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Do I Need A Lawyer For My Divorce?

Getting a divorce is like going on a long, winding road trip without a map. The divorce process is confusing, stressful, and sometimes it feels like you’re going in circles. And just like any other journey, having someone with experience and knowledge to guide you can make all the difference. That’s where a divorce lawyer comes into the picture. But do you absolutely need one?

The Short Answer: It Depends

While some may be tempted to handle the process themselves to save money, it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons carefully. Divorce involves a myriad of legal and financial complexities that may not be immediately apparent. From property division and child custody to spousal support and retirement accounts, the legal landscape can be daunting. If there is any disagreement between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse regarding finances, spousal or child support, property division, or child custody, hiring a lawyer may be a good idea.

When You Might Not Need A Lawyer

If your divorce is simple (no children, no shared assets, no debt) and uncontested,  you might be able to navigate the process without a lawyer. An uncontested divorce is one in which the couple agree to the divorce and on all major issues relating the the dissolution of the marriage. Major issues usually include things such as the division of property (such as real estate), division of marital assets (such as money in bank accounts, retirement plans, savings accounts, pension plans, and investments), division of marital debt, spousal maintenance (such as alimony), financial support, and custody and financial support of minor children.

However, “simple” is not a word usually used to describe any divorce. Even without kids or shared property, there are emotions involved. And emotions can complicate even the simplest of things.

Hispanics have a saying “lo barrato sale caro” which roughly translates to “the cheap ends up being expensive.” Just remember that in trying to accomplish a cheap divorce, you may end up saving pennies to later lose dollars.

So, even if you and your spouse have no kids, no debt, no (or limited) assets, or kids; or are lucky enough to agree on custody rights and how financial matters will be handled, it might still be wise to hire a divorce lawyer to ensure your rights are protected. This could involve simply having a lawyer draft a divorce decree or review a divorce agreement. Luckily, there are many law firms and divorce attorneys that are willing to charge a flat rate for such limited services.

If you decide to go forward with a do-it-yourself divorce, it would be very wise for you to research the proper steps, relevant divorce laws (especially regarding community property), and forms you need to prepare and file. Many, if not all states, for example, have residency requirements in order to initiate a divorce action.

When You Might Need A Lawyer

If you’ve been served with divorce papers, your spouse has hired an attorney, or have a contested divorce on your hands, you should definitely consider hiring a lawyer. Unlike an uncontested divorce, a contested divorce occurs when one of the spouses does not want to end the marriage, or if there is a disagreement regarding things such as how marital property, debt, or child custody will be distributed.

Domestic abuse or violence, of you or your children, are other issues that often complicate a marriage dissolution. One or both spouses may have to fight for or against child visitation rights and restraining orders. While an experienced family law attorney would be highly recommended in these types of scenarios, unfortunately, not many people can afford one. The good news is that there are many family law attorneys willing to offer free (pro bono) or low-cost services (more on this below in the “Free & Low-Cost Alternative Options” section). You just have to put in the work to find one.

And let’s not forget, sometimes, you just need a lawyer to understand all the legal jargon and guide you through the jungle of divorce proceedings. Seriously, have you ever tried reading a legal document? It’s like trying to understand a foreign language, but without the fun of being in a foreign country.

Free & Low-Cost Alternative Options

If you want or need legal representation but can’t afford it, the following are free or low-cost options. One of the great things about these options, other than the lower cost, is that you can mix and match!

