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If Your Rhode Island Divorce is Uncontested, do you need a Divorce Lawyer?

As a lawyer who has focused my practice in the area of Rhode Island Divorce law for the past decade, one would think that my answer to this question would be "Yes."

However, in the world of law, divorce and courtrooms things are not always as clear cut as we would like them to be.

Consider this Rhode Island Divorce Example that I came up with as I write this article which will develop more as a stream of consciousness than a well planned out and upscale legal article.

* * * Divorce Example of Bristol, Rhode Island Couple Virginia and Aaron  * * *

Virginia and Aaron have been married for 7 years.  They have 3 minor children.  Virginia works part-time because they don't make enough income to afford full-time childcare costs for both of them to work full-time.  As a couple Virginia and Aaron merely get by from week to week, paycheck to paycheck.  Like many couples, financial struggles have torn them apart as husband and wife and Virginia now wants a divorce because she wanted more out of life and doesn't seem to be finding it with Aaron. 

Virginia has never filed for divorce before and doesn't know anything about Rhode Island law or Rhode Island Divorce procedure.  Virginia speaks with 7 lawyers who offer free consultations and after about 30 minutes of their time quote her between $1,500 and $3,500 for their retainers and hourly rates from $175 per hour to $300 per hour.

If Virginia and Aaron agree on their divorce issues, do they need a divorce lawyer?  Legally speaking, one or the other of them really should get some competent legal advice to get through their divorce in the easiest manner possible.


* * * Rhode Island Divorce Lessons * * *

So what is the greatest issue here?  It's the age old problem of MONEY!  Lawyers want and need to get paid for their services.  I can tell you that lawyers services are, in fact, valuable.  The depth of information that a lawyer is expected to know in any field of law requires life-long learning and exposes us to daily liability for every word the comes out of our mouths.  Sometimes I even regret telling people that I'm a lawyer at a social engagement because invariably someone wants to just "run something by me" to "get my thoughts".  It can be very difficult to avoid offending the person and avoid giving my "thoughts" which the person might consider as legal advice and act on.  The next thing you know, the person does something crazy with the tiny information I gave them and now I am called "their lawyer" and I gave them "legal advice".  This is precisely why few if any divorce lawyers in Rhode Island (other than my new Coaching Program) make it a practice to offer anything other than a "one size fits all" proposition to prospective new clients.

As Virginia learned, if you aren't prepared to come up with a decent lump sum of money that the attorney can bill against against at whatever rate the attorney feels he or she is worth then you are out of luck.  Attorneys doing piece meal work are hard to find and attorneys who are willing to take your case on a pro bono basis are even harder because of the huge demand and pressures already placed on attorneys to perform pro bono work each year regardless of whether their practice may be thriving or just treading water due to increased expenses or other economic factors.

So for Virginia and Aaron, do they absolutely NEED a divorce lawyer?  No, they don't.  Why, because practically speaking Virginia already knows that she and her husband can't afford the least expensive lawyer they could find and Virginia has already discovered that they waiting line for pro bono attorneys is exceptionally long. 

So what do you do if you are in Virginia and Aaron's position?  You do what you have to do, right?  Isn't that what we do when things get tough?  Don't most of us just get out there and do what needs to get done when we have to for our benefit and for major life decisions. Yes, that's exactly what we do.

So, Virginia and Aaron, could you do this on your own?  Yes, you could.  You could do your homework on the internet, at the nearest law library and even find time to go to court and watch a few cases to see how things work.  Will you be as prepared?  Maybe not. It may depend upon how much effort you put into finding out how to do things.

Will you get your divorce paperwork back from the Rhode Island Family court with it all filed correctly?  Maybe not the first time.  However, f it's rejected the family court clerks will usually give you some kind of indication of what didn't quite make the grade or what was missing. 

However, If the Rhode Island Family Court clerks don't tell you how to fill out the forms, how to correct them, or why they need to be filled out in a certain way, it's simply because they are prevented from doing so.  They are not your attorney and they are not allowed to advise you because the vast majority of them are not attorneys and since they work for the State of Rhode Island it may expose them and the State of Rhode Island to liability if you misunderstand what they tell you or if they leave out something without knowing that it applies to your situation. 

So if you are going to execute your constitutional right to represent yourself and handle your divorce on your own, you take the risk as well and you should plan on some bumps in the road.  You're on your own unless you get some legal advice or coaching to help you through this process. There may be only minor bumps in your divorce proceeding if you get lucky.  There may be bumps in the road that are so large that you can't even get through a successful hearing because you don't understand what is required by law or by the court's procedure.

