What to Look for in a Lawyer Who Represents Unmarried Couples

How to find an attorney who can handle legal issues facing unmarried couples, such as preparing a living together contract or drafting a property settlement agreement.

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There are three basic ways a lawyer can help  you and/or your unmarried partner:

Consultation and advice. A lawyer can analyze your situation and advise you on your best plan of action. Ideally, the lawyer will explain all of your options so you can make the choice—for example, if you have a lot of assets and need a high-end estate plan.

Negotiation. The lawyer can help you negotiate—perhaps if you and your ex are in the midst of a nasty breakup. Many lawyers excel at negotiating—especially if they use that skill a lot in their practice.

Representation. You’ll need a lawyer to represent you if you believe your rights are being seriously violated or if there’s a lot of money at stake. For example, if you and your living together partner have only an oral contract to share all property, and your partner dies with no will or other estate plan, you’ll likely need a lawyer to help you assert your claim that a portion of the property in your deceased partner’s name actually belongs to you. Also, for almost any situation involving children—like adoption (other than stepparent adoption), or a fight to see a child you’ve been co-raising—you will undoubtedly need a lawyer to represent you. You might also need representation if you’ve unsuccessfully tried every possibility to settle your breakup issues.

Whether you find a lawyer through a personal referral or a lawyer directory,  here are some suggestions on how to make sure you have the best possible working relationship:

Determine the type of lawyer you need. There’s no such thing as a lawyer for all occasions. Some lawyers specialize in one narrow type of law (bankruptcy, for example), some are good negotiators in settling property disputes, and a few pride themselves on being “fang dog” litigators. To avoid the serious initial mistake of hiring the wrong lawyer, determine exactly what you need done. The best lawyer to review a document may be different from the best lawyer to mediate a dispute or represent you in court.

Look for a family law specialist. Keep in mind that lawyers learn mostly from experience and special training, not from law school, which rarely imparts any practical information. Start by asking any lawyer you’re considering hiring what percentage of the lawyer’s practice is in family law and how experienced the lawyer is in dealing with the problems of unmarried couples.

Work with a lawyer who advocates trying to settle disputes using nonadversarial techniques, such as mediation. Only rarely does it make sense to take family disputes to court without first making a serious effort to mediate.

• Make sure you're personally comfortable with any lawyer you hire. When making an appointment, ask to talk directly to the lawyer. If you can’t, this may be a hint as to how accessible he or she is. When you talk to or meet with the lawyer, ask specific questions. Do you get clear, concise answers? If the lawyer says little except to suggest that you let the firm handle the problem, watch out. Don’t be a passive client or deal with a lawyer who wants you to be one.

Pay particular attention to how the lawyer responds to your already having considerable information. Just by reading this book, you’re far better informed about the law concerning unmarried couples than are most clients. Some lawyers are threatened when a client is knowledgeable, while others are pleased to deal with an informed person. Find out which type you’re dealing with at the outset.

Look for a lawyer coach. Often what you need is a helping hand with paperwork or a bit of advice, but not formal legal representation. The good news is that there are far more lawyers who will help you help yourself than there used to be. The bad news is that most lawyers still do not embrace this “lawyer coach” model, and therefore you may have to conduct a fairly extensive search to find one.

Money matters. Fees—how much you’ll pay for legal services—are one of the biggest bones of contention and biggest areas of misunderstanding between a lawyer and client. Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject. In many states, a lawyer must give you a written fee agreement (contract) if your bill is expected to be more than a certain amount—often $1,000. That contract must explain the fees and charges, define the services to be provided, and describe the lawyer’s, and your, responsibilities. Even if your state doesn’t require a lawyer to do this, it’s a good idea to request such a fee agreement.

If you’re in doubt about what you are being charged for, ask direct questions about what the quoted fee covers. For example, many lawyers will charge you separately for the costs of filing and serving legal documents and often for other things, like copying charges; others will include this in their overall fee. You should be able to find an attorney willing to represent you for either a flat rate or an hourly rate of, say, $175–$250, depending on where the lawyer’s office is (city lawyers tend to be pricier) and how complex your case is (extensive court time will cost). Contingency fee cases, where the lawyer takes money only if your case is won, are generally prohibited in family law cases.

Think it over. Once you find a lawyer you like, make a one- or two-hour appointment to fully discuss your situation. Be ready to pay on the spot, and then go home and think about what the lawyer recommends and how much it will cost. If the lawyer’s advice doesn’t make complete sense, or you have other reservations, call someone else.

If things don't work out with a lawyer you hire, keep in mind that, basically, you have the right to fire a lawyer at any time, although, of course, you’re obligated to pay for any authorized services that have already been performed. If you believe that the lawyer has provided incompetent or unethical service or has overcharged. If this is your situation, call your state bar association and ask for information on how to file a formal complaint against the lawyer.


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