Are you brimming with excitement over the idea of a divorce looming on the horizon?
And perhaps this concern has you wondering if scouring the internet for an attorney is the next unavoidable step.
If so, you are NOT alone.
There are 10 very common questions people in your situation ask, and “do I need a lawyer to get a divorce?” is at the top of the list for some.
To begin, there are four inescapable emotions you can expect to surface if divorce is in your immediate future, if they haven’t already:
- • Frustration
- • Uncertainty
- • Stress
- • Fear
Keeping this in mind, let’s discuss whether you need a divorce attorney to represent you in your case.
My first response is…it depends.
Actually, that question can be more accurately stated as two questions:
1. Do you have to have a divorce lawyer?
2. Should you have a divorce lawyer?
The answer to the first question is no.
BUT (big but), in my experience as a divorce attorney here in Orlando, there is only one instance where proceeding unrepresented in your divorce (which is called proceeding pro se) is a safe thing to do: If you and your spouse have no minor children, no marital assets, and no marital debts.
Then and only then should you consider printing out that two-inch thick stack of documents off the clerk of court’s website in the county where you reside.
You may be asking yourself: But if my spouse and I are on the same page about the terms of our divorce, why do I need a lawyer?
Let’s suppose you are in the rare circumstance of agreeing 100 percent with your spouse about how your children should be parented, the amount child support should be, whether and how much alimony is to be paid, and to the penny how you want to divvy up your marital assets and debts (this is what is known as an uncontested divorce in Florida).
Are you able to draft all details of these issues into an enforceable marital settlement agreement that is concise and air-tight? Are you able to draft a bullet-proof final judgment for the judge’s signature that will protect you in the event there is a disagreement with the terms down the road?
Most importantly, are you able to foresee potential events that need to be included in your marital settlement agreement, that may not be known or anticipated at the time the agreement is signed?
Chances are the answer is no. Simply because you have not had the benefit of experiencing the divorce process hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Take away: If you have minor children OR marital assets OR marital debts, it is advisable that you hire a lawyer to represent your interests.
Here’s why: (And no, it is NOT because I am a great white who feeds on your marital pain!)
You are about to embark on one of, if not the most, important business transactions of your life. One that will have rebound ramifications for years, it not forever. Especially if you have children.
According to Time Magazine, divorce rates are on the decline, but many people are living in unhappy marriages .
Whether you are the one leaving or the one being left, you are likely in a charged with fear and frustration. Does it make sense to make decisions which will permanently affect your rights to your children, money and property while in this highly charged emotional state of mind?
Will you be able to approach these decisions rationally, with your left brain fully focused on what is logical and in the best interests of your financial future and/or your family?
Here’s how The Huffington Post frames it:
“While attempting to manage your emotional recovery during and after divorce, give yourself a break. You will move through recovery at your own pace.”
It is far more likely your emotions will over-ride your judgment, which in turn will produce faulty decisions on critical issues.
Not only is your divorce attorney presumed to be thoroughly versed on divorce law in Florida, a good divorce attorney will also know how to navigate the psychological aspects of what you are confronting.
An experienced and compassionate attorney will guide you in making the best decisions on critical points, which is what I call helping you “see the forest beyond the trees.”
A major reason for divorce is a break-down of the ability to communicate. Insider.com studies have found a lack of communication to be number three on the list of leading marriage-ending events.
The INSIDER Data team and the National Center for Biotechnology Information polled 52 people (31 women and 21 men), who had been involved with PREP, a “prevention and relationship enhancement program” that focused on teaching couples communication and conflict resolution skills.
If this is the reality you face in your case, try now to visualize you and your spouse sitting down together and calmly discussing the specific terms of your divorce. Such as the time-sharing of your children, the amount of child support and alimony payments, how you are dividing your marital assets, and who is paying which marital debts.
What mental images come to mind when you think about this necessary step you and your spouse will have to take if you decide not to hire a lawyer?
If you visualize a lot of shouting, tears, or gnashing of teeth, it is likely NOT the best idea to proceed pro se, for the sake of your own mental health.
