SHOULD I GET DIVORCED WITHOUT AN ATTORNEY?

Couple sits away from each other

We’d advise against it.

As with most situations dealing with the law, it is difficult to give a straightforward answer.

Everyone’s situation is different. Some married couples have children but no property. Others have no property but do have children. Some have children who are all grown up. Some married couples can come to a reasonable and fair arrangement on their own. Other couples cannot stand to be in the same room, on the phone, or even respond to each other’s emails.

The issues that make divorce law complicated are the issues that are related to the divorce but separate from the actual divorce itself. Generally speaking, the main problems are Parental Responsibility, Equitable Distribution, Alimony, and Child Support. Two of these issues, Child Support, and Parental Responsibility are about the parents’ relationship with, and support of, their children. The other two, Equitable Distribution and Alimony, are about the division of assets that the couple has acquired and the future support of a spouse with a need.

There are certain situations when a marriage can be dissolved through a less formal process, called a Simplified Dissolution of Marriage. These are faster procedures that are relatively simple and come without the requirements of a typical Dissolution of Marriage. Three of the most significant requirements for a Simplified Dissolution of Marriage are as follows:

  1. the parties have no minor or dependent children together, and the wife does not have any minor or dependent children who were born during the marriage;
  2. the wife is not now pregnant; and
  3. the parties have divided their property and agreed on the payment of their joint obligations.

There are times when a couple will be able to go forward with a Simplified Dissolution of Marriage on their own, however, it often still makes sense for someone to have an attorney help guide them through the process and be their advocate. Dissolutions are often very trying and emotional times. The division of property requires the ability and willingness to make a deal with one’s partner. It involves compromise at a time when the parties may be unwilling to be reasonable or sacrifice. Being forced to cooperate and coordinate with the other party can be very difficult during the stressful and emotional period of a divorce.

In addition to using an attorney as a shield from the traumatic emotional experience of a divorce, the attorney will act as your advocate to fight for the results that you want to get out of your case. Whether you are going forward on a Simplified Dissolution of Marriage or an ordinary Dissolution of Marriage, it is essential to understand that once a Final Judgment is entered, it will be more difficult to change the parameters.

Consider the following:

Adam and Beth have been married for several years and have one child together, Catherine. Catherine is five. They both love Catherine very much but are no longer interested in being married to one another. Adam and Beth cannot take part in a simplified dissolution of marriage because they have a minor child. In addition to the dissolution itself, they will need to consider whether either will be responsible for supporting the other, who gets the home they share, what kind of schedule they will each have with their children, how much each will pay to support Catherine, among many, many other issues. Both parties retain lawyers and proceed with their case.

Three months after the initial filing of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, the parties attend a Final Hearing and are officially divorced. Initially, they are satisfied with the Final Judgment. According to their agreement, both parents see Catherine multiple times per week, the parties are happy with the child support schedule, and they are reasonably satisfied with how they have divided up their property.

Three years pass. Beth notices that Catherine seems unwilling to go to Adam’s home and comes home even more depressed than when she left. Adam and Beth have remained friendly since their divorce, and so Beth confronts Adam about why Catherine seems so upset. Adam does not know why Catherine is so sad but notes that his new girlfriend has moved in and has been trying to make Catherine happy. Weeks pass and Beth begins to make excuses for why Catherine cannot make it to Adam’s home during Adam’s timesharing. Adam initially does not notice that this is intentional, but within a couple of months, after Catherine makes an off-handed comment about how her mother was right about him, Adam contacts his attorney to see what he can do about forcing his ex-wife to comply with their timesharing agreement. In the meanwhile, Beth has contacted her attorney to see how she can modify the Parenting Plan to reduce the amount of time that Adam has with Catherine.

As a result of the divorce alone, Adam and Beth have already spent their hard-earned money on attorney’s fees. They were happy with the results but now realize that they moved forward pretty quickly. They filed for divorce, went to Mediation and promptly got the divorce done as soon as they could agree on the most significant issues. As they think back to their conversations with their attorneys, they remember warnings, that things change, that they would be tied together at least until the child reached 18 years old, that it was vital for them to think ahead. Adam remembers a conversation he had with his attorney about Beth’s habit of speaking out of turn. Beth recalls her attorney talking about including something in the Final Judgment about the child’s contact with the parties’ new lovers. Adam and Beth were getting along relatively well at the time of the divorce, and so neither wanted to rock the boat and cause an issue that might upset the other. They both just wanted to get the divorce done and over.

At this point, since a Final Judgment was already entered, neither party will be able to change their Parenting Plan without a substantial change in circumstances. They are required to file a Supplemental Petition seeking the change and move forward from there. Since they are now even more opposed than they initially were, it will likely be contentious, lengthy and costly.

It is very reasonable and easy to seek the fastest possible resolution to a dissolution of marriage. Given the level of stress, the cost, and the generally unpleasant nature of the proceedings, it can be very appealing to look for the quickest way out. That is not the way to think. Especially when children are involved, it is imperative to think long term, to anticipate the future for yourself, your child(ren) and your soon-to-be ex.

The above illustration is one example of a situation where parties fail to look to the future and take the necessary precautions to prevent future problems and future litigation. The reality is that not all issues are avoidable, but some are. An attorney can help you to see past today’s challenges and look forward to a more certain future.

Let us help you.

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