Do you need a lawyer to get divorced? Yes, and don’t stop there

Do you need a lawyer to get divorced? Yes, and don’t stop there

SAN DIEGO – February 5, 2013 – More people file for divorce in January than any other month. Family law attorneys call it “divorce season.”

So as February begins, many decisions are being made that can last a lastime.

When a person makes the emotional decision to get divorced, the legal and financial realities of your decision can stop you in your tracks. Will the legal business be a nightmare? Will it cost you a fortune? How will you ever get through it?

Divorce is the most common legal matter that people try to handle by themselves, also referred to as “pro per.” Well over half the divorces in the U.S. go the pro per route; in some areas, it can be as high as 80 percent. The numbers have been going up the past few years due to the recession. People think hiring a lawyer will be expensive, or stressful. The paperwork seems easy enough.

But many people get started and discover a divorce involves a whole lot more than just legal paperwork. Court cutbacks in many states means less personnel to help you work your case through the system. Any mistakes can set you back for months. It involves complex financial decisions that can affect you and your children for years to come. It also involves emotional upset for most people: Anger. Grief. Shame. Fear.

It might seem self-serving for a family law attorney to advise people to hire a lawyer to handle your divorce. But I don’t stop there. To protect your long-term best interests on every possible level, you need three key experts looking out for you.

First, find a family law attorney with expertise in divorce cases. Your attorney should hold family law specialty certification in your state. In California, look for the initials “CFL-S” for “Certified Family Law Specialist.”

In addition to your attorney’s qualifications, don’t be shy about asking how his or her fee structure works. This is a business agreement even though it’s likely to get emotional. Being honest and open about your arrangements makes things easier on everyone.

Ask your prospective attorney how many cases he or she has handled; how many times he or she has gone to trial versus the percentage of cases settled out of court. Does the attorney represent mainly husbands or wives, or both equally? How much of your case will he or she handle personally? If there is another associate or a paralegal assigned, be sure you meet them and feel comfortable with them as well.

Next, it’s crucial to seek the services of a divorce financial planner. There are many good financial professionals available but they will not be right if they are not specifically qualified to advise you on key aspects of the divorce process and how this will affect your assets. Look for a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) certification. This person will work with your attorney to oversee critical financial tasks that are not within a lawyer’s area of expertise. This individual will review the impact of your legal choices in the divorce on your financial and tax situation, especially in regard to a divorce settlement offer. This will strengthen your attorney’s ability to negotiate from a position of strength on your behalf.

Last, it is wise to bring in a mental health professional with training in family counseling. Divorce is an emotional experience unfolding in the midst of what is essentially a business deal. It can overwhelm you while you are struggling to focus on practical decisions about legal and financial issues.  A therapist can help you cope with strong feelings while the divorce process unfolds and provide a safe place to express yourself. This allows you to avoid drama with your attorney and your financial planner.

Yes, hiring three professionals is more expensive than trying to go it alone with your divorce. But if you have any children or property, you risk making mistakes or bad decisions that have a negative impact the rest of your life. Consider it an investment in yourself, your children, and your future. What is more important than this?

With the expertise of highly qualified, experienced legal, financial, and psychological professionals on your side, you will have all of the help you need to get through your divorce with a bright, secure future ahead of you and your family.

Where possible, consider the collaborative divorce method. Collaborative divorce is an alternative dispute resolution process to the typical adversarial divorce. A divorcing couple signs a legal stipulation agreeing that they will not go to court to resolve their differences. The couple works with a Collaborative Divorce team consisting of a family law attorney, financial specialists, divorce coaches and child and family therapy specialists, which helps and guides them through their divorce. These professionals often work together on a regular basis and can rely on each other’s specific expertise.

The process depends on the level of cooperation between the parties, their willingness and ability to commit to a healthy divorce, and the complexity (emotional and financial) of the case.

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