No doubt you've heard stories of nasty, high conflict divorces that wreak havoc on spouses and even the children. Famous trial attorney Louis Nizer in his book My Life In Court, observed that when compared to other legal matters, “…none of them, even in their most aggravated form, can equal the sheer, unadulterated venom of a matrimonial contest. The participants are often ready to gouge out the eyes or the soul of the once loved, without any pity whatsoever.” Mr. Nizer's book was published in 1961. Today, you have more conflict resolution tools at your disposal.
Your divorce does not have to be the fodder of neighborhood social gatherings and decimate your family finances, but it could. There is more than one way to skin a cat; more than one way to get there, and more than one way to get divorced. Here is a list of Massachusetts divorce process options presented in order from lower cost to more expensive.
Understanding Your Massachusetts Divorce Options
1. Do It Yourself
When it comes to handling your own divorce without any legal help, our advice is simple – DON'T DO IT! Divorce and the requirements for your court paperwork and final separation agreement are more involved than you likely realize. Several people have brought documents provided by online service providers that were a total waste of money and went into the shredder. There were forms included that are not used in Massachusetts that this company sold the client. If your budget is small, then we urge you, at a minimum, to pay a qualified divorce lawyer to review your agreement and paperwork. It will be well worth the small investment in your future. When you represent yourself in court, you are considered to be “pro se.” Remember a lawyer may not represent both sides in a divorce case.
2. Limited Assistance Representation (LAR)
With an LAR agreement, you hire your own family law attorney to work on specified and agreed-upon parts of your case. This is a better than nothing approach if your focus is on minimizing legal fees, and you're able to handle portions of the case yourself. You might engage a lawyer to prepare and then appear in court with you for a specific hearing, but you handle the court filings on your own. You may want help preparing a court financial statement or advice about a specific issue of the case. When you hire a lawyer through a Limited Assistance Representation agreement, the attorney will not submit a general appearance on your behalf at the court, but file a special Limited Appearance so the judge will understand how the responsibilities for your case are shared between you and your attorney. LAR is approved by Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts and is a flexible solution for people with limited budgets needing legal assistance that otherwise may not be able to have any legal help. Read more about LAR here.
There is a lot of other information about divorce mediation on our site, including here and there. With divorce mediation a, neutral mediator works with you and your spouse to negotiate an agreement on all issues of the divorce, such as child support, property division, a parenting schedule, alimony, health insurance, and any other pertinent issues. A mediator cannot force any outcome on you, and the process is voluntary and private. So long as your Massachusetts divorce mediator is also an attorney, he or she can draft all of your necessary court paperwork at the conclusion of the mediation process. Although mediation may not be the best choice for everyone, it can work for most couples, saving money, stress, and laying the foundation for better days post-divorce, especially in terms of parenting.
Even when you and your partner agree on very little, you can still consider mediation. You do not need to start the process with any agreements between you and your spouse. Stephen McDonough has advanced training in high-conflict mediation and dispute resolution.
4. Collaborative Divorce
Collaborative divorce is a less adversarial approach where each participant has their own attorney that is trained in the collaborative process. With a collaborative divorce, the couple and both attorneys commit to resolving the conflict without resorting to the courts – at least until a full agreement is reached and the uncontested divorce hearing is scheduled. If the process breaks down the clients must obtain new attorneys for any court action. Collaborative practice encourages a multi-disciplinary team approach. A neutral divorce coach is usually enlisted as part of the team. Coaches are mental health professionals with specialized training in the collaborative process and oftentimes may have mediation training as well. When compared to mediation, three professionals are hired instead of one, so a collaborative divorce is generally more expensive than mediation. Similar to mediation, the process emphasizes the needs of children, cooperation, and sharing information. Collaborative divorce is usually less expensive than a litigated divorce. Learn more about resolving your Massachusetts divorce with a collaborative lawyer here. The International Association of Collaborative Professionals has an informative website, including a 20 minute video about the process. You are on your own for popcorn.
At Next Phase Legal, we think litigation is best reserved as your last resort, not a starting point. If you are contemplating a divorce, we encourage you to consider alternatives to litigation and the traditional court-based procedure. In fact, only about 5% of cases make it to trial here in Massachusetts. You may find yourself in a contested, court-based divorce because your spouse failed to consider better alternatives, or was possibly scared away from alternatives without knowing all of the facts.
Although court-based work is generally the most profitable for divorce and family attorneys, we've seen what a bad divorce looks like and suggest you avoid one. Divorce is not something people enjoy going through. Litigation amplifies the negatives and less of your money is left when it is over. Money you could use for a needed vacation, college tuition, or savings. We have courts for a reason, and some cases belong there. If there is a history of domestic violence, substance abuse, or significant mental illness in your marriage, you may be better served through the court process. If your spouse has adopted extreme positions or is unwilling to exchange information with you, a court-based divorce could be in your future. You can read more about litigation here in an interesting article Attorney and Mediator Christopher McHallam (one of our mediators) wrote about why a trial can be viewed as a failure.
So, Which Option Is Best For You?
The answer to this question exists; but it depends on you, your spouse/partner, and your situation. Let's spend some time together discussing your options. No matter what you select, we can help. To start the conversation, please call us at (508) 359-4043 or schedule your confidential consultation.