re reading) on all sorts of topics. If you don’t see it in our catalogue of free reports and books, you can also search our library for something on point.
We have divorce and custody seminars as well. If you get a referral to our divorce seminar from Fleet and Family or other military group, we can waive the fee for our Second Saturday Divorce seminar. We also give one scholarship per Custody Bootcamp Seminar, so, if you’d like to apply, shoot me an email with a brief summary of why you should receive the scholarship for our next seminar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment, give our office a call at 757-425-5200. And beware the JAG!