So the question is better phrased like this, Am I required to have a lawyer represent me in my Rhode Island Divorce?  NO!  I've seen plenty of people represent themselves in divorces.  They've gone from A to Z and received their divorce decree without a lawyer preparing their forms or showing up in court with them. 

Now, if one couple can make it through an uncomplicated and straightforward divorce between two amicable and agreeable spouses, then, the question is... Can you do it?  It is certainly possible. I know that with my assistance and coaching I've been able to coach as many as 100 couples in a single year to go through their own divorces successfully and spend only a fraction of what it costs to hire even the least expensive lawyer such as the one Virginia came across.

In most Rhode Island divorce situations that are uncontested about the majority of Rhode Island divorce issues, do you need a representational lawyer who does everything for you and goes to court with you?  In my opinion, people who fall into this category don't need it. 

If you fall into that category it is best if you approach your divorce as a learning experience.  Your strength will be found in realizing that there are certain procedures and issues under Rhode Island law that must be addressed.  Once you identify the Rhode Island procedures and legal issues and you represent yourself, you need to take personal responsibility for everything that goes along with representing yourself, that includes your outcome, any setbacks and any problems you encounter. 

Remember that representing yourself means that you are the boss.  You call the shots.  You are responsible for everything you say and do and the end result that your actions produce.  If you do happen to get help in the form of coaching, the coach doesn't call the shots, the coach isn't standing in the courtroom and the coach has merely provided you with guidance based upon his or her experience.  Judgment calls and execution of either legal advice from an attorney you have formally retained in the courtroom are the attorney's discretion and he or she takes responsibility for that and for any glaring mistakes he or she makes in your representation.  Keep in mind that this is why attorneys are paid for their experience and expertise to prepare documents, give you direct advice on what to do and also represent you in court.  The same is not true when you represent yourself.  In that case, you are your own attorney and you are expected to know the ins and outs of things as if you were an attorney licensed to practice divorce law in Rhode Island.

Even an experienced Rhode Island Divorce lawyer who is helping you in the manner of a "coach" by instructing you and teaching you in a general fashion can't anticipate everything you will encounter.  If you don't handle documents or issues properly then it is entirely possible that your divorce might plummet to the ground like a flaming plane crashing before it reaches the end of the runway when a person represents him or herself and does so in such a poor manner that the judge dismisses your divorce case. 

So, what does that mean for you because you didn't seek professional help from anyone?  Let's see . . you have (1) paid a wasted filing fee of $120 that is paid to the Rhode Island Family Courts, (2) you have paid a constable's fee of $55 or so; (3) you have created an angry family court judge, (4) you have experienced personal frustration and possible embarrassment, and (5) worse yet you may have to spend the time and money going through the process all over again from the start.

Do you need a Rhode Island Divorce lawyer?  "NEED" is a subjective term.  Ideally we should all have a divorce attorney to protect our interests in a Rhode Island divorce proceeding if we can afford one.  Practically speaking, not everyone has the money to hire an attorney.

Ultimately, you are not required to have an attorney.  You have the right to represent yourself and you can do it if you have to.... and successfully too.  Do I advocate that you do it without ANY professional help?  NO, not unless you are going to take the amount of time that many of us have taken as lawyers to study the law for years, keep up on case law and appear before the family court judges on a regular basis.  

Keep in mind that as Rhode Island lawyers focusing a practice in divorce, you earn the ins and outs of the court system that aren't found in any book, law, order, procedure or in anything other than experience.  That's something that a coach might impart in a coaching session, but it's not something you will get unless you hire the attorney outright or hire a coach to help you based upon what you can afford. 

Are there complex issues in your divorce? If there are, you should know about it by seeking the advice of a divorce lawyer and/or Rhode Island Divorce Coach to identify those issues.  Then you can consider whether the issues are beyond what you feel what you are capable of addressing and go from there. 

When could more complex issues Rhode Island arise?  That's a question for another day.

* * * A Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer / Coach Suggestion * * *

My suggestion . . . get some type of legal advice in the form of a Rhode Island Divorce Coaching Session or an advice session before you decide that you are going to handle your own divorce.  Why?  Well, frankly, sometimes you just can't afford not to be without a lawyer if there is more at stake regarding your rights, your assets, your debts and especially any children you may have as in the case of Virginia and Aaron.

Authored By:

Christopher A. Pearsall, Attorney-at-Law

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* The Rhode Island Supreme Court licenses all attorneys in the general practice of law.  The court does not license or certify any lawyer as an expert or specialist in any particular field of practice.

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