  1. Get free advice from experienced divorce lawyers on Judigo Legal. If you just need a few simple legal questions answered or need some direction, you can chat online with an experienced attorney for free.
  2. Negotiate informally with your spouse. If at all possible, put on your “patience of a saint” hat and try to come to a divorce settlement through negotiations with your spouse. Negotiations typically involve parenting plans and working out financial issues. Though negotiations may take a few months and will most likely test your sanity, you could potentially save thousands of dollars, bigger headaches, and time in the long run.
  3. Try a collaborative divorce. Collaborative divorces involve each party hiring a lawyer to attempt to come to a marital settlement agreement without having to battle it out in court. With collaborative divorces, the spouses don’t talk to each other unless both their lawyers are present, and if during the process, one party threatens to sue the other, the collaborative divorce process ends. While this option is a bit costly, it provides each party with the support of a zealous advocate (lawyer), keeps the matter private, out of court, and often costs only a fraction of going to trial.
  4. Try a divorce mediation. The mediation process is a lot simpler than going to trial. It is simply a relatively informal meeting run by a mediator (third-party neutral person) whose job it is to help spouses come to a divorce settlement agreement. The mediator is normally chosen by both spouses and is neutral in that they are not there to to play favorites or to judge. Their only objective is to get both spouses to agree. Private mediation can be a little pricey although it is a lot cheaper, less messy, and less risky than going to trial. Some courts and local governments offer free divorce mediation services, so it might be worthwhile to do a little research to try to find one.
  5. Hire an attorney to handle only one or a few things (limited-scope representation). Many attorneys, including Judigo Legal members, offer unbundled services (limited-scope representation), and some even offer flat rates. With limited-scope representation, you can save a lot of money by handling some tasks yourself and delegating more complex things to an attorney. For example, some people will hire a divorce attorney just to represent them in court or at a mediation, or to draft or review agreements. Click here to find Judigo Legal member attorneys who offer unbundled or flat-rate services.
  6. Get help from legal aid clinics. Many legal aid offices can answer questions and provide either limited or full-scope representation on a sliding scale. Visit https://www.lawhelpca.org/find-legal-help/directory/area for a list of legal aid organizations in California. You may also want to ask your local bar association about free or low-cost legal aid organizations. See the State Bar of California’s list at https://www.calbar.ca.gov/.
  7. If you live in California, hire a registered Legal Document Assistant. Legal Document Assistants (LDA) are non-lawyer, trained professionals who are authorized to prepare and file legal documents, including divorce papers, for clients. Please note that LDAs are not the same as paralegals. In California, and a lot of other states, paralegals cannot work directly for the public. Rather, paralegals can only work for and under the supervision of an attorney. LDAs, on the other hand, can perform work directly for the public and are generally much cheaper than lawyers. However, keep in mind that LDAs cannot represent you or give you legal advice—only lawyers can do that. Also, you should ensure that any LDA you are looking to hire is registered with the County Clerk in each county where they provide services. For more information about LDAs or for a list of LDAs in your area, go to https://www.courts.ca.gov/24640.htm?rdeLocaleAttr=en.
  8. Search for private attorneys willing to provide you either full-scope or limited-scope representation for free (pro bono) or for a low cost. You can start by asking Judigo Legal member attorneys by visiting https://app.judigolegal.com/. You can also see a list of pro bono organizations and attorneys in California at https://www.calbar.ca.gov/.
  9. Ask the court in which you are filing for divorce for a waiver. Many, if not all, courts in California offer waivers to people with limited income or who are in public-assistance programs. These waivers allow you to file divorce paperwork and receive certain court services for free. This is important because court filing fees alone can potentially cost you thousands of dollars.

Final words about low cost options: Be wary of online divorce companies and paralegals who offer their services at bargain basement prices. Make sure to research and vet anyone you intend to hire.  And remember–only state bar-licensed lawyers can give you advice about legal issues!

The Bottom Line

Like most things in life, whether or not you need a divorce lawyer isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It largely depends on your specific situation. If you’re unsure, it doesn’t hurt to consult with a lawyer to understand your options better. Chats with lawyers on Judigo Legal are free, but if you need something more than a quick chat, many member attorneys offer free, longer consultations.

After all, it’s better to have and not need, than to need and not have, right? That goes for umbrellas, spare tires, and yes, divorce lawyers.

Whether you choose to hire a lawyer or brave the road alone, remember this: you’re stronger than you think, and you will get through this. Take care of yourself.

Disclaimer: This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice. Consult with a lawyer for advice on your specific situation.

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