What does a Divorce lawyer really do for you?
I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a good friend who didn’t understand why people need divorce lawyers, he thought the whole system was pretty self-explanatory, you fill out some form and presto-chango you’re divorced. He questioned how a couple people in suites, who don’
t know either party, could help during a divorce. It’s a fair question I guess and since I’ve been blogging here for about 4 years and there are a few blog post that I notice are the most read even after being a few years old. These blogs tend to be the “self-help” blog posts or ones that give specific pointers on how to deal with a lawyer or spouse.
The most popular one are not the ones where I tell stories how clients got screwed by not having a lawyer or they ignored their lawyers advice. Oh, don’t get me wrong I’ve done a number of those kinds of posts, about 5 I think, but they aren’t very popular. I don’t blame anyone for that, when people Google for divorce information they rarely type in “Should I get a divorce lawyer?”
So, to mix things up for a change I thought I’d draft a longer than usual post about what divorce lawyers actually do (and don’t do). This is a longer read than normal, but you can skim the highlighted topics if you are short on time. What I hope you take out of is that if you are in the midst of a divorce, thinking about a divorce or has a friend who is getting divorced, they can use these tips on how to best utilize a divorce lawyer.
What Divorce Lawyers Don’t Do.
To begin with let’s start out with what divorce lawyers don’t do. I’ll use “we” only because I like to write in the first person and I don’t stand on ceremony very often.
- We Don’t Do Taxes. Ok, ok, there are a few (very few) who try to practice both tax law AND divorce law, but everyone one of those lawyers I’ve met do both rather areas of the law rather poorly. The areas just don’t mesh, litigation and tax preparation are areas of the law that really don’t use the same skill set.This means you shouldn’t really on your divorce lawyer to give you anything but the most rudimentary tax advice during your divorce. If you have a complex business or trust situation your divorce lawyer will probably tell you to call your CPA.
- We Aren’t [Mental Health] Counselors: Again ok, ok, yes there are a few lawyers who really want to be clinical psychologist, they listen and comfort and yes, even hug, their clients. They are out there and I’m sorry to say there are quite a few those types of lawyer. They have no training for this type of work and the problem is…most of them suck. What? Did I just disparage my fellow members of the bar for caring too much? Not all, there is a huge difference between being a good lawyer who feels compassion and empathy for their client and wants to get them the best they can and the lawyer who cries when the Judge rules against her client (true story!).
- We Aren’t Appraiser’s: I appreciate that people think I have some special ability to know values of houses, acreage and personal property…but I don’t, and no other divorce lawyer does either. We can give some general advice, for example a farmer client of mine tried to have me tell the Judge that his farmland was worth about $5,000/acre. While I don’t know exactly what it’s worth, I do know in other divorces I’ve done in his neck of the woods the land value is about $8-11k/acre. That’s where the divorce lawyer comes in with their advice.Most divorce lawyers know various appraisers and experts who can come in and for a reasonable fee (usually) give the values of almost anything, from a house to a collection of firearms. If you need to know the value of something, don’t rely on your divorce lawyer, but trust them help you find the right appraiser.
- We Aren’t Child Welfare Specialists: I’m not really sure how this one happens so frequently, but divorce lawyers often d start talking about what is best for the kids, well most of us have no idea! (Side story: During a heated mediation a lawyer turned to one of the lawyers in my office and said “You don’t have children, you can’t understand what’s best for my client’s kids!) Well, as we know being a parent doesn’t make give a divorce lawyer any special skills with kids. We don’t know your kids, or your spouse, so how can we give you any good or meaningful advice on how to raise them? *What we can do is give some comments about what experts have said, what we’ve read or what the judge will likely do in your situation.
What DO Divorce Lawyers Do Then?
- Give Advice That Helps The Case. That may seem pretty obvious, but it’s true. the advice most divorce lawyers give is to put you in a better position to win your case in front of the Judge.It’s a safe bet that you haven’t been in front of a judge very often and while you may think that it’s a good idea to tell them something or do something, often as not the way we earn our keep is by saying what NOT to do. Bringing up that affair your husband had in 1995? Won’t help you, but may cement the image of a “woman scorned” in the Judges mind and present you as being unreasonable.
- Know The Law. Again, obvious, but forgotten. Divorce lawyers are expected to know the law, to know what a Judge should do when given a certain set of facts. For example, you may be unaware that you should not move out of the Minnesota once a divorce has started (it is the law after all!), but your lawyer will know that.Don’t be afraid to ask your lawyer what the law is and if you have specific questions ask them! Often time you’ll get a bit of a vague answer, but that’s because the law is not as cut and dry as we all might like.
- We Don’t Get Enmeshed. What? I thought you fight for me!? Well we do, but the whole reason we exist is to give you detached advice, to be that counselor at law that you need. Your friends can’t do it and your parent’s can’t do it. Their all biased towards you, they will want the best for you, of course, but sometimes what you need is the cold hard reality of your situation, that’s were a divorce lawyer comes in.
- We Are Scrivners. Yes it’s true we create documents, in fact that is the only thing that lawyers actually do create is documents. We typically spend a fair amount of time looking at documents, creating documents, editing documents, thinking about the best word or phrases to put in a document. Does this mean you can’t draft a good document? Of course not, but let me highlight one of my favorite (and most common mistakes that I see)
Often during a divorce one party will get the house, but “get” I mean will possess the house and agree to pay the mortgage. The problem is that little period after the word mortgage. Most people who are “pro se” which is what we call representing yourself in the legal system wouldn’t (and don’t) think to have some requirement to refinance the house within a set period of time. This can cause considerable problems when the party who doesn’t have the house wants to purchase their own home (or car, or get a credit card) as their debt to income ratio is often very skewed and they find they don’t qualify for the credit they want.
There you go not so brief look at what divorce lawyers do an don’t do. Do you need a divorce lawyer? No, just like you don’t need a dentist or annual checkups, you can do it all yourself, but remember, you might not like the results.
*Even the Minnesota Supreme Court is in on fun by creating guidelines for custody and parenting, although I’ve no idea why 7 formers lawyers wearing funny black robes have any more insight into what’s best for kids than trained counselors and psychologist.