Ask a Divorce Lawyer: I had no lawyer during our divorce, but I want the decree changed. What can I do?

Question: My divorce was finalized over a year ago. I signed papers without legal advice because I wanted the pain to my family and myself to end. 

I requested only joint custody of my son and sole rights to his educational and religious upbringing. After a year, now that the “numbness” has cleared, is there anything I can do to modify my decree? 

 

Answer: Each state has different laws governing modification of custody, placement and support orders.  I do not practice in your state so I cannot tell you what options you have available to you to modify any of the original orders.  I can only speak to general practice.  Therefore, I advise you to contact a domestic litigation attorney licensed in Mississippi immediately. 

Your situation is an example of why it is so important to have legal counsel during a divorce.  The divorce process can be emotionally devastating.  As a domestic litigation attorney, my job is to ensure that my client’s rights are protected both in the here and now and in the future.  The Court cannot give legal advice.  If you represent yourself, you are held to the same standards as an attorney who specializes in domestic litigation.  If you and your ex wife submitted a marital settlement agreement resolving all issues in your divorce, you signed a provision which stated that you entered into the agreement freely and voluntarily without any undue coercion. 

Some provisions of your divorce decree may be non-modifiable.  In most states, property division is final as of the date of divorce.  In addition, if a party waives the right to maintenance/alimony, that decision may be a permanent decision where the person cannot come back to Court ever again and request maintenance/alimony. 

Most states have statutes which detail when a party can request a modification of custody and placement.  The Court wants your son to have consistency.  The statutes have requirements which must be met in order for the Court to consider a modification.  This is to prevent the parties from constantly coming back to court for modifications.  The party requesting a modification typically has to show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances warranting a modification.  There may be a time lapse requirement as well.  For example, in my jurisdiction, Wisconsin, there is a two year “truce” period that follows the original placement order where the parties cannot obtain a substantial modification of custody or placement unless the party can show the modification is necessary because the current custodial arrangements are physically or emotionally harmful to the best interest of the child.  Your attorney will be able to discuss the requirements for modification in Mississippi and whether or not you meet those requirements.

I do not know what you mean when you say you “signed off on things with no clauses or end dates.”  You should present the divorce decree to your attorney so he/she can review the provisions you are referring to. 

 

Erica Christian is an Associate Attorney in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, office of Cordell & Cordell, P.C. She is licensed to practice law in the state of Wisconsin. She is a member of the Wisconsin Bar Association, the Family Law Section and the Children’s Law Section.

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