The worst has happened and you find yourself served with divorce papers… what should you do? Family Lawyers can be expensive, and you’re not sure how high the bill might go. Should you hire a lawyer, or should you try to navigate the ins and outs of family court on your own?
The answer might surprise you because handling your own divorce is sometimes the right thing to do. Remember, I said ‘sometimes’.
Family law courts see thousands of cases a year, and handle divorces of all shapes and sizes. Most of them are prepared for you; relatively inexperienced, hardworking people who just want to make it through the proceeding with as few scars as possible. Most jurisdictions have forms on-line that can walk you through the step-by-step procedures of what documents to file, how to respond to the opposing side, and some even waive filing fees if you meet the income requirements. Simply search for: ‘[your county name] divorce forms’ and you’ll find them.
So, you’ve decided to take a crack at doing this yourself, what should you watch out for? Several important things to remember:
- Debt: Most states treat anything purchased or earned during the marriage as ‘community property’ which is just a fancy way of saying property is owned by both spouses. There are some exceptions (inheritances, property brought to the marriage, etc.). What some forget is that there is a flip-side to that coin: debt. Any debts incurred during the marriage are also the obligation of both parties. Where many couples run afoul of this concept is after separation. People forget that unless the couple has formally filed for divorce, or legal separation, any and all debts incurred by either spouse are still the responsibility of both parties.
To put it in everyday terms – if you separate and your spouse buys a Ferrarri you’re still on the hook for the monthly payment. The solution? If you’re sure divorce is the course you want to follow, immediately file and follow your local courts rules on serving your spouse with the papers (this officially puts them on notice). An alternative, if you’re not sure divorce is what you want, is legal separation. This is a legal maneuver that does not dissolve the marriage, but creates a ‘line in the sand’ where the other party is put on notice that income, and debts, are now separate property and separate responsibilities. Once you do one of these two things you’re protected.
- Taxes: Many people forget that until legal separation or divorce is initiated, and the papers are served on the other spouse, all taxes are the joint responsibility of the parties. Where this typically become problematic is that one spouse is usually the person who takes care of the accounting and tax payments. If that person is not you it’s time to step up and ensure that all the marriage community’s taxes are paid up, on time, and that you have full access to documentation of payments, copies of tax returns, and any information about a refund (since that is also community property).
It’s never a happy moment when a marriage comes to an end, but rest assured, if your finances are simple and uncomplicated, there is no reason you cannot handle your own divorce. Just remember, if things get too stressful, complicated, or you’re just not sure what to do, interview a handful of competent family lawyers and then choose one that not only matches your budget, but also your personality. Good Luck!