You may not need a lawyer to represent you in your divorce case. You do have the right to represent yourself. Representing yourself is a lot cheaper than hiring a lawyer. However, you may be familiar with the old saying that the person who represents himself has a fool for a client. The fact of the matter is that if you represent yourself, you potentially risk giving up important rights. So how do you know whether you need a lawyer or not?
I recommend that you hire a lawyer if you answer any of the following questions in the affirmative:
Is custody of your children disputed? Even if you are a good parent, you do not want to risk losing custody of your children. A lawyer will help you present a stronger case for custody to the court.
Has your spouse hired a lawyer? The laws and procedures involved in a divorce are quite complex. Do not let yourself be outmaneuvered by someone who knows the ropes. The court will not protect you when you make errors. Even in an uncontested divorce case, do not make the mistake of thinking that the lawyer your spouse hired can represent both of you. A lawyer is ethically prohibited from representing both sides of a legal dispute (it is called a conflict of interest). If your spouse gets a lawyer to draft a proposed agreement, at least retain a lawyer to review it and make suggested changes on your behalf.
Do you have significant assets to protect? Obviously, the more you have at stake, the more value you stand to receive from hiring a divorce specialist to represent you. A lawyer will ensure that you pay only a fair amount in support payments and that the property is divided fairly. An experienced lawyer can also minimize the amount of taxes you pay by structuring the property settlement properly.
Is your spouse claiming spousal support? The area of spousal support is the most uncertain area of divorce law. Alabama does not have guidelines for determining alimony, and courts sometimes come to very different conclusions about how much spousal support should be paid, even on similar facts. Your lawyer will help ensure that the amount of spousal support is fair.
Do you have a retirement account (and your marriage is 10 years or longer)? For many of my clients, their second most valuable asset after their home is their retirement account. In Alabama, if you have been married for more than 10 years, then the portion of the retirement account that has been acquired during the marriage can be split equally. The law regarding how these accounts should be divided is complicated. Your lawyer will help ensure that it is valued and divided fairly.
Does your souse tend to dominate you in your relationship? There is an imbalance in power between you and your spouse. If your spouse is domineering or controlling, you will be better off dealing with him or her through a lawyer.
Are there allegations of domestic violence or child abuse? Even if the allegations are not true, they can have a devastating effect and must be dealt with quickly and appropriately. Do not take such serious allegations lightly.
Are you unable to communicate effectively with your spouse? You will not be able to settle things with your former spouse if the two of you cannot communicate. You will need a lawyer to help ensure that you get a fair settlement.
Are you or your spouse self-employed? The valuation of a business is complicated and you will need a lawyer to help with that process. Also, the amount of spousal and child support payments that must be paid is based on income. It is often easy for someone who is self-employed to manipulate income or to hide assets. An experienced lawyer will know how to best try to prove unreported income.
I recognize my own bias on this issue. But, the truth is in only the simplest of divorce cases (i.e. very short-term marriage, no children, no joint property and no joint debts) do I think you should consider not having a lawyer. Even in those cases, if your spouse gets a lawyer to draft the proposed divorce agreement, I recommend you at least pay your own lawyer to review it on your behalf.