Do we have to involve lawyers in our do-it-yourself online or mediated divorce?
Many online divorce services promote their use as a total alternative to legal advice and services. In this article, we would like to weigh in on the question of whether a "pro se" (unrepresented by counsel) divorcing couple should employ the services of a lawyer and if so, for what purposes.
In the promotional materials for many online divorce sites, you will see postings such as "avoid dealing with lawyers," "avoid all attorney fees," etc. An online divorce such as from OurDivorceAgreement.com can and will save hundreds or thousands of dollars in attorney fees. However, we recommend that divorcing couples using any online divorce product or using a mediator utilize a family lawyer for one important service - reviewing your Agreement prior to signing and submitting it to the Court.
We urge that an online divorce or mediated divorce is superior to a lawyer represented divorce in the following ways:
1) It is faster. Divorces with lawyers representing both or one side take months or years. Online or mediated divorces
2) It is far less expensive. Depending on the location, legal fees for divorce range from $150-$500 per hour for each party. And the goal of the representing lawyer is not always to get the couple divorced for the lowest price. Online divorces range from $150-$350 plus filing fees. Even if a couple uses a mediator for part or all of their divorce, the mediator fee is usually split or shared by the parties, reducing the cost by at least half in most instances.
3) It is cooperative. The goal of an online or mediated divorce is to reach a mutually agreeable outcome as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. This encourages cooperation and mutually beneficial outcomes.
4) It keeps control of the process with the divorcing couple themselves. With a litigated divorce, if the parties cannot reach agreement between the lawyers and themselves, a judge makes the decisions, taking control over the outcome away from the parties. In litigation or a lawyer represented divorce, there is also some lack of control for the couple because the lawyers do a significant amount of negotiating between themselves. So communication with the clients about every issue is often absent.
If a divorce situation is highly conflictual, if there is mental or physical abuse, if one party is extremely clueless unfamiliar with their rights and financial issues, a litigated divorce may be necessary and desirable to bring about a reasonable and fair balance of power.
However, for the relatively cooperative divorcing couple who wishes to fully participate in their divorce and has the information and ability to do so, an online or mediated divorce will save money, time, headaches and stress.
We do however see a role for attorneys in even the most cooperative situations. We recommend that when a couple using an online divorce product or a mediator reaches a tentative agreement, they take a draft of the Property Settlement Agreement And Child Care Plan (if they have minor children together) to separate family law attorneys for a one hour review.
This ensures that each party has someone with knowledge in family law from the local area look at the draft Agreement with their eye out only for the party they represent. The advising attorney can call attention to areas in which the party may be being too generous. The party can be aware of this and still decide to go through with the item, but at least they are informed about the fact that they may not be required to be so generous if a judge were making the decision.
Sometimes, a reviewing attorney can make a suggestion that benefits both parties but is an option that both have overlooked.
Be careful in choosing an attorney to review your draft divorce agreement. When you call the office, tell the scheduling secretary that you have been through mediation (even if you have done an online divorce, it is a form of self-guided divorce mediation) and that you would like to hire the lawyer for the limited role of reviewing your draft Agreement. Set a limit of the amount of time you are willing to pay for. One to two hours should be sufficient for almost all divorces. One hour for most. Be clear that you plan to file the divorce yourself and that you do not wish to engage the lawyer for any other services at this time.
Some lawyers will refuse to serve in this limited capacity. Their refusal is probably a blessing for you because such and attorney could be likely to steer you in a more conflictual direction.
In any event, make sure you realize that you are the client and the one paying for services. Be sure you get the service you want, in this case someone giving you informed and unbiased legal advice regarding the Agreement you wish to enter into.
Once you have gotten the attorney review, you are ready to file your Agreement and other filing documents with the Court.
If you have gotten a legal review of your divorce agreement and the lawyer has not raised any significant objections that you agree with, you can be more certain that you have made a good decision for yourself, your future ex-spouse and your family.