Do I need a divorce attorney? What if I cannot afford one?

Not everyone going through a divorce either needs, or can afford, an attorney.  So, how do you know if you need an attorney, and, if you cannot afford an attorney, what are your options?


When Do I Need An Attorney?

Many people divorce without ever having to spend a dollar in attorney’s fees.  In fact, I have met with many prospective clients only to tell them “you really don’t need my services if you’re willing to do the work yourself.”  I help point the prospective client in the right direction, and they end up preparing and filing their own divorce paperwork at a fraction of the cost they would have spent on my services.

Bad for business?  Absolutely not.  Prospective clients who are not “upsold” on legal services tend to be very happy with the information and direction I provide, and often refer other clients who do indeed need my services.  The “do it yourself” divorce is not an option in every case.

So, how do you know when you need an attorney and when you don’t?  The cases that most commonly do not need an attorney have two defining characteristics.

First, these cases tend to be about the division of assets and liabilities.  Usually the couple has no children, and spousal maintenance isn’t an issue, because each party is self-supporting.  In addition, the assets and debts are pretty easy to identify and value (i.e., 401(k)s, house, cars, etc.), and both parties are knowledgeable about all of the assets and liabilities of the marriage.

The second characteristic is that the parties are relatively amicable and have figured out how to divide up their marital estate.  Some of these parties have been separated a while, and have worked through the emotions of divorce.  Others have been living together as “roommates,” and there is a mutual understanding that the marriage is over – and has been for some time.  Neither party blames the other for the divorce.  Rather, both parties have a common goal – to finish up the divorce proceeding as cost-effectively as possible.

When a case like this shows up in my office, I give the party with whom I meet information about the resources available for the “do it yourself” option.  In Minnesota, for example, the parties can get the divorce paperwork online, fill it all out, and then file the paperwork in the county in which they reside.  This process is straightforward, and relatively easy, when the parties are amicable and have figured out how to divide up their resources.

Even if you plan to “do it yourself,” it may be a good idea to have a short consultation with an attorney.  The purpose of the meeting is twofold:  1) to have the attorney quickly review the paperwork, to ensure that it has been filled out correctly, and 2) to have the attorney share any over-arching thoughts or concerns he or she may have about the agreement.  This does not mean, however, that the attorney will be signing off on your paperwork.  The attorney is just making sure that the paperwork is filled out correctly (so that it can be processed by the court), and giving you an opinion as to how the agreement matches up with the law.

What If I Cannot Afford An Attorney?

So, what if your case does not fall into the “do it yourself” category and you cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent you?  Take heart!  You do have options!

First, depending upon your income, you may qualify for free, or reduced-cost, legal services.  These are often referred to as “legal assistance programs” and information about them can usually be found through the state bar association.  It is not uncommon for there to be several “legal assistance programs” – so check each of them out to see if one may be applicable to your circumstance.

If you do not qualify for free, or reduced-cost, ongoing legal representation, then you may want to investigate what is known as “unbundled legal services” (also known as “limited scope representation” or “discrete task representation”).  This is a method of legal representation in which the attorney and client agree to limit the attorney’s involvement in the divorce to help save the client money.  For example, you may want an attorney to draft certain legal paperwork for you.  Or perhaps you have an upcoming court appearance and want legal coaching to prepare for your hearing.  You could hire the attorney for these limited tasks, which are often billed through a flat fee (as opposed to an hourly rate).

If you do not qualify for free or reduced-cost legal services, and cannot afford to purchase any legal services (including “unbundled legal services”), then you are going to be your own attorney in your divorce.  If this is what it comes to, then be your own best advocate.  Get on the Internet.  Do your research.  There is a lot of information available out there.  Find out what the divorce laws in your state say about custody, spousal maintenance (alimony), and property division.  Search out a free, or lost cost, divorce information seminar.  Locate an attorney who will meet with you and give you a free, initial consultation so you can learn more about the divorce laws in your state and how they may apply to your circumstance.

Conclusion

Not everyone who goes through a divorce is either going to need, or can afford, an attorney.  If you and your spouse are relatively amicable, and can figure out how to divide up your assets and liabilities, then you probably do not need an attorney for ongoing representation (although you may want an attorney to review the legal paperwork).  If you need, but cannot afford ongoing legal representation in your divorce, then you have options, such as “legal assistance programs” and “unbundled legal services.”  If you absolutely have to represent yourself, then you can do your research, and be an informed, assertive self-advocate.