I’m all for helping people save money, and thankfully over the last 10 years we have made major advances in revamping our court systems to make the required family forms more readily available and the uncontested divorce process more user-friendly. However, on a regular basis I still hear horror stories about people that tried to do their own divorces without the advice of counsel and how this ended in disaster, which reminds me of the saying: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish.
Many courts offer free or reduced mediation services for their legal residents, but of course mediators are not allowed to represent or negotiate on behalf of either party, they are there to simply facilitate communication and help the parties reach a mutual agreement. Self Help Centers are another great resource, but they are often staffed with individuals that are not always attorneys, and while they can provide basic information about the process and assist pro se litigants fill out the necessary forms, they are typically precluded from giving legal advice.
If you have issues pertaining to custody, child support, alimony or property division that need to be addressed in a divorce, don’t you think it is worth paying the national average of about $300 for a consult fee to meet with an attorney and make sure you understand your rights and obligations? Knowledge is power, but education always comes at a price. In my opinion the consult fee is a bargain when you consider what is at stake.
Once you waive your right to alimony or someone’s pension, or a court makes certain findings regarding custody or child support, there are just some things that cannot be undone. The IRS has certain rules about how long you have to make tax-free transfers between spouses, and it will not recognize verbal agreements related to alimony– it has to be in writing. Furthermore, most pension plans need a court order (which courts do not prepare) to distribute retirement assets without incurring taxes as part of the divorce. These are just a few examples of some little details that can be overlooked by someone that fails to consult an attorney, and these mistakes can have severe financial consequences.
So, is there a DIY divorce? Sure, it’s possible, but given what is at risk, you really need to ask yourself whether it may not be prudent to at least check in with a legal expert. Please don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.