Getting a divorce ranks as one of the most stressful life changes anyone can do through. After all, it’s not only the end of a legal contract, it also marks the death of a major family relationship and, perhaps saddest of all, awakening from an unrealized romantic dream of happily ever after.
Just to add to your difficulties, right at the moment when you’re most vulnerable to confusion and emotionally muddled thinking, you’re called upon to make some of the most important decisions of your life. Decisions that will not only impact your future life financially and emotionally, but that of your children as well.
Fortunately, there are lawyers who specialize in divorce law who can help you through this difficult time. The trick is to find the right one for you. We hope this blog will help make the process of engaging the right divorce attorney a little easier for you.
First things first.
Do you really need an attorney?
Short answer – maybe, maybe not. Theoretically, if you and your about-to-be-ex-spouse agree on more stuff than you disagree on, you might want to explore a do-it-yourself divorce. In Illinois all divorces are now “no-fault,” that is they are granted on the assumption that neither spouse CAUSED the divorce and is more to blame that the other. Again, in theory, it’s the cheapest way to go.
But divorce doesn’t just close the door on the past of a relationship, if there are children, pets and alimony involved it also sets the rules for the future. Having professional assistance almost always makes the process easier and more productive. Here are the 4 reasons why professional help can make a big difference.
Like any legal proceeding, there’s a lot of paperwork.
Divorce isn’t just an emotional breakup between 2 people. It’s the undoing of a legal partnership that’s entered into when a couple gets a marriage license. The paperwork involved in achieving this end differs from state to state and county to county, year to year. Preparing legal documents demands not only knowledge of the law, but precision in preparation. Making mistakes because of ignorance of the law or carelessness can not only waste time, but money as well.
Filing forms is a lot more complicated than it seems and county clerks are bound by the ethics of their position not to give any assistance that can be construed as legal advice. Furthermore, each county has its own rules and customs and you may not be able to get the help you need from anyone outside the area on how to navigate them.
In addition, each party in a divorce is entitled to certain rights and entitlements and creating a fair and equitable settlement depends on knowing what these are. Without an attorney, you’ll have to do a lot of research yourself and even then, will probably need some guidance. All of this could take countless hours and, in the end, you still may have to engage an attorney to straighten everything out.
Everything you owed or acquired together has to be divided.
Real estate, bank accounts investments (not to mention furniture and kitchenware) all have to be accounted for and disposed of in some way. Some items may be easier to divide up than others. But there is often a level of pain involved in this process. Perhaps it’s because one or both of the couple realize they’re facing the death of a dream along with the end of the marriage. Sometimes heated arguments occur over small things of no apparent value because one or both spouses feel an emotional attachment to the item. In such cases, an attorney can help a client deal with the situation less emotionally.
It impacts your tax liability as an individual as well as a couple.
Before 2019 divorced couples enjoyed what some referred to as a “divorce subsidy.” A divorcing husband could deduct his alimony payments on his tax returns while his ex-wife had to pay taxes on this money as part of her income. But men typically earn more money than their wives do. So, to increase the amount of money the government could collect, the law was changed to tax the husband’s income and allow the wife to take the deduction.
This may seem like a good thing for the wife. But according to many experts, the loss of this deduction for men could actually hurt women, too. Unable to save a significant amount by claiming alimony as a tax deduction, husbands may be less generous about payments and even contest them.
A lawyer can help both parties understand the impact divorce will have on their taxes and perhaps even suggest ways to reduce their liability.
Most importantly of all – there are the children to consider.
Divorce is difficult for everyone but especially so for children. For them, it is literally the end of world as they know it. Even in divorces where parents are able to agree on custody issues and keep negative feelings to a minimum, divorce can be traumatic for kids. That’s why finding an empathetic attorney is always important, especially when pursuing custody arrangements that can make all the difference to you and your children.
Recently the state of Illinois recognized that that the legal dissolution of a marriage can also be devastating for family pets! Currently, the state ensures the rights of pets will be considered when it comes to negotiating custody agreements just as those of human children are.
Think through your priorities.
Sometimes people going through a divorce will focus on a short-term goal like inflicting as much financial and emotional pain on their spouse as possible. To this end they may be inclined to look for an attorney who is always on the attack. But no matter how emotionally battered a spouse may feel, if children are involved it is generally best to take a long-term view. After all, divorce is usually a short-term process and may be over fairly quickly. But co-parenting your children with an ex will continue for a lifetime. So, finding an attorney who can help you build bridges is wiser choice than someone who’ll supply the fuel to burn them down.
On the other hand, if you know that your spouse is going to be less than generous or even fair when it comes to alimony, an attorney with special expertise in finance and where to look for hidden assets may be the way to go.
But whatever your priorities, your divorce attorney should be able to support your choices and be someone who will make your priorities their own. Divorce always involves a certain degree of conflict. The last thing you need is an attorney who adds to your stress instead of relieving it.
Decide the kind of law firm you want.
Lawyers may be able to practice different forms of law, but if you’re selecting the best attorney to handle your divorce surely it makes sense to deal with someone who has made family law the focus of their practice. And if you’re facing a custody dispute with your spouse, an attorney with a good track record when it comes to winning such battles could make a significant difference to the future of you and your children. Then there’s size and location of the firm to consider. A large law firm offers certain advantages over a smaller firm and visa versa. In large firms, lawyers often can consult with each other and use this enhanced knowledge to help their clients. They may have access to more investigative resources than a smaller firm. On the other hand, a smaller firm may give you more personalized attention than a larger firm.
