Many people, thankfully, are looking for a less emotionally charged way to divorce. I say thankfully because a long drawn out court battle leaves everyone drained — financially and emotionally — and is always harmful to children.
I commend anyone who seeks an alternative to a messy court battle, even in cases where emotions run high and there are many financial and child-related issues to be resolved. However, in their desire to keep things low cost and low emotion, couples and individuals may cut too many corners and not seek necessary legal or financial advice. Since a divorce settlement, in most cases, impacts the rest of their lives, the results can be disastrous.
Many people, even those who strive for an amicable resolution, still believe divorce is an “all or nothing” concept. The parties either hire lawyers or they do it themselves. There are a host of online websites and companies offering “do it yourself” divorces for a small fee. The people utilizing these services are not just those with little income. In many cases, individuals and couples in higher income brackets are so frightened by the potential cost of divorce that they opt for these seemingly cost effective solutions, not realizing the high cost that may result later on due to an incomplete or unfair settlement.
Those facing divorce need to be aware that there are other options. While parties may be able to do their divorce themselves, through mediation or, in some cases, by filling out the paperwork themselves, there are many reasons to consult with a lawyer beforehand, or, at the very least, before signing any agreement.
For couples using the “pro se” mediation process, where a neutral mediator helps the parties reach an agreement, consulting with a lawyer and/or a financial advisor may be a crucial first step to help the party determine what his/her legal rights are and what the financial picture would look like. Many times in mediation, one person has a greater understanding of the parties finances. The other person may not even work at all and may have no idea of what their expenses will be. If this person were to enter into an agreement providing for little or no support, he or she may be left in a compromised financial situation. As a mediator, I encourage parties to do this both before mediation and before signing an agreement.
Many people are concerned that, by “involving lawyers”, they will end up in court, paying a great deal in fees. But this does not have to be the case. Each party can consult with a lawyer, as many or as few times as needed, and pay for the lawyer’s services on a per-visit basis. Some lawyers will not do this, but there are many that will. For those who opt for the “pro se” route, it is important to seek out the legal advice they feel they need. It is also important to get information about the lawyer before going to an intial meeting, such as, how much time the lawyer will spend evaluating the case and going over options, and, if so, what the fee will be.
Divorce, like many aspects of life, does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. In too many instances, the all or nothing approach can leave a party with little or nothing or less than a fair share. While do it yourself may work for home improvement, it may not be the best course of action for dissolution. Before deciding to “go it alone”, anyone facing a divorce should make sure he or she has enough knowledge and information to make the important decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.
Lori Barkus is a Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil and Family Law mediator and guardian ad litem. She handles matters relating to divorce, custody, child support, paternity, collaborative divorce, adoption, parental rights, and family law and civil mediation.
Ms. Barkus is a cum laude graduate of the University of Miami School of Law. She is admitted to practice in Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia, as well as in the Southern and Middle Districts of Florida and the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Appeals. She is also a member of Leading Women for Shared Parenting.
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