December 6, 2014 • By Dennis Beaver
Across California and much of the country, over 70 percent of all divorce and family-law related matters are being handled entirely by the parties themselves as a pro per–or pro se as it is called in some states. However, as any family law judge will tell you, most need at least some assistance from a lawyer or mediator.
Over the past few years, it has become possible to handle your own divorce, saving considerable attorney fees, and having access to family law attorneys and mediators who can guide you through the process and help in many other ways, as you’ll see in a moment.
But first, for anyone thinking of acting as their own lawyer, a lot can go wrong, and there are common, potentially costly mistakes which must be avoided. Southern California-based divorce attorney Hamid Naraghi is president and CEO of Divorce Helpline, a state-wide company which provides a variety of services ranging from coaching, consultations, mediation, document preparation, and helping pro pers handle their own divorce. Naraghi feels that:
“The pendulum has swung too far. It used to be that when you wanted a divorce, you hired a lawyer. Today, a lot of people think, ‘Heck, it’s just some paperwork and I can do that for myself,’ without realizing that your case may be far more complicated than you realize and you may not have the skills or ability to do your own divorce without significant support if things go wrong, or if you find yourself in trouble,” he points out.
A divorce is a real lawsuit with serious consequences
“Never forget this is a real lawsuit with potentially serious consequences. So, before you even consider doing your own divorce, stop and figure out (1) Is my situation objectively simple enough where doing my own divorce is not too dangerous and (2) Do I have the knowledge, the background, and the financial means to do my own divorce without hurting myself?
“You have to evaluate your situation and educate yourself about your rights, obligations and your options. This is not the time to listen to well intentioned friends, family members or the misinformation superhighway. A consultation with a family law attorney or mediator is often a good place to begin so that your specific situation can be analyzed, as opposed to relying on generalizations.
“Evaluating your situation means asking, ‘Is this simple or complex?’ It’s not just because you want your situation to be simple, but in reality it is. Married a couple of years, and no property? That’s simple. However, every step away from that, a divorce becomes more complex.
“With children, differences in income, retirement accounts, real estate, a mortgage, pensions, a 401(k), life insurance, own property, or run a business, then it is certainly not simple for most people.
“Pensions and life insurance are huge categories where mistakes are often discovered years later and with horrible financial consequences,” he underscores…
Take your time and hurry up
“Ask yourself: ‘If I jump in the water do I have a plan — who can help me? How am I going to proceed? Where am I going to get reliable help if necessary? Can I really do this myself?’
“Not everybody can. Be honest with yourself,” Naraghi cautions, pointing out the importance of communicating with the other side.
“Can you count on the other side to do their part in the divorce properly? There has to be a level playing field. If you can’t communicate effectively, then you need some professional help, which is where lawyers who are good at mediation can help establish productive dialogue.
“You never want to rush into a divorce and may need time to decide if your marriage is over; if not sure, then talk with someone you can trust, friend, family member, clergy, a therapist, whoever is equipped to help you with this kind of life decision. If you decide that it is over, now time to hurry up and move on. The longer you delay beginning your divorce process, the more potential there is for a simple divorce becoming complex,” he warns.
Where to get help
Within the past few years a number of law firms have been established, with Divorce Helpline being one of the better known lawyer-staffed companies which offer a menu of services to pro pers. Their website (www.divorcehelp.com) is filled with useful information that anyone with a question about divorce, support, visitation, or other family law matters needs to spend time with.
Filing the papers and trying to work out things with the other side often does not go smoothly and the couple lands in court. Next time we look at mistakes to avoid when representing yourself, standing in front of the judge.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.