Location is also an issue. Most legal cases are handled in the same county where you and your spouse live. Lawyers who practice in your county will know the judges, the culture and local customs and other attorneys who practice there as well. For convenience sake, you may also prefer to engage someone who has offices near your home or/and workplace.
Have a realistic understanding of the costs involved.
Divorce isn’t cheap. Yes, if you do it yourself you eliminate the lawyer’s fees but you could also be buying a lifetime of problems because you didn’t get professional advice. It’s also true that some lawyers charge less than others. But again, hiring someone who doesn’t have the best credentials and track record could have you paying more over the years.
Here’s some information about average costs to give you some idea of what to expect. According to NOLO.com, (a legal information website founded by the Nolo publishing company) on average a divorce cost $15,500 with about $12,800 of that amount going to lawyer’s fees.1
As a rule, lawyers bill by the hour and the fees can differ depending on where you are. For instance, in Northern Illinois these charges can range from $250 to $800 and higher. Lawyers in urban areas may charge more than those in rural areas. And generally, those with more experience charge more than their colleagues with fewer years in practice. But the fact that a lawyer charges more doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more expert. That’s why its imperative that you put some time and effort in researching a lawyer’s reputation and standing as well as their fee structure before making a final decision.
Know who you’re talking to BEFORE you meet.
If real estate is all about location, picking the right attorney is about getting as much information as you can regarding their area of expertise, credentials, track record and reputation. Start by asking people you know for recommendations – or warnings! Check online reviews. Study the websites of the attorneys you learn about. You can also try checking online reviews at such sites as Avvo, Findlaw, Lawyers.com and Martindale-Hubbell®2 Finally, contact the local bar association for information.
Consider how the attorney’s experience fits your needs.
Once you’ve done your research, choose three or four likely prospects and arrange to meet them in person. Be prepared with specific questions about what they’ve done before and how they did it. Also ask about and be prepared to pay a consultation fee. Some lawyers are willing to meet you for a short time free of any charge. Others will expect to be paid for their time, although they may charge you at a reduced rate.
Preparing for the consultation.
You should already know the answers to basic questions like how long the attorney has been practicing and where from your research. But there’s other information that you should hear from each attorney in person. Also take note of their demeanor during the discussion. Are they impatient? Do they seem genuinely interested in your case? Do they try to put you at ease or make you feel defensive? At the end of the interview do you feel better or worse about your situation?
Make a list of questions to cover and bring two copies with you. That way you can jot down the attorney’s answers to the questions on your copy and leave a copy with them. If they need more time to answer all of your questions, they can email those answers to you after the interview is over. Here are some of things you might ask:
- What is their general strategy in cases like yours?
- How long do they think it will take to resolve your case?
- Who will else will be on your team? How involved will they be in your case?
- When and how can you contact the attorney directly? Will they speak to you or will they ask an associate to do so?
- What is their fee structure?
- What additional costs will there be?
- How will you be billed? If you deal with a paralegal or an associate, are you billed at the same rate?
- Can they give you an estimate of the final costs? (This is tricky since every divorce is as different as the people involved.)
- Can you speak to your spouse directly during the process?
To make sure that your time – and the attorney’s – is spent as productively as possible, take along some documents that they’ll probably want to see if they take your case. In fact, they may suggest that you bring these items with you when you make the appointment. They may also be listed on the attorney’s website.
Here’s what this list might typically include:
- Tax returns or pay stubs for the last two years
- Pension plans
- Shared debts – credit cards, mortgages, loans, etc.
- Any court documents from your spouse
- Previous divorce decrees, adoption papers for children, etc.
More interview tips.
Although you’re interviewing attorneys, attorneys are also vetting you as a client. You’ll probably be asked to fill out some forms when you arrive. Make sure you have enough time to complete any paperwork before the time set for the interview.
Pay attention to details.
How were you greeted by the office staff? Do they seem professional and empathetic? Remember, over the course of your case, you may be speaking to staff members more than your attorney.
Leave the kids at home.
First, they may be a distraction during a meeting that demands your concentration. And second, the attorney may be prohibited to discuss the case in front of the children.
You can jot them down on your question list or in a book for that purpose. But you want to be able to recall details at a time when you’re under stress. Keeping a written record helps.
Be wary of:
- An attorney who contacts you before you’ve asked about their services. This is against the rules of professional conduct and is a red flag about their ethics.
- An attorney who is reluctance to answer your questions about their experience, education, credentials and payment arrangements.
- An attorney who attempts to rush your decision. Divorce is a life-changing event. No one should rush into it or any decision pertaining to it.
- An attorney who suggests ANYTHING unethical.
Once you’ve made your decision:
Contact everyone you’ve interviewed and let them know what your decision was – one way or another. You never know what the future holds and being considerate of others is always part of Best Practices in business – and life.
1Stebbins, Stanley, “How much does it cost to get a divorce,” USA Today, Nov. 11, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/11/26/how-much-does-cost-get-divorce-most-expensive-states/38446243/
2Sandvick, Clinton M, JD, PhD, “How to Find a Good Family Law Attorney, WikiHow, April 5, 2019