Divorce: Do You Need a Lawyer?

Learn more about how divorce lawyers work and when you might want to hire one.

If you're contemplating divorce, you may be overwhelmed with the amount of information available to you on the internet. It's no surprise that in today's internet-driven world there are thousands of blogs, self-help websites, and legal advice sites available to you. But, what happens if you listen to the wrong advice and make a mistake when filing your divorce? Or, what if you can't interpret your state divorce laws and you lose your rights to marital property in your divorce? Although most states don't require you to hire a lawyer, sometimes it might be the best way to protect your interests in a divorce.

Negotiate Your Divorce, Without an Attorney

Although divorce is one of the most complex and emotional legal processes in family law, not all couples require in-depth court assistance to end their marriage. If you and your spouse are on the same page about what you want for your family, you may be able to negotiate a divorce settlement on your own.

When you and your spouse decide to divorce, if you can communicate, try to talk about each of your ideal outcomes for child custody, visitation, child support, property division, and alimony. It’s no surprise that children fare much better after a divorce if the parents can continue to facilitate a quality relationship with the child and each other. If you find that you’re on the same page and are both willing to put your agreement in writing, you might be able to save time and money by not hiring an attorney to go to trial for your case. However, even the most agreeable couples can hit roadblocks during the settlement process, so be prepared to consider mediation and/or hire an attorney if that happens.

Another thing to consider is hiring a consulting attorney, who can simply perform a review of your proposed divorce settlement before you sign it. It's important to understand that when you agree to the terms of the divorce, and a judge signs your judgment, you will be bound by that agreement and court order.

If you think you entered into a bad deal or agreed to something you didn't understand, your only recourse will be to go back to court to try and change your final order. But undoing a divorce agreement is difficult and generally only allowed under very limited circumstances. For this reason, it's wise to hire a divorce lawyer to review your settlement agreement before you sign it.

An Attorney Can Explain Your Rights

Although you might be hesitant to hire an attorney to get you through your divorce, you should understand that experienced, local divorce lawyers know the law, especially as it pertains to your state. Every state has different divorce requirements, so unless you’re confident in your ability to interpret statutes and correctly complete legal paperwork, you might consult with a family law attorney in your area.

It's a good idea to interview a few attorneys before you decide on one. You should ask whether the attorney is in favor of alternative dispute resolution­—or, mediation—to resolve disputes. If yes, then your attorney will probably not advocate for a trial unless your spouse is uncooperative or unreasonable. If the attorney you interview doesn’t have experience with negotiations, settlements, or is a zealous advocate of litigation, you might want to move on with your search.

Most attorneys will advocate for their clients while also attempting to resolve the case as quickly as possible. You can visit Nolo’s lawyer directory to learn about an individual attorney’s philosophy on the practice of law. If you’re still searching, ask friends and family for personal references.

Consider Collaborative Practice for Your Divorce

While most attorneys are willing to utilize alternative divorce solutions, like mediation, some are trying a new divorce method called “collaborative practice,” which is where the clients and lawyers agree, in advance, not to litigate in court. In collaborative practice, both sides agree to share information voluntarily and work towards a settlement.

In order to use this process, your spouse will need to agree to a collaborative divorce and hire a collaborative lawyer as well. Both spouses and their attorneys will sign a contract that states if the parties can’t reach an agreement using the collaborative process, each client will hire a new attorney to handle the contested case. By eliminating the option for trial, both parties (and their attorneys) will work harder to settle, which saves both time and money.

When Should You Hire an Attorney?

There are certain situations where you should always hire an attorney. If there’s a history of domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, or sexual abuse, hiring an attorney is the best way to protect your rights. When there is a power imbalance and/or violence between partners, a fair negotiation can become impossible.

If your spouse hires an attorney, you should do the same. Although you might feel like you can represent yourself in your divorce, when one side has an attorney and the other doesn’t, it often results in the unrepresented party walking away without a fair deal. Do yourself a favor, hire an attorney and level the playing field.

Although no divorce is pleasant, some are outright unbearable, especially if the other party in your case is hiding assets, destroying property, wasting marital funds, or threatening you with physical or financial ruin for filing for divorce. If you find that you can’t work with your spouse, hiring a qualified attorney to represent you may be your only option. Not only will the attorney advocate for your rights throughout the divorce, but there’s also no question that you will feel some relief from the stress of your divorce knowing that you have someone in your corner.

What If I Can’t Afford an Attorney?

Depending on where you live, divorce can cost more than $25,000 when you hire an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, you can call your local legal aid office to see if you qualify for assistance. Most legal aid programs have limited resources, so you might only have the opportunity to speak with an attorney over the phone. In some cases, especially those involving domestic violence, legal aid can furnish an attorney to work with you for the entirety of your case.

If you don’t qualify for legal aid, you may be able to find an attorney willing to take your case “pro bono,” which means for free. Some states, but not all, require attorneys to provide a specific number of pro bono hours per year. The best way to find a pro bono or low-cost attorney is to contact your state bar association and ask for referrals. Although not all attorneys have the resources to provide free services, some may offer lower prices or payment plans.

Finally, some family law courthouses offer clinics or volunteer legal staff who can point you to the right paperwork, review settlement agreements, and even assist in filling out paperwork. Contact your local courthouse and/or check its website to find out if there are any services you can use.

Nolo.com also provides legal information about divorce and offers low-cost products, such as books on divorce, that can help you understand the process and allow you to download useful forms.

History of Violence

If you fear that your spouse will harm you or your children, get help. You may need to move to a safe location without disclosing it to your spouse. If necessary, ask your attorney for a restraining order against your spouse, which will prevent the abuser from coming near you or contacting you. Before you remove your children from home (or as soon as possible after you move), you need to obtain a temporary order for custody, so you aren’t accused later of kidnapping.

Most cities have free services for domestic violence survivors. Contact your local agencies for more information on the resources available to you, which may include low-cost legal assistance.

When looking for help as a victim of abuse, remember to consider how private your computer, Internet, and phone use are. Consider whether there's anything you can and should do to prevent someone else from learning that you’re doing research or seeking help. Some victims, for instance, might use the same computer or device as the abuser, or might have a phone plan that allows the abuser to see the calls they make and receive. Other kinds of technology, like home security cameras and GPS in phones and cars, can also allow for monitoring by the abuser.

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