Recently, I was at the Providence Family Court waiting in line to file some documents for a client. I heard two people talking to each other at the counter. From the gist of the conversation I could tell that they were both filing their own divorces and being helped by separate clerks.
One person seemed very confident about his filing and the other younger man didn't seem so confident. Rather than asking one of the lawyers who were still standing in line waiting to be helped, the less confident man asked the other one if he could settle his case without a lawyer. The more confident fellow responded "Absolutely, you just put down what you and your wife agree to on paper and submit it to the judge on the court date." The less confident man seemed reassured that there wasn't more to it and he went on his way breathing a sigh of relief.
Certainly people can settle their divorce cases without a lawyer. Heck, I see people do it all the time and I'm sure it's not limited to Rhode Island. I've seen people do it on the day of their divorce on a single piece of lined notebook paper. It doesn't look fancy but it works for them.
Yet the interaction between the two men got me thinking. Do people do it better without lawyers or would it be better if they had a lawyer?
As a lawyer you'd think I'd jump in and say that people can't do it and you need a lawyer and all that stuff and there's much more to it than just what people scribble down on a piece of paper because they don't know the law.
Thankfully I was a philosophy major in college for 5 years and it taught me to think until my head hurt. It was a good match for law school. Yet the point of mentioning this is that it taught me not to simply advocate for my profession and more clients but to think of the REAL answer and to give it to people straight with no sugar coating. In otherwords, for people to hear the truth.
So what is the truth? The truth is this. Yes, you can settle your divorce without a lawyer. AND, you could do it WITH a lawyer! It's an easy question to answer.
Then there's the much harder question to answer, If you can settle your divorce case without a lawyer should you?
I had to ponder that question for a while and make a few assumptions. Let's assume that you have enough money at least to have an attorney do the bargaining and drafting of the agreement with your spouse.
Now ask the same question under those circumstances. Should you settle your divorce case without a lawyer?
I thought about this for days. I didn't jump to conclusions. I considered every angle imaginable just with the assumption that the person had enough money to have an attorney bargain for the settlement with your spouse or your spouse's lawyer and then write it up for you.
Get this. After all of that here is what I came up with.
Can you settle your divorce without a lawyer? Absolutely. Should you? If you can't afford a lawyer at all for any part of your proceeding then "Yes." After all, what are you going to do except do it yourself.
Now add in the assumption that you could pay for a lawyer to do your bargaining and write up the Marital Settlement Agreement for you. Should you?
Here's my answer. "Yes and No."
Can the person in that position still settle their divorce case without a lawyer? Absolutely? Should they do so even if they have the money for a lawyer to do the bargaining and write up the agreement? Yes, they should try to settle it.
Now the question is "Why?" Why would I come to such a conclusion when my job is to protect people's rights?
The answer is quite simple. People who can communicate together will settle their divorce and generally speaking they will settle it in a manner that is acceptable to each them. In fact, I would be willing to bet that they will do a much faster job than an attorney who will be focusing on the details from the start as lawyers usually do.
People want their divorce done and over with and therefore they usually process the most important things quickly and settle them. They don't focus on the details as lawyers do. Therefore, the fundamentals of the settlement process will usually be completed much more quickly and much more easily than an attorney will handle it.
Keep in mind that I am talking about the fundamentals and not the entire agreement. Should a person who has the ability to pay a lawyer to draft a final agreement draft that agreement on their own. Then my answer is "NO."
Your final Marital Settlement Agreement as submitted to the Family Court as an Exhibit is most likely going to be a contract that is going to bind you and your spouse until all the provisions are complied with. There are too many details that lawyers DO think of that are very important that people do not think of on their own. If you miss those details then you might as well plan on returning to court time and time again if their is anything at all of significance in your agreement.
When I mean anything of significance, this includes children, visitation, child support, debts to be paid, assets to be kept or sold, real estate, retirement plans, joint physical custody (i.e. placement), items that each party may buy before the Final Judgment of Divorce but after the court hearing, health insurance, division of retirement accounts, etc....
All of the things that I mention above involve details that the layperson and even a well-informed person is typically not aware of. Without a lawyer to look over an agreement and find the holes you may have missed with your spouse. Remember that this agreement is not to intimidate your spouse or scare him or her, but rather it is to make sure important issues that are evident to lawyers experienced in family law are not overlooked by the layperson.
So if you can resolve your divorce with your spouse. Great! But have a lawyer look it over, then advise you of your rights regardless of what you may have agreed to and then fill in the holes so that everything is covered between you and your spouse.
Remember, you won't get a chance to do this agreement right. So get it right the first time.
I'm Affordable and I'm here to help when you need me.
All My Best to You on Your Journey Through The RI Family Court,
Attorney Christopher A. Pearsall - "The Rhode Island Divorce Coach"™