Choosing to represent yourself in court instead of hiring a divorce lawyer could be a costly mistake. Here's why.
If you're at the beginning of your divorce process, you may be considering representing yourself instead of hiring a lawyer, thinking you'll save time and money by doing so. If your marriage was very short, if both of you are committed to ending your marriage without a legal or financial battle, if you have no children or assets, and if neither of you wants or needs to receive spousal support (alimony) from the other, then you may be able to process your own divorce using a kit or online tools.
However, most people find divorce to be a complicated and confusing process, and they're grateful to have an experienced family lawyer to help guide them through it. You'll need to make a lot of decisions that will affect the rest of your life -- at a time when emotions may overwhelm your ability to think clearly. So although not everyone needs a divorce lawyer, obtaining a good one is often in your best interests -- especially if your divorce is complicated, contested, involves children, you have significant assets or if your soon-to-be ex-spouse has hired a divorce lawyer.
Here are five reasons to consider hiring a divorce lawyer rather than representing yourself in court.
1) You are unfamiliar with matrimonial law and/or family court.
In court, self-represented litigants are not given any special treatment; judges hold them to the same standards as the lawyer for the other side. Most judges are fairly patient people, but if you don't know the law -- or what documents you need, or even what to do next -- you may be pushing the judge's patience past the breaking point. The more annoyed a judge is, the less sympathetic he/she is likely to be. Family lawyers are experts in knowing what to say to make their case seem more reasonable than yours. Lawyers who focus on areas outside family law hire a family lawyer when they're getting a divorce; they recognize that they'll be out of their depth when faced with a lawyer who practices family law exclusively. So it's extremely unlikely that you'll be able to adequately prepare to face the court process -- and your spouse's lawyer -- by yourself. To make matters worse, you can jeopardize your entire case by saying or doing just one thing wrong.
2) You need objective advice at this emotional time.
Divorce is an extremely emotional time for both spouses. You may experience feelings of sadness, betrayal, fear, depression, rage, confusion and resignation -- sometimes all on the same day! This level of heightened emotions, and the fact that you cannot possibly be objective about your case, will skew your judgement. Very few people have had the time or the willingness to work through their emotions about their soon-to-be ex-spouse during the divorce process, which will hinder their ability to work productively with the other side to resolve important matters. If you're thinking of representing yourself, you need to be aware that your emotional state may prevent you from making wise decisions about the future. As an objective third party, a family lawyer can keep a clear, level head and separate themselves from the emotional side of the case in order to work towards the best resolution for everyone involved. Throughout the divorce process, a lawyer can remind you to keep your emotions in check -- or even introduce you to other professionals who can help you channel your emotions into positive strategies. A good divorce lawyer can let you know when you're being unreasonable or are asking for something that's more-or-less impossible. When emotions are running high, it is easy to say or do things that may come off as aggressive or vindictive; a lawyer creates a buffer between you and the other side, and will do his/her best to prevent you from allowing your emotions to sabotage your case.
3) A divorce lawyer can suggest options you didn't even know existed.
A family lawyer can evaluate your situation and let you know the likely outcome if you take your case to court. Based on their experience with the judge and similar cases to yours, they'll be able to offer a variety of legally-acceptable options to settle your case. If you and your spouse represent yourselves, you may agree on items that the judge will reject; when that happens, you're causing more work and more delay for yourself, your spouse, the judge, and the court system. A lawyer will help you create a reasonable settlement proposal; if the proposal is coming from the other side, your lawyer will let you know whether to settle, make a counter-proposal or fight it out in court.
4) One word: paperwork.
Going through a divorce can feel like being buried alive under a mountain of paperwork to be filled out and filed with the court. Knowing which forms you'll need for your unique situation can be challenging, and collecting all the information to complete them can be both difficult and tedious. However, producing complete paperwork is crucial: the judge will rely heavily on your documents to decide the outcome of your case. Using the wrong numbers on one form and the wrong tone or words on another could result in the judge perceiving you as careless or combative. If you omit something by mistake, the other side might accuse you of trying to hide information -- which will damage your credibility and your case. A divorce lawyer knows how to fill out the paperwork properly and persuasively, increasing the chances that a judge will view your side of the argument favorably. Today, many cases are bogged down in the court system due to incomplete work presented by do-it-yourself divorces.
5) A divorce lawyer can help you focus on the Big Picture.
While you may be solely focused on "winning" the case, a family lawyer will concentrate on creating the best deal possible -- which may mean helping you to compromise on some issues so that you can get more of your "must haves." In divorce, a good deal is one where both sides gave up some of what they had hoped to gain, but both can live with the settlement -- literally. Family lawyers represent individuals with finite resources, not big corporations who have unlimited money to throw at a case, so they know cost is important. A good divorce lawyer will advise you not to waste your money by fighting over every issue, and they can help you set your priorities so you end up with more of what you actually need -- even if you have to give up some of what you want to achieve it.
Finally, if you don't know how to choose the right lawyer for your unique needs, take a minute to watch this short video: "15 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Divorce Lawyer."
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