The question, “Do I Need a Family Law Attorney?” comes up in discussions involving Divorce, and other issues such as, Child Custody, Child Support or Alimony (known as, Spousal Maintenance). In Minnesota, there is no law that requires you to hire legal representation in a family law case. Therefore, you always have the option to represent yourself.
However, when we hear this question, often the individual is also wondering, “What is a Family Law Attorney going to do for me?” In order to answer this question, we’ve looked at some of the biggest differences in cases with pro se litigants (parties who represents themselves) and represented litigants (parties who have an attorney). Based on these observations, here’s a list of 8 reasons to hire a Family Law Attorney in Minnesota.
Also if you’re wondering whether you can or should represent yourself, check out our article, “Should I Get a Divorce Lawyer?” Not only does the article explain what you’ll need to do if you represent yourself and what issues you’ll want to address with the other party, but it also provides a list of common scenarios that favor hiring a divorce attorney.
1. Bully Prevention
“You’ll never see the kids again!”
“You’ll be lucky to end up with anything!”
“I’m not giving you a cent!”
Often when a party makes outlandish threats, it’s out of frustration with the situation, an attempt to intimidate, or based on a complete misunderstanding of the law. This happens much more often when the other party doesn’t have a lawyer, because the other party thinks s/he can (and sometimes, does) get away with it. Unfortunately, one party ends up getting silenced into submission, because s/he is erroneously made to believe that such comments are true; that if s/he doesn’t agree, something worse could happen; or s/he simply can’t stand the berating any longer. However, having an attorney helps keep the other party, his/her lawyer (if represented), and any of their claims in check.
In addition, in cases of domestic abuse or with a combative party, some clients request filtering services from the attorney. In other words, the other party will contact the client’s attorney, rather than communicating directly with the client. This way the attorney absorbs the other party’s hostility and acts as a buffer between the other party and the client. Also, in cases when the other party is represented, if you have an attorney, you don’t have to worry about getting calls or having to talk directly with the other party’s attorney. (Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 4.2 Communication with a Person Represented by Counsel). When direct communication is no longer effective, the other party keeps twisting your words, or becomes threatening, having an attorney to shield the blows and calmly negotiate on your behalf can be highly desirable.
2. Legal Protection & Advocacy
Family law is complicated. For example, you have to study hundreds of statues, stay abreast of changes and the legal climate, and know the outcomes of past court cases. Therefore, it’s easy to see how someone could get taken advantage of when the other party is making threatening claims, like those seen above. After all, most individuals don’t have any legal knowledge or experience to fall back on. It’s even easier to get taken advantage of if the other party is represented and you assume that s/he has talked with his/her attorney and therefore, give more merit to such claims. However, such threats are not nearly as anxiety-producing when you have an attorney there to tell you what’s realistic and what’s not, and how you can protect your rights.
Besides knowing the law and past verdicts, you also need to know what judges care about and evaluate in a case. Many times, when a pro se party presents his/her argument to a judge, s/he does so in more of a laundry list type-fashion, stating any facts that s/he thinks may be important. Unfortunately, the pro se party may end up presenting facts that actually work against his/her interests, simply because s/he didn’t know any better. In addition to incriminating one’s self, these mishmash of facts aren’t tied into a cohesive theory that answer the judge’s question, “Why should I give you what you’re asking for?”
Now a days, courts are overburdened. Budgetary cuts have translated into more work, with less available resources. For judges, this often means a jam-packed calendar with a grossly unrealistic caseload. Therefore, judges today simply don’t have the time to do their job and your’s. Also, when you’re not prepared, when you don’t follow court procedures, when you don’t present the legal grounds for your argument, etc…it comes off that you don’t care. If you don’t care, how do you get an overworked judge to care? Ultimately, if you lead the judge to believe that you’re wasting his/her valuable time, you lose his/her respect. After all, judges are only human. Therefore, you should do everything possible to help the judge, help you.
A family law attorney will know what you’re reasonably entitled to, what sort of issues to be prepared for, and how to challenge false evidence or allegations on your behalf. In addition, a lawyer will know and present the most important facts, in an organized fashion for the judge, and in a manner that argues why you should get the outcome you desire. This direct and efficient arrangement is not only helpful to the judicial officer, it’s the most persuasive.
3. Proper Legal Documents & Court Procedure
An attorney will do things by the proper procedure, including drafting, filing, serving documents and meeting time restrictions. In Minnesota, pro se litigants are held to the same procedural standards as attorneys. Therefore, if you don’t draft a document correctly, or properly serve a document, or file it within the appropriate time frame, the judge has the discretion to exclude any or all of those documents. As you have seen above, a pro se litigant is also expected to follow the proper rules of evidence and format for presenting a case to the judge. If evidence is not presented properly, the judge can exclude it. Therefore, don’t make the grave mistake of underestimating the significance of properly handling your case and following correct legal procedures.
4. Peace of Mind
A divorce or family law case adds a lot of stress on top of what is already likely a contentious and emotional family situation. A lot of this stress comes from the individual’s lost sense of control, coupled with an overwhelming amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty in regards to what’s going on, what will happen next, what a document from the other party means, and what to expect during the legal process. However, it doesn’t have to be so stressful. Instead, an attorney can help you understand the other party’s legal requests, explain what and why the other party is doing what they’re doing, and provide you with legal options. In addition, by having a family law attorney, you don’t have to worry about signing or agreeing to something that you don’t understand or end up regretting later.
