Sometimes self-represented parties in a divorce proceeding do not retain attorneys because they are confident that they can resolve their divorce through settlement negotiations with their spouse. They may be aware of the mediation option for assisting with their settlement negotiations, but they do not select the mediation option because they may be concerned that mediation is not going to be fair, or that using a mediator, like retaining an attorney is simply too expensive. In other cases, there may not be significant conflict between the parties, but one of the parties is simply not willing to participate in a mediated process.
The parties may have already decided how they will divide their marital assets, the amount of spousal and child support one will pay the other, and the custody schedule for sharing time with their children. Since they are satisfied with their agreement, the parties may believe that they do not need any help in processing their divorce with the court. When parties have this mindset, they often will proceed with a “do it yourself” (DIY) divorce. While it is always desirable to have the parties make their own decisions regarding the issues in their divorce, when they proceed with a DIY process, they are overlooking the fact that wise decision making requires much more than simply settling all the issues in the divorce, regardless of all how amicable the parties are in their negotiation process.
When parties decide not to retain attorneys or a neutral mediator, and choose to simply proceed with a DIY divorce, they may spend many months trying to navigate the legal process. Even if the parties have discovered the specific forms that they need to complete and file, they may struggle with completing the forms and have difficulty in setting forth the terms of their settlement in a legally binding judgment. There are also significant risks associated with making important decisions when they are uninformed of the legal and financial consequences of their proposed settlement. The divorce may end up costing the parties more money than they hope to save by not using divorce professionals because of a legal, financial or tax issue that the parties did not consider in their negotiations. DIY divorces will often include errors regarding child support requirements, overlook important details regarding real estate or retirement assets, and fail to reserve jurisdiction over future disputes that the parties do not anticipate.
An alternative to a DIY process that self-represented parties should consider is to retain an attorney pursuant to a Limited Scope Representation arrangement where the attorney is retained by one party to perform specific legal services in their uncontested divorce proceeding. In a limited scope arrangement, the attorney may provide some or all the following services: 1) prepare and file the legal forms to commence the divorce; 2) assist the party in complying with his or her disclosure obligations; 3) draft the Judgment of Dissolution setting forth the parties’ settlement, 4) prepare additional court forms required to obtain entry of judgment, 5) provide legal counsel and advice regarding various settlement proposals and options that the parties are considering.
When a party chooses the limited scope option, they will be assured that their paperwork will be acceptable to the court and that their judgments will be enforceable in the event of future non-compliance by the other party. Additionally, the attorney who reviews the proposed settlement may point out a valuation mistake or the omission of an important legal right or obligation. The attorney will often save the self-represented party the repeated headache of having their forms repeatedly rejected by the court because of one error or another.
When the self-represented party chooses Limited Scope Representation, the fee agreement will expressly limit the tasks to be performed by the attorney and the specific services may be based on a standardized flat fee arrangement. The party receives the advantages of having legal counsel, while at the same time, significantly reducing the fees and costs of a traditional attorney-client arrangement where the attorney is paid a large retainer at the beginning of the case and will proceed to make all the strategic decisions in the divorce.