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Do you need a lawyer for a divorce?

Do you need a lawyer for a divorce? There is no one-size-fits all answer, but three factors will help you decide whether you should hire a divorce lawyer.

evident Editorial Team
December 6, 2023
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Divorces are tough, on you and your family. And not only can they be emotional and challenging on a personal level, they can be stressful and complicated from a legal perspective as well.

But it’s also true that there is a wide range of outcomes for how any particular divorce might unfold, spanning from amicable separations to heated court battles. With such a wide range of possibilities, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the questions "do I need a lawyer for divorce?"

There are, however, some useful things to keep in mind as you evaluate whether to hire a divorce lawyer. Each of these considerations is discussed in more detail below, but at a high level, some of the primary things you should consider are:

  • How contentious your divorce is
  • How complicated your divorce is (e.g., marital property, debts, child custody, child support, alimony)
  • Whether your spouse has hired an attorney
Key Takeaways

Do I need a lawyer for divorce?

So, do you need a lawyer for divorce? In addition to the considerations above, here are some other themes you should keep in mind as you think about the legal side of your divorce.

Can you get divorced without a lawyer?

If you are considering whether to hire a divorce lawyer, a threshold question is do you need a lawyer for a divorce. 

The short answer is that you do not need a lawyer in the technical sense to get divorced. And many people handle divorce cases on their own each year.

So why do you need a lawyer for divorce? Because the stakes can be high and things can get complicated fast.

Whether it’s issues like child custody arrangements or divvying up marital assets, it can be important to have a legal expert on your side to help you navigate the divorce process and fight for your interests. 

We’ll discuss below what factors to consider as you evaluate your own circumstances and whether you need a divorce lawyer.

Stages of the divorce process

With or without a lawyer, divorces often unfold something like this:

  • You try to reach agreement with your spouse
  • If unsuccessful, you could try divorce mediation or other alternatives short of a full-fledged legal battle
  • If those are still unsuccessful, you fight it out in court

But not every divorce goes through each of these stages, and the stages could happen in a different order.

As just one example, a judge might order mediation after you and your spouse have already initiated court proceedings. So mediation is a process that could unfold either before or after you hire a divorce lawyer, and either before or after things get contentious.

At a high level, though, it is helpful to understand these different stages of the divorce process.

Reaching your own agreements

Related to this bird’s-eye-view of the process, a key theme is that the best outcomes often result from reaching an agreement with your spouse.

Often achieved through divorce mediation or what's called a collaborative divorce, if you are able to effectively communicate and reach agreements outside of court, it can save time, money, and frustration.

It also allows you to shape the outcomes, as opposed to putting your issues before a judge and having to live with someone else’s decisions about your life including child custody, property division, and alimony (also known as spousal support or spousal maintenance, depending on the state).

Key factors when considering whether to hire a divorce lawyer

Now let’s address the three key questions mentioned above that you should consider when asking yourself "do I need a lawyer for divorce?"

How contentious is your divorce?

Basically, the more contentious your divorce is, the more it makes sense to consider hiring a divorce lawyer.

At one end of the spectrum, if you plan to file for an uncontested divorce, then there shouldn’t be a heavy legal lift. It may still be worthwhile to have a lawyer review or formalize your agreement before submitting it to a court, but you’re less likely to need a divorce lawyer for an uncontested divorce.

If your divorce is contested and things are contentious, however, it is more important to have a legal expert who will fight for your interests.

How complicated is your divorce?

Similarly, the more complicated your divorce is the more you could benefit from the experience and expertise of a divorce attorney. How complicated your divorce is depends on factors such as what type of financial and property issues are involved, and whether you and your spouse have minor children. It can also matter whether you are filing for a fault or no-fault divorce.

If you’ve got complicated finances, substantial marital property (or marital debt) to sort through, and child custody issues to work out, it can be important to have an experienced attorney who will help navigate you through the process and protect your interests every step of the way.

Has your spouse hired a divorce lawyer?

If your spouse has hired an attorney, you should seriously consider consulting a divorce lawyer as well.

The fact that they have hired a divorce attorney does not necessarily mean they plan on a scorched-earth approach, or that you should take one either. But unless you hire a family law attorney who is experienced in divorce cases and can help you navigate the legal framework, you will be at a disadvantage.

Hiring a divorce lawyer is the only way you can ensure your interests will be fully represented.

Practical considerations when hiring a divorce lawyer

There are three other practical considerations to be aware of if you are debating whether you need a lawyer for divorce.

Hiring separate attorneys

Ethical rules will require you and your spouse to hire separate divorce attorneys in nearly every state in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

It doesn’t matter whether your divorce is contentious or amicable (nor does it mean that your divorce needs to become contentious).

But from a legal perspective, you and your spouse’s interests are different, and therefore must be represented separately throughout the divorce proceedings.

Lower-cost options for divorce lawyers

Divorces can get expensive, and you’re probably wondering how much a divorce lawyer costs. If your budget is tight or you are concerned about the cost of hiring a divorce lawyer, there are two main things to know.

First, limited scope representation is an option. This means you could specifically limit by agreement what the divorce lawyer will assist you with (such as just reviewing your divorce agreement, or attending mediation with you). Limited scope representation may make more sense - and be more cost effective - than hiring an attorney for a full representation if you’re not embroiled in a particularly contentious or complicated divorce.

Second, if you are not able to afford a lawyer, there are other resources available to you as well. You may qualify for Legal Aid and should contact a local Legal Aid office near you. You also might be able to get a lawyer to take your case pro bono (for free), and should reach out to your state’s bar association for referrals.

What to look for when hiring a divorce lawyer

There are many factors to consider before hiring a divorce lawyer, but three critical factors to consider are price, experience, and your comfort level with the lawyer.

Additionally, it is important to make sure the divorce lawyer’s experience aligns with your needs. For instance, you probably don’t want to hire a divorce attorney who primarily handles uncontested divorces for a heated court battle, or vice versa. 

If you are wondering whether you need to hire a divorce lawyer, you are likely also wondering what to ask a divorce lawyer before hiring them. Here are some of the key questions to ask a divorce attorney to see if they are the right fit for you.

The final word on whether you need a lawyer for divorce

So, do you need a lawyer for divorce?

The best way to make sure your interests are fully represented is to hire an experienced divorce lawyer who will help you navigate the legal process and fight for your interests. But not all divorces require full representation from a divorce lawyer, and not everyone can afford to pay for a divorce lawyer.

If you just want a family law attorney to review your divorce settlement before you sign, many divorce lawyers would be willing to assist. But sometimes you need more.

Generally speaking, three key factors which determine whether you should hire a divorce lawyer are:

  1. How contentious your divorce is;
  2. How complicated your divorce is; and
  3. Whether your spouse has hired a divorce lawyer.

The more contentious and complicated your divorce -- or the greater the imbalance because your spouse has hired a divorce attorney -- the more you should consider consulting a divorce lawyer for yourself.

And if you are unable to afford a divorce lawyer, know that there are other options such as Legal Aid or pro bono representation which may be able to help you navigate what is often a stressful and complicated process.

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