On Monday, we talked about how to save money in your custody case, and covered how attorneys bill. If you missed it, don’t worry—you can check it out here.
Obviously, you want to keep your children safe, and give them the kind of childhood you always wanted to provide. Custody, visitation, and child support matter, but your budget for fighting for them isn’t unlimited. It’s important that you keep your finances in mind throughout your custody case. In a lot of cases, by planning ahead, working together with your attorney, and keeping your goals constantly in mind, you can keep your attention focused on what’s truly important. Obviously, as a mother, having enough money left over at the end of your case to actually raise your children is important to you, so you’ll definitely want to keep your finances in mind.
Today, we’re going to talk a little bit more about finances in your custody case. We’ll talk about alternatives to hiring an attorney, including do it yourself, mediation, and the red flags we normally see.
What are my alternatives?
You don’t necessarily have to hire an attorney to represent you in your custody case. These days, more and more women are making the decision to represent themselves in their custody cases. There’s more and more information online every day, and more help than ever for moms looking for guidance filing custody, visitation, and support petitions.
Do it yourself is definitely a way to save money when it comes to custody cases. Especially at the juvenile court level, it’s possible to represent yourself, and do it well.
Of course, you have to be careful exactly who you trust—you don’t want to base your entire custody case on some nameless, faceless internet source. You need to know who wrote whatever it is you’re reading, and whether they’re even familiar with custody cases in Virginia. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of good information out there, because there is. I just think it’s important that you’re cautious when it comes to totally trusting in an internet source.
In an effort to provide solid, Virginia specific information to Virginia moms going through custody cases, we started Custody Bootcamp for Moms, an all day, intense course designed to help teach moms what they need to know about custody, visitation, and support cases in Virginia courts. At Custody Bootcamp for Moms, we cover everything from the ten all important custody factors you need to know (and the judge has to listen to), how to question and cross examine witnesses, how to give opening and closing arguments, how to work with custody evaluators and guardians ad litem, when to sit, stand, and how to address the judge, what to wear, when to make objections to keep his bad evidence out, what to do to help make sure your good evidence stays in, how to prepare a trial notebook, and more. The seminars are taught by Kristen Hofheimer, and are offered quarterly, in January, April, July, and October. Each seminar lasts 6-8 hours (but Kristen will stay until the last woman’s last question is answered), includes lunch and an information packed notebook, and costs $197 to attend (which is less than the cost of an hour with a moderately priced local attorney).
For more information, or to sign up for our free report, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in a Custody Case?”, click here.
Do you really think I can do it without an attorney?
Well, that depends. Lots of people can, but there’s no doubt that representing yourself requires you to do a lot more work than you’d have to do if you hired an attorney to represent you.
Some cases are better candidates for do it yourself options than others. Cases at the juvenile court level, specifically, are usually great if you’re wanting to do it yourself. Why? Well, anything decided at the juvenile court level is automatically appealable to the circuit court. It’s an appeal “de novo,” which means that the case will be completely reviewed. None of the evidence or testimony or even opinions voiced by the judge will come up to the circuit court with you. Your case will be heard all over again, and re-decided by the circuit court judge.
Because it’s appealable, lots of moms decide to try to represent themselves without an attorney at the juvenile court level, knowing that, if things don’t go the way they hoped, they can hire an attorney for the appeal.
If you’re in the circuit court already, appeal is more difficult. You’d have to appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals, and, at that level, the court only reviews your case for mistakes of law—not mistakes of fact. All the witness testimony, evidence, and the judge’s opinions from the circuit court would come up with you, and would be reviewed by the judge. At that point, the judge would only review the record provided by the lower court—and any objections you noted—for mistakes of law. The judge won’t ask you to provide more insight into the situation, or to tell how it made you feel—the judge is looking at the law only, and not whether the facts were misinterpreted.
You can represent yourself in circuit court, but it’s riskier, because your ability to appeal isn’t as helpful. You can appeal, but your likelihood of success is much less.
