This is a question I hear a lot when people learn what I do for a living. My response is often something along the lines of, “No, you don’t need a lawyer to get a divorce. You also don’t need to have a dentist to get your tooth pulled, but it’s usually a lot less painful if you do.”
This is a lighthearted response, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. It certainly is possible to get a divorce without a lawyer, but for most people, it’s a bad idea. Hiring a lawyer costs money — there’s no way around it. But the only time you should consider divorcing without an experienced family law attorney’s help is if the cost of hiring an attorney outweighs the cost of NOT having one. Bear in mind that those costs are more than just financial (although the financial cost of not having an attorney can also be great).
Who Should Have an Attorney to Divorce?
If you fall into any of the categories below, divorcing without an attorney is likely to be more costly and risky than hiring a good divorce lawyer. You may save initially on attorney fees by not hiring a lawyer, but if your divorce goes poorly you may find yourself paying an attorney more down the road to fix the problems, and you may not be able to get as favorable an outcome as if you’d just hired a divorce attorney to start with.
You should have an attorney if you are:
Divorcing with Minor Children
Conflicts over child support, custody, and parenting time are among the most contentious in any divorce. You love your kids. You want them to be well cared for and you want them to spend lots of time with you. Chances are, so does your spouse, and chances are also that the two of you disagree about what’s best for those kids you love so much. Having an attorney’s representation increases the likelihood that you’ll pay or receive an appropriate amount of child support, and that custody and parenting time arrangements will be favorable to you. Once these issues are decided, with or without you being represented, they are difficult and expensive to change later.
Divorcing with Significant or Complex Assets, or Significant Debt
You don’t need to be a business mogul to benefit from an attorney’s help when you divorce. Dividing a small family business can be more complicated than you imagine, and you may not be able to anticipate all the potential problems an attorney would. If your spouse ran up significant debt during the marriage, you could get stuck with much of that unless you have an attorney advocating for you. If either you or your spouse has a retirement account, that may need to be divided, and such divisions are complex and easy to get wrong. If you own a marital home, especially if it’s not yet paid off, you also want an attorney’s help
Once property and debt are divided in a divorce, it’s nearly impossible to go back and change that division, and expensive to try. Having an attorney means you’re more likely to get what’s fair the first time.
Divorcing and You Want (or Your Spouse Wants) Alimony
Alimony, now called spousal support in Michigan, is not mandatory, but it is increasingly common. Unlike child support, alimony is not based on statutory guidelines. Couples agree to it, or the judge orders it in his or her discretion. There are many factors, such as length of marriage and health of the parties, that can affect whether spousal support is awarded.
If you have an attorney, he or she will negotiate for you, and, if necessary, present the facts to the court in a light that’s most favorable to you. Having to pay a little less, or getting to receive a little more, spousal support month after month can more than make up for what you paid your lawyer.
Divorcing and Your Spouse Has an Attorney
I’ve said it before: if your spouse has a divorce attorney and you don’t, you are at a severe disadvantage. No matter how much you trust your spouse, no matter how nice his or her attorney seems, that attorney works for your spouse. To the extent that your spouse’s interests conflict with yours, that attorney is ethically obligated to do what is best for your spouse.
Divorce is stressful under the best of circumstances.
In addition to helping you get a divorce judgment that is fair to you and meets your needs, having a good divorce lawyer can also reduce your stress level. Your attorney can explain the process and your options, and keep you from making irreversible, costly mistakes.
Many people say that the peace of mind they got from working with someone who was familiar with the law, the courts, and the divorce process was well worth the attorney fee they paid.
If you’re trying to decide whether to work with a divorce lawyer or go it alone, first have a free initial phone consultation with an experienced Oakland County divorce attorney to learn more about what you can expect from the Michigan divorce process. Attorney Jim Hubbert has handled many Michigan divorces — and worked with many clients who needed help after representing themselves in a divorce.