When I hear this question from potential new clients my immediate thought is “Well, it depends on what you mean by the word ‘need.” Technically speaking, no one is required to have an attorney represent them in any legal matter. This is a free country and people are free to represent themselves in legal matters, regardless of whether that is a good idea or not. The real question is whether you “should” have an attorney represent you in a legal matter.
I have two teenagers and whenever a new or unique issue or question arises, the first inclination is to “google it.” As you all know, there is a plethora of information on the internet to show you how to “do it yourself.” Learning how to fix a leaky faucet or how to replace the belt on your treadmill by watching Youtube videos can give you a feeling of accomplishment and, in the case of the leaky faucet, can save you some money if it’s an easy fix. However, the potential damage that can be caused by a faulty repair can be much more costly than if you had called the plumber in the first place.
The same can be said of the do-it-yourself divorce. There are a lot of documents and programs available online to help a person handle his or her own divorce. However, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it is a good idea to do it. Even the forms that are prepared by the State Bar are specifically for use in cases involving no children and no real property. Children and property can complicate a divorce, even if it is completely uncontested.
When it comes to cases involving children, it is especially important to have the documents prepared by an experienced attorney to make sure that they meet the statutory requirements, and to make sure your children are getting the protection they need. I have had more than one case where the parties did their own divorce decree, but made errors that resulted in a completely unenforceable order that cost them more to fix than if they had hired an attorney in the first place. I recently met with someone who had tried to handle his paternity action on this own. He and the child’s mother came to an agreement, but they did not prepare the final order correctly so the Judge would not sign it. When he came to meet with me for what he thought was a modification, it turned out that not only had the Order never been signed, the case had in fact been dismissed. This left him with no order reflecting the prior agreement that he would have primary custody of the child. What a mess!
When it comes to cases involving property, it is important to make sure the assets and debts are fairly and accurately divided and that the decree clearly defines each party’s responsibility post-divorce. Unlike child-related issues which can be modified, once the property is divided and the time for an appeal has passed, you may not be able to fix any mistakes related to the division of the assets and liabilities. It is also important to know what your actual rights are with respect to the division of those assets and liabilities. For example, we have had a Texas version of alimony (although we call it spousal maintenance) since 1997. However, I still meet with people who come in with the belief that “there is no such thing as alimony in Texas.” Texas community property laws can be complicated and if you don’t know what your rights are, you may waive your rights to get a fair and equitable division of the community estate.
The bottom line is that more and more people are attempting to handle their own divorces, primarily to save money. I totally understand – divorce is expensive. However, as with the faulty repair of the leaky faucet, the potential damages resulting from a poorly drafted court order can far exceed the cost of having the documents drafted by a professional. If you are facing a divorce or other family law matter, spending the money to have an attorney assist you with the preparation and review of the documents is a wise investment that will save you money in the long run.