5. Qualified & Objective Support
Although it’s typical to turn to family and friends in time of need, an attorney should be your sounding board when it comes to legal decisions involving your case. Even if they (family and friends) have gone through similar situations, they don’t know all the details of your case, and what was best for them isn’t necessarily best for you. Don’t get us wrong! Family and friends can be a great support during this time. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re not qualified. For legal advice, seek a professional who is licensed and practices family law, otherwise you’re just putting yourself at risk.
In addition, a lawyer represents your best interests, but is not personally involved in the situation. Often, a lawyer has the ability to see the full picture and can provide a cool head. An attorney can use his/her legal knowledge and experience, rather than idle threats, name calling, or other negative behaviors that tend to arise when we’re emotionally compromised. As a result, the attorney is often in a better position to negotiate for your rights and resolve family law issues. Lastly, strong emotions can cloud our judgment, making it difficult for us to make decisions, and inevitably keep us entangled and fighting a losing battle. To illustrate, high emotions can push a party to seek going to trial, when it’s not in his/her best interests. Perhaps, the value of objective and qualified support is best illustrated by the fact that even attorneys hire attorneys and don’t represent themselves in their own cases.
6. Financial Security
When you hire a family law attorney, you’ll have legal fees to pay for his/her services. However, hiring an attorney can ensure that you’re financially savy and can end up saving you money in the long run. Here’s how:
1. You could end up paying more than you need to in child support, or not receive enough child support.
2. You may end up paying more than you need to in spousal maintenance, or not receive enough spousal maintenance.
3. You could end up having to go back to court to fix mistakes that you made in your divorce decree or custody order. (After all, prevention is typically always cheaper.)
4. Your marital assets and property may not get divided fairly. For example, your attorney can help you uncover hidden assets, such as another personal bank account that you were unaware that your spouse had or a retirement fund. Learn more about: What to do if you believe your spouse is hiding assets from you in your divorce.
5. You could end up in debt because you gave away too much marital property, or creditors are coming after you for your ex’s loans. Learn more about: What’s marital property and what you’re entitled to in your divorce.
6. You could end up needing to take time off of work in order to meet deadlines in your case, research law, and learn court procedures.
7. You could go all the way to trial (where a majority of your legal costs arise), when it’s not in your bests interests.
8. You could have had the other party pay your legal fees. (However, without an attorney, you didn’t know that was an option in your case and now it’s too late). Learn more about: How to make the other party pay your legal fees.
An attorney’s knowledge and experience, familiarity with court procedures and policies, and access to several resources allow him/her to do things in less time than it would take you. To illustrate, you’ll need to study family law, learn court procedures, research what you need to do, how you need to do it, when you need to do it, etc… You’ll also need to set aside specific time to work on your case, keep track of deadlines, promptly follow up with correspondences from the court and the other party, present requested files and paperwork to the other party and court, possibly hire (and thus, research) a third party, such as an early neutral evaluator or real estate appraiser and then get all the necessary paperwork and documentation to that third party. In addition, you may have to backtrack and re-do something due to it not being properly done the first time. Quite frankly, it’s easy for your case to get put on the back burner because you don’t have the time, nor the energy!
Whereas an attorney does this for a living and therefore, has had the opportunity to learn and develop a system to streamline the process and be as efficient as possible. In addition, the attorney may be familiar with the judge and/or other party’s attorney, already know of third parties that may be advantageous to your case, and has an organizational system to track the next tasks so that the case is constantly moving forward, deadlines are being met and paperwork and correspondence sent is being traced. Lastly, for many clients (and understandably so) an attorney’s guidance can reduce the length of the process by providing focus and promoting follow-thru.
This goes under ‘an ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure’ category, is critically important, and yet is most often overlooked by both parties! If issues aren’t properly addressed in the divorce decree, custody and/or support order, etc… problems and disputes arise in the future. These future conflicts can result in costly post-decree or order-modification litigation. Instead, there are a lot of preventative measures that an attorney can take with you the first time around, to ensure that there are no loose ends and that all the bases have been covered. In fact, several post-decree and order-modification cases could be avoided had an attorney been able to properly draft and review the documents, correct errors and include omitted provisions the first time around.
Another way an attorney can promote closure is by bringing up possible future scenarios, and then, discussing with the client how such a scenario would most likely be resolved according to the current terms of the divorce decree or custody order. An attorney’s knowledge and past experience permits him/her to present possible scenarios that the client would not otherwise have considered. Next, the attorney can work with the client to ensure that those scenarios are addressed in the decree/order the first time around. Otherwise, any scenarios not addressed specifically in the decree/order, by default are handled according to Minnesota law, and require a court order to change.
Lastly, besides the hassle and cost of having to go back to court in the future, when an issue isn’t properly addressed in the decree/order the first time, it leads to an argument between the parties. In essence, it creates tension and causes disruption to the family all over again. Even worse, it could end up always being an issue. For example, you can end up permanently giving away certain rights in a divorce decree or custody order, and as a result, make it so that you’re unable to ever ask the court for a modification. Once you end up in this situation, unfortunately there is nothing an attorney, a judge, or the law can do for you.
Ultimately, whether you need a family law attorney or not is only a decision you can make. Regardless of what you decide, it’s important that you make an informed decision that’s in your best interests. Our hope is that this article, along with the article we referenced at the beginning, gives you the information you need to make the right decision for you and your situation.