Lawyers and The Self-Administered Divorce

by Matt Krogh for

Even if you’re doing the divorce yourself,  can a lawyer help?

Kramer vs. Kramer, teams of lawyers competing across a crowded courtroom, shouting, divorce papers served in scenes…many people will do almost anything to avoid those worst-case public scenarios of messy divorces and divorce litigation. In recent years, more and more couples have been able to collaborate enough to come to agreements on their own, and put together the papers that allow them to administer their own divorces.


In itself, that is probably a good thing. If you trust your spouse to be true to his or her word, then administering your own divorce—filling out and filing the correct papers, negotiating property and debt division, even establishing custody and parenting plans—can be successful. When there are more concerns than small amounts of personal property, however, or if there are concerns over what the future may hold, then professional support can be the difference between an ongoing, amicable relationship with your ex versus years of conflict over unexpected issues.

While divorce lawyers are normally associated with the adversarial court system, recent years have also seen an increase in lawyers who are willing to work as participants in a collaborative divorce. Lawyers can function as experienced advisers with an understanding of the pitfalls inherent in dissolving a marriage, or active participants in alternative dispute resolution, mediation, or advisors to adjudication.

Consulting with a lawyer allows you to understand the nuances of the checkboxes and how they may impact each of your lives if at some point difficulties arise. For example, how might you be liable years down the road if your ex-spouse’s medical condition returns—and they’re still sharing your coverage? In the self-administered divorce a lawyer can explain the consequences of your written agreement, without being an advocate who will push for a particular type of settlement.

For parents especially, there are specific areas where consultation with an attorney can help prevent future difficulties:

Parenting plans for the state: For each state, there are different guidelines regarding physical custody of children. Prior to going to court for final dissolution, a lawyer can help ensure that you haven’t unwittingly violated your state’s custody guidelines.

Allocating time outside of the parenting plan: In ideal circumstances, exes can work together to negotiate extra time needs or flexible hours. How does your divorce agreement help you settle future disagreements?

Relocating: Perhaps of greatest concern, what will be the parenting consequences if one parent absolutely has to relocate for work or personal reasons?

Federal custody decisions: At the Federal level, primary guardianship is assigned to one parent only, regardless of joint custody agreements at the state level courts (which have primary jurisdiction). A lawyer can help both of you understand the implications of having the father or the mother have primary custody.

Each of these concerns, of course, can be solved through careful preparation of the divorce agreement, but advice from a lawyer will help protect both parents against unforeseen consequences in the future. In addition to lawyers, there are financial analysts, custody specialists, and divorce coaches who can review your agreement for possible issues.

Unlike combative divorces or litigation, having a lawyer advise you on your collaborative divorce can be surprisingly inexpensive, and almost certainly save you money in the long run. Doing it on your own can certainly be workable, and a good law firm while be happy to work with you only to the point that you really need the help.

As a divorced dad myself, I have been extremely lucky to have been able to work with my ex at all levels of the divorce process. While we administered our own divorce, there were errors that were corrected for us by the court; as one example, the local law required that there be some level of child custody support on the books, so the court wrote in a minimum transfer payment. Was this a big problem? No, but we’ve both wondered since then if there were other holes that might yet prove to be a concern.

We were also able to work through the guardianship issue together with no disagreements, and continue to be flexible about child custody arrangements, all because we both committed ourselves to trying to do what is best for our child. But is this guaranteed for you, in your divorce? If your answer is no, it is probably best to make sure that a lawyer confirms for both of you that your paperwork says what you think it does.

Matt Krogh is a freelance writer in Bellingham, WA, focused on issues of environment, energy, geography, relationships, and integrity.

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