There is something to be said for having a professional buffer between you and the source of your conflict. I am not crazy about being referred to as a “mouth—piece,” but cliché aside, it is a term that warrants a closer look.
I see day in and day out clients wanting a certain outcome for a very good, legally supportable reason. The problem is, they are not able to convey that reason clearly and without emotion to their spouse. And, their spouse is not able to hear that reasoning clearly and without emotion.
This is what is known as “demand/withdraw behavior”, according to Dr. Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at The University of California, Los Angeles and co-director of the UCLA marriage lab. Dr. Karney is a leading scholar of social relationships and marriage, who studies change and stability in intimate relationships. 
“Demand/withdraw behavior” means that one partner in a relationship asks the other to change something, and the partner who is asked to make that change shuts down and withdraws. Sound familiar?
Your attorney, on the other hand, can hear and interpret your reasoning, then use interest-based negotiation skills to convey that reasoning clearly and without emotion.
The net result is that you are heard — your attorney gives your desires a legal voice filtered through critical thinking instead of emotion.
Chances are you have never been through a divorce before. And if you have, the set of issues and challenges are completely different in each case.
I am not diminishing the wealth of information about divorces that can be found in a Google search. You likely found this one the same way.
But as the saying goes, do not confuse your Google search with a law degree. More importantly, the knowledge a professional has gained through years of experience and continuing legal education in their field.
There is simply no replacement for knowledge based on experience in any arena, but particularly in your divorce.
Consider the upfront cost of hiring an experienced divorce attorney as an investment in avoiding what could be a costly back-end disaster involving losing your rights to your children, your money, and your property.
I’d like you to take a moment, click on this link, then scroll through the list of divorce forms:
As you will see, there are more than five hundred forms provided on the Florida DIY divorce website, which are each available in RTF and PDF format.
To file your own divorce, you must first review and be familiar with all of the available documents in order to select the correct documents required to be filed in your specific case.
You then must download the documents, then draft the correct information into the documents, then print the documents, then take the printed documents to a notary public and have your signature notarized on each of the documents, then take the documents to the courthouse and file them with the clerk of court.
If you have minor children, you can expect to be required to download, draft, print, sign, notarize, and file with the court clerk approximately 15 separate documents just to get your case started.
If your spouse is also willing to self-prepare and file all of his or her required documents, then you both must request a final hearing date from the clerk of court. Once you have your court date, you must then self-prepare and file a marital settlement agreement, a parenting plan, and a proposed final judgment for the judge’s signature, that your spouse also approves.
The judge will not review the substance or form of any of the documents you submit for correctness, nor is it his or her job to do so.
If this does not sound like a good use of your time, and depending on what your time is worth to you, consider that proceeding pro se may end up costing you more than hiring your own legal representative.
There are five important considerations when deciding whether you should hire a lawyer in your divorce case: your emotions, your sanity, your effectiveness, your skill set, and your time.
If, and only if, you have no minor children, no marital assets, and no marital debts, are you safe to consider proceeding pro se. Because you have nothing to gain or lose in the first place.
On the other hand, if you have minor children, marital assets, or marital debts, these same five considerations provide sound reasons to invest in a zealous and effective divorce attorney.
Considering what is at stake in a divorce, which is your financial future, and if you have children, their well-being, there is simply far more to be gained with legal representation than what you could potentially lose without it.
My mother has an expression that sums it up best: never be penny-wise and pound foolish.
Andrea is a native Floridian and grew up right here in Central Florida. She is a respected divorce lawyer, coach, consultant, author, and mediator within the Florida court system.
Andrea earned her juris doctorate from Loyola University College of Law, New Orleans and graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor of arts degree in Legal Studies.
She has been certified as a family mediator by the Florida Supreme Court, is a trained collaborative family law attorney, is a member of the Collaborative Family Law Group of Central Florida and the Florida Academy of Collaborative Professionals.
With over two decades as a trial attorney, Andrea has fine-tuned her understanding of the unique dynamics and challenges families face during restructure. She handles contested family law cases that are litigated in court, but believes that family mediation, cooperative and collaborative divorce are by far the more effective, more respectful, and more healthful means to divorce, especially when there are children involved.