If you’re considering representing yourself in a divorce action, that’s fine, too. Many women these days find that they are more interested in representing themselves than in hiring an attorney for a number of different reasons. If your divorce is uncontested, it’s definitely possible to represent yourself. If it looks like your divorce is going to be contested, then you may want to at least talk to an attorney before you move forward. Divorce is a fairly complicated process, and you may find yourself quickly out of your element in the court system.
I want to represent myself, but I’m scared I’ll make a mistake.
The good news is that, even if you don’t want to hire an attorney to represent you, most attorneys are willing to meet with you as a consultant in your case. Most of the time, if you pay their hourly rate, they’ll met with you occasionally and give you advice about how to move forward. That way, you can get the advice and counsel of an attorney before you do anything, and can be sure that you’re prepared and know what to expect.
It’s not foolproof, of course, but it’s a good way to get some advice and prepare for what’s coming. It’s certainly better than walking in to court with no idea of what’s to come.
What about Legal Aid?
If you really can’t afford to hire an attorney, you may want to talk to Legal Aid. They have specific guidelines about the cases they can take, and the amount of money that you can earn in order to qualify to receive services. In most cases, from my understanding, even if you qualify to receive services, they provide an informational meeting with one of their attorneys—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll take your case.
They rarely take any contested cases at all. Still, it’s worth a shot. If you’re really unable to afford to hire an attorney, you should give Legal Aid a call and see what they’re able to do for you.
What specific choices can you be making to help keep your case as cost effective as possible?
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about how attorneys bill, what it costs to hire one, and what your alternatives are if you don’t want to hire an attorney, let’s talk about the choices you can be making for yourself, to help make your custody case a little bit easier.
Whether you’re talking about a divorce case or a custody case, it can be either contested or uncontested. A contested case is one where you can’t reach an agreement, and a judge has to do it for you. An uncontested case is one where the two of you are able to make a decision together about how to work things out, and you enter an agreement for yourself.
Contested cases are much more expensive than uncontested ones. Even if it seems impossible that you and your child’s father will reach an agreement, financially it definitely makes the most sense.
A lot of times, hiring an attorney to help you negotiate an agreement can make something that you thought nearly impossible happen. It’s not 100% guaranteed, of course—and, after all, you know your child’s father better than I do, but it’s a good way to try to reach an agreement.
What about mediation?
Sometimes, mediation is also a good option.
Mediators, in most cases, aren’t attorneys. It’s not their job to help tell you whether an agreement is a good agreement, whether a judge would give you more or a better agreement, or whether you should sign it. It is a mediator’s job to help make sure you reach an agreement. You and your child’s father would share a mediator, so no one is looking out for your best interests. Since you’re sharing a mediator, it’s often much cheaper than hiring an attorney—but you should definitely exercise some caution if you decide to use one.
It’s a good idea to talk to an attorney both before and after you go into mediation. Beforehand, you can talk to an attorney to get a good idea of what a reasonable agreement would look like. That way, when you walk into mediation, you go into it with an idea of what you’ll accept—of what’s a really good agreement, and what’s something that you wouldn’t be willing to accept. Afterwards, you can go back to see the attorney to make sure that the agreement says what you think it says, and is worth signing. (Remember, once you sign an agreement, there’s really no going back, so you definitely want to be sure that it’s worth signing before it’s too late.)
It’s best to begin your divorce with the end in mind, so it’s always a good idea to keep your finances at the forefront. Having the conversation with your attorney can go a long way, too, because your goals and priorities will help inform the attorney’s choices.
You have a role in how much things cost, too. Focusing on the issues, trying to work with your child’s father to come to a mutually agreeable arrangement, and keeping things uncontested can all dramatically impact the cost of your custody case.
As always, we’re here to help. If you need help figuring out what your next steps should be, whether you’re a good candidate for do it yourself, or want to hire an attorney to help you navigate through your custody case, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.