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Preparing Your Divorce Lawyer Checklist

You are entitled to a hard-working, experienced, assertive attorney who emphasizes divorce cases. The attorney must be hard working if you are to be prepared for settlement or trial. Start your Attorney Checklist with this requirement; you’ll find out how hardworking the attorney is when using the sources discussed later in this chapter.

Experience is another relative term; your attorney won’t need as much if your case is straightforward, but how do you know he or she has enough for your case? Five contested divorces at a minimum should be enough for a moderately difficult case. If your Case Evaluation discloses several problem areas, you want someone with at least five years’ experience in family law, not collections. It’s always better to err somewhat on the high side in looking for experience.

Assertiveness is mandatory if your side is to be presented, but don’t confuse assertiveness with bluster or theatrics. A calm, methodical approach accomplishes more than a lot of meaningless noise.

For example, my client Denise allowed her husband to control investments, including her separate property worth millions and his separate property worth one-tenth that. Bart meticulously kept all proceeds and income from his separate property in his name, while putting new investments using Denise’s money in both their names. Bart conveniently threw out all documents except those helping him. Following a methodical process of obtaining and reviewing documentation from each source of funds, then showing that there was no consent or gift intent by Denise, enabled us to restore the Denise’s separate property to her.

Your attorney must emphasize divorce work. Do you want your case to be properly assessed, and recent changes in law that may affect you quickly uncovered? Divorce law is always changing. Fran was able to take advantage of the provisions providing security for spousal support when they first went into effect. She locked up a large portion of her husband’s share of the assets for future spousal support when their 35-year marriage ended.

You also need an attorney who will be reasonably available to you to answer questions. Don’t expect that your attorney to be available every time you call. In fact, if he or she doesn’t have any other clients to meet with or court proceedings to attend, you should begin to wonder why not. However, your call should be returned that day or within 24 hours.

You want an attorney with whom you can have a harmonious, attorney-client relationship. You’re not looking for a buddy, particularly at these hourly rates. Expect to have disagreements when your attorney advises you of the alternatives available and then makes a recommendation for you to evaluate. You might decide to disregard your attorney’s advice, in spite of the known consequences, in order to do things the way you are the most comfortable. However, you do need to be compatible.

An attorney who is helpful and supportive is preferable to one who stresses a preset agenda—within limits, of course. If you find empathy, your divorce process will be positive and growth oriented. It can accelerate the pace at which you retake personal responsibility and clarify the issues in your life. Does this attorney listen attentively to what you say? Is this attorney able to identify and respond to the emotion in your statements?

You must have an attorney in whom you have confidence. He or she should be well organized and in full control of the situation. Your attorney should be sympathetic to your concerns, responsive to your needs and interested in your well-being.

Do you want an attorney of the same gender as you? You may feel more empathy from your attorney, or more like you are a part of a team, if you are of the same gender.

Do you want your attorney to be the same gender as your spouse to defuse that gender barrier? Sometimes a woman may prefer a strong male figure to deal with an intimidating spouse, and a man might prefer a female attorney to deal with an exasperating spouse.

Denise strongly believed that she needed someone strong to confront Bart. However, another client, Chuck, needed a get-tough extension of himself to deal with Geri, a career gold digger. It’s your comfort level that we’re worried about.

What personality traits are needed for your case? Tenacity? Understanding? Compassion? Boldness? A bulldog to deal with your out-of-control spouse? Review your Case Evaluation to see what you want in your team’s legal leader, and enter the desired traits on your Attorney Checklist.

Add to your Attorney Checklist any other factors that improve your comfort level. Perhaps you would prefer an attorney of 40-50 years of age, an attorney who has experienced divorce firsthand or an attorney who specializes in custody disputes.

Fran and Denise, each ending a long relationship with a domineering spouse, decided they required a lot of support and encouragement including frequent, matter-of-fact confirmations of their rights. Chuck, on the other hand, had to feel sure that his attorney wouldn’t be manipulated by Geri’s bag of tricks.

Add specific questions from your Case Evaluation, such as whether you can get joint custody or whether you have a chance of getting the house. These are major concerns, and you should test your comfort level with the way the attorney responds to them.

For example, another client, Carol, wouldn’t have an adequate income when her husband retired because she was a displaced homemaker and the assets weren’t sufficient to provide a retirement income. Her husband Donald anticipated substantial earning capacity over the next ten years. Carol was able to get a larger portion of his retirement plan in return for lower spousal support now, giving Donald the opportunity to create additional retirement investments.

Elaine was worried because her husband had been "paid under the table." He was now claiming that he couldn’t support her. At the initial interview, we had to deal with the difficulties and costs of finding unreported income, including her own liability on joint tax returns.

Once you have decided that you want a divorce, the earlier you get an attorney, the better. Think about the unique concerns you have. Don’t restrict your evaluation to only those issues that you know have concerned others.

For example, Rachel lived in an adjoining county but came to see me because her long-term family ties and friends were in this community, to which she planned to return. Rachel was able to move back with the children, file her separation action here, and serve the legal papers on her husband Kurt.

When you are sure you have added your unique, individual concerns, your Attorney Checklist will be complete.