Divorce: Do It Alone or Hire an Attorney?

So your marriage is failing and you’re asking yourself: “What do I do now?” The first question to tackle is whether you need an attorney to navigate the divorce process.

Do I need an attorney?

You can purchase a packet of divorce forms available at the Clerk of Court’s office for the nominal cost of $50.00. So why would you want to spend thousands of dollars on an attorney? I typically answer this question with an analogous hypothetical. If I needed to have a minor surgical procedure, should I simply pull out my pocket knife and attempt to perform it on myself, or would it be wiser to go to a professional who handles these types of surgeries on a regular basis. The latter approach is obviously preferable not just because I don’t know what I’m doing and could easily mess it up, but if a complication arose during the procedure, the surgeon would clearly be in a better position to know how to correctly handle it.

The same logic applies when handling a divorce. Certainly, some people go through the process without the assistance of legal counsel, and they may or may not do the paperwork correctly. There are numerous issues to be resolved including what would be an age-appropriate placement schedule for the children, the correct level of child support to be paid, and a fair and equitable property division? What if a retirement plan like a 401(k) plan needs to be divided by a Qualified Domestic Relations Order – – would you know what that is, let alone how to prepare it? And there is a good chance that one party is going to end up with the marital residence. Do you know how to prepare the Quit Claim Deed and the Real Estate Transfer Tax Return so that the Register of Deeds office will actually accept the Deed for recording?

Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying that “a person who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Don’t be a fool. Hiring an attorney who specializes in family law will educate you on the issues, will reduce your stress as you proceed through the process, and will maximize your chances for a favorable result.

What will it cost?

Now that you realize that you need an attorney, what is it going to cost? In western Wisconsin, attorneys who practice family law typically charge in the range of $175 – $275 per hour depending on their skill level and years of experience. The initial retainer (the amount that is deposited into the trust account and then applied to pay fees and costs as they are incurred) is typically in the range of $3,000 – $5,000. If the case will likely involve a custody dispute over children, you can assume that an additional $750 – 1,000 will need to be deposited with the court for the appointment of a Guardian ad Litem (the attorney who will be representing the best interests of the children). In La Crosse County, a custody assessment team is utilized which costs $7,100, and each party is generally required to contribute 50% towards that cost.

There are a variety of factors which make it difficult to ballpark what the total cost of a divorce will run. The curves in the road ahead are difficult to predict. Will everyone be reasonable, or will the emotional scars caused by the breakdown of the marriage prevent the parties from seeing eye-to-eye on the issues?. Fighting over children can cause costs to increase exponentially. It is not far fetched to warn parents that if they cannot resolve their differences over their children, all of the funds set aside for their college education will be depleted by litigation costs.

How do I choose an attorney?

So what should you look for when assessing which attorney to hire to handle your divorce? First, hire an attorney who specializes in family law (i.e., one who devotes at least 50% of his or her time to family law cases). Don’t hire someone who only dabbles in this area of the law. A frequent question asked of divorce lawyers by potential clients is: “Are you tough?” There are certainly some attorneys who handle every divorce with a “scorched earth” approach, and even market themselves by the number of carcases they leave behind in their divorce cases.

That is not, however, what should be your deciding factor in selecting a divorce attorney. Rather, if your goal is to not only resolve the issues involved in your divorce on a favorable basis, but to do so without bankrupting both parties, you need a divorce attorney who is competent and professional. But you also want a divorce attorney who will conduct himself or herself with civility, and who will work towards diffusing tensions, avoiding hostility, and maximizing the chances for the parties and lawyers to arrive at a fair and reasonable settlement.

There are times, however, when despite best efforts, a resolution of the issues simply cannot be reached through negotiation or in mediation. There are some divorces that must be tried to the court. In those cases, you want a family law attorney who is willing and qualified to take off the gloves and battle it out in court. When conciliation fails, you want and need a warrior in your corner.

The family law attorneys here at Hale Skemp pride ourselves in providing quality, competent, and professional services to our clients. We strive to reach a favorable result for our clients without inflaming what is often an already emotionally charged situation. However, when hand-to-hand combat is needed in the courtroom, we are always up for the challenge. If you find yourself in need of a divorce attorney, put our team to work for you.

The information contained on this website is intended as an overview on subjects related to the practice of law. Each individual case is different, and laws do change, so please be aware that the circumstances and outcomes described may not apply to all cases and should not be interpreted as legal counsel. Please seek the advice of an attorney before making any decision related to legal issues.