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The Debate: Should I Hire a Lawyer?

Data from the American Bar Association shows that people don’t know if they need a lawyer or not for their particular situation. That confusion is a big reason that people don’t end up hiring one. So let’s talk about some of the issues that might trigger hiring a lawyer for your divorce..

What Issues Are at Stake in a Divorce?

A divorce is actually two or three lawsuits in one: there’s the issue of dividing the marriage, there’s money and property issues, and sometimes children are involved.

No matter how simple your divorce, the state has an interest in making sure it’s handled well. Every divorce is reviewed by a judge, particularly when children are involved. This is not as simple as ending an agreement between you and your spouse. The state was in your business at the beginning and will be there at the end, so make sure you know what questions the judge will dig into.

When you think about hiring a lawyer to help with your divorce, do a simple risk-versus-cost analysis. How much will it cost you to get help and how much do you have on the table? You could certainly DIY to build a house, or fix a car, or handle your divorce, so question representing yourself the same way you would if you wanted to do any DIY project.

Do you have special knowledge or experience that makes you feel comfortable handling the divorce yourself? To stretch the house-building analogy, are you good at building but have no idea how to deal with all the regulations around building a house? Meaning, could you handle parts of the DIY project then bring in help for the parts you don’t understand?

Are you dealing with something complex? You might feel comfortable building a DIY shack outside, but you wouldn’t build a skyscraper on your own. Similarly, how complex is your divorce? Do you have significant property, like real estate? Or large debts that need to be assigned to each spouse? Do you have disagreements over the children? Lay all of the issues out on the table and see if they add up to something more analogous to a simple shed or a skyscraper. What’s at risk?

How Do I Balance the Costs of a Divorce?

Getting a little more mathematical, consider the odds. If you could gamble five dollars for a ten percent chance to win a million dollars, maybe you make that bet. If instead it costs you a million dollars for a ninety percent chance to win five dollars, you’ll skip that gamble. That’s a three-part evaluation: what you stand to gain (or not lose), the costs to go after what you want, and the chances you’ll get it. In your divorce case, what do you stand to gain or lose, what are the odds that you’ll get what you want, and how much would hiring an attorney impact those odds? If you can change the odds of that important lottery, maybe hiring an attorney is more like an investment than an expense.

Obviously it’s easier to do that math when you know the odds (which is really difficult in the human endeavor of family law courts) and when you’re debating something mathematical (like money). How does this change when you’re dealing with something non-numerical, like your relationship with your child or your future independence? That’s a question that only you can answer. What are those things worth to you?

Hiring an attorney is complicated. We give a lot of advice on how to do that here. But consider it before you handle things yourself. You may still land on a DIY divorce, and that’s fine, but make that decisions with your eyes wide open.

How Reliable is the Internet for Legal Advice?

In short, be very, very careful.

The internet is a dark place, not just because there are people there purposely misleading you, but because article-based marketing is all the rage. There are many companies that stand to gain from attracting your eyeballs to their site. The content they create usually has less to do with helping you than with keeping your attention.

This is even true of law firm websites. Many lawyers don’t take the time to write helpful articles like the ones we have on our site. They hire non-lawyers to create words, and often the information they create is flat wrong. That can be very frustrating for people in your position.

Even this resource should be taken with a grain of salt. We don’t know you. We’ve never chatted about your particular situation. We can teach you principles, but we can’t tell you what’s best for you. We just don’t have the kind of personal contact needed to be individually helpful yet. You’d need to schedule a Divorce Strategy Session to get that.

So please be careful. We’ve vetted Texas Law Help and consider it a helpful and accurate resource. Beyond that, however, we can’t endorse anything on the Web.

What is an Uncontested Divorce?

We get calls all the time from people saying they have an “uncontested divorce.” It’s impossible to know what every caller means when they use that term, but it usually means they don’t have money for a high-conflict divorce so they are asking for less help. People using the term rarely know how their spouse will react and how uncontested the case will really be.

So, how do you predict your spouse’s intentions and whether they’re really going to work with you? We always say that a truly uncontested divorce occurs when a married couple can sit down at the kitchen table peacefully and agree on every single term of every single item of what the divorce is going to touch on. Meaning, they can agree on a fair and exact division of every piece of property and agree precisely on child-related issues if they’re involved. You can test right now whether you have that kind of case.

Look through the forms from Texas Law Help. You’ll find a number of questionnaires that ask you how you want to handle the different issues in your divorce. Schedule a time to sit at the kitchen table with your spouse and talk through the form. If you can’t do that peacefully, and if you can’t agree on every term, you don’t have an uncontested divorce. You’ll want to know that before you get started.

How Can I Work Well With My Spouse?

We occasionally get calls from people who’ve filed themselves and want us to help negotiate an agreement for the divorce. They usually say something like, “I’ve done the hard part of filing, I just need you to help us agree.” To be clear, filing is not the hard part. As you’ll find out, reaching an agreement can be very difficult, so let’s talk about how you make that easier.

First, know that you have certain communication requirements while your case is pending. You have to keep the other side informed of every change or update in the case. That includes any time you file something, bring in a lawyer, or schedule a hearing. Those updates are also consistent with due process, so courts will not appreciate you failing to keep the other party updated. You also have to keep the court updated in terms of changes in your contact information.

Life After Divorce

Can I Change an Order Once It is Signed?

The court retains what’s called “plenary power” over your case for 30 days following the signing of your divorce decree. There are ways to extend that time, but broadly speaking, the court has control of your order for that period. (That’s why we have a law in Texas that you cannot get remarried for 30 days following a divorce,) During that time, either party can file a motion for a new trial to revisit the decree, though they are rarely granted, except in the case of a default order (meaning, one in which one of the parties didn’t show up so had no say in the outcome). When a motion for a new trial is granted, you’re essentially starting over so courts don’t love to grant them.

Generally speaking, if both parties were part of the agreement and had a chance to debate their rights, the courts will stick with the existing order. Theoretically, a party can debate the property division for up to two years after the divorce, and there are ways to change a child-related order depending on best interest findings, but the final order is generally very final.

Modifications of a final order are fairly common where children are involved. Within three years of the order that requires a finding of a “significant and substantial change.” That means that a basis of an agreed or court order has changed so much that the previous order has actually become bad for the child.

Beyond three years, modifying a custody-focused order is likely. If a court signed your order when the child was three, it would be very unusual for that order to never change before the child is eighteen. Remember that the child’s best interest is always supreme, and that may change. So know that the custody part of the divorce decree has much more future flexibility than the splitting of the marriage and the property.

What Can I Do if the Other Party Doesn’t Follow the Order?

If someone decides not to follow the signed order, the other party can file an enforcement action. These suits are meant to incentivize people to follow orders, not generally to change the order or to fill in blanks that should have been filled before it was signed.

A motion for enforcement comes with strict penalties. Violating a signed order is contempt of court, which can come with imprisonment and hefty fines. This is especially true where child support is concerned. Not paying support can become a much bigger financial nightmare, as we often see.

Remember that, once the court signs your order, it is no longer a simple agreement between the parties. That means that you can’t agree around it, except in the case of child visitation, because it’s in the order that you can work around that. Co-parenting after a divorce requires an ability to negotiate and agree, but be careful not to violate the order. You have a duty to the court as well as to each other.

Should I Really Handle the Divorce Myself?

Let’s revisit the question of whether you should hire an attorney or handle your divorce yourself. Now you have a better sense of what you’re risking, what’s on the table. That helps you better balance the risk against the costs.

The analogy that we give all the time is dealing with car problems. Meaning, is this problem in your divorce more like an oil change or is it more like replacing the transmission? Do you have a low-level problem that can be solved by watching a YouTube video or do you need a professional to help you out?

One deciding factor might be how much state involvement there is. For example, as you know now, the state is very interested in your child’s best interest. That means they’ll poke their nose in a lot, which makes that more like a transmission than an oil change. We always recommend that you hire an attorney to help with kid issues.

The same is true of your property. If you are splitting up clothing and office supplies, there’s not much on the table to risk. Hiring an attorney might be overkill. But if you have real property or debts to assign, you’re into replace-the-transmission territory and should really look at hiring an attorney.

What Do I Do Next?

Again, consider the complications around your case. If there are few, you might be fine using the forms on Texas Law Help and handling things yourself. If, however, you read this article and feel like you’re in a fog, seriously consider hiring help.

If you’re ready to see how we can help you, sign up here for a call with our intake team. We schedule these meetings fairly far out in advance. If you are seriously considering hiring us to help with your situation, know that our availability is limited. We are very committed to our current clients, as we would be to you, so please be patient. We’ll give you that same attention when you commit to letting us help you.

So book your call with our intake team now.