Our firm meets with a great many people who are in various stages of the divorce process. We meet with people who haven’t decided whether they even want a divorce, but who just want to know what to expect if and when they do decide to move forward. We meet with people who know they are ready, and are interviewing attorneys to find the best match for them. We meet with people who have been trying to go the process alone, and who need help reversing the damage he or she has already done to their case (“He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”)
But few folks that we meet with come to our offices with a greater sense of urgency than those who have just been served with divorce papers. They may have not have seen the divorce coming, and been totally caught off guard. They may have seen it coming, but held out hope that the marriage could be ended amicably. They may have wanted the divorce desperately, but be surprised by the timing. But whatever the circumstances, they all seem to share certain common emotions, anger, fear, confusion, worry, that make our initial consultations particularly urgent.
What they may or may not know is that they’ve already taken one of the six critical steps needed to put their case on solid footing: they are consulting with a divorce attorney about their rights and responsibilities, becoming aware of what they can expect, and learning more about the process into which they are entering. But is that the first step? What do you do as soon as those divorce papers hit your hands?
Step #1: Take a deep breath.
Divorce papers are usually served either by a private process server or by a sheriff’s deputy. Take the papers and let them go. They know nothing about your case, they are not the enemy, and you don’t need to mix it up with them. It won’t help.
Go ahead and look at the divorce papers. In all likelihood, you are going to read things you don’t like, things that you think are blatant lies, and things that you think are patently unfair. You are going to get angry, you may grieve, you may go into denial. Read the papers once, read them twice, let the first wave of emotions run their course, then take those divorce papers and put them in your dresser drawer. Don’t read them anymore. Don’t dwell on the things written therein. Above all, do not lash out at your spouse. You are going to be OK, just take a deep breath, exhale, and resolve to start taking action towards putting your life back together.
Once you take that deep breath, you need to get to work. You need to file a response to those divorce papers within 30 days, and you may find yourself in a courtroom in 30 days, too. The clock is ticking.
Step #2: Talk to trusted friends and family.
Once you feel you are in a place where you can discuss your divorce with other people, reach out to the ones who are closest to you. Start with your family, branch out to your best friends. These folks will be your support system during this difficult stage in your life, so make them aware of what is going on and let them take care of you.
This inner circle is also the place for you to start looking for a divorce lawyer. You’re not the first person to have gone through this, and there is no better way to hire an expensive professional than through the recommendations of others who have already gone down your path. If you get a name, write it down. I recommend you collect the names of 6-10 divorce lawyers at this stage. Frankly, the more the merrier, but keep your list under control. Time is of the essence, and if you have too many names, the next step is simply going to take you too long.
Step #3: Gather information.
Gather up as much information as you can about your marital finances. It will be helpful to the attorneys you consult with to have information about the value of your home, your retirement accounts, other assets and debts, tax returns, pay stubs, etc. One of the first tasks you will have to complete in your divorce is to execute a sworn Financial Declaration, and the information you gather now will be immensely helpful (and save you a lot of time later).
Gather the names, phone numbers, and email addresses for any and all individuals who might give statements that support you and your side of the facts, particularly if custody or fault are going to be contested issues. There’s no need to bombard these folks with requests for assistance at this stage; that’s probably better left to your attorney. But it will be extremely helpful to have contact information for teachers, care providers, counselors, babysitters, neighbors, etc., so that no time has to be wasted later gathering this data up.
Finally, start putting together your “divorce novel.” This is version of the facts and circumstances in your words, starting at the beginning and running through the present date. What should be in this novel? Think of the “4 Ws” — who, what, where, and when. Who are the main characters in your marriage and the problems you are having, who takes care of the kids, who makes the money? What are the problems, what are inaccuracies in the divorce papers served on you, what are the real facts? Does location play into the problems you have encountered? Answers those questions, and add dates and times to the events to the greatest degree possible, and you are on your way.
Step #4: Do your research.
Let’s say you have 10 names; your goal at this point should be to get that list down to 3. Did you get some recommendations from more than one person? Did you get a recommendation from somebody that you particularly trust? Bump those names to the top of the list. Did you get a recommendation from somebody that another person told you to avoid, or maybe whose office is especially far away from home for you? Bump them down. Then hit the Internet. Google each of your candidates, and browse each of their websites. You should be looking for objective credentials, such as their educational background, experience, convenience of location, staff size, etc. Your Internet research should allow you to pare your list to a top 3.
Step #5: Schedule and attend initial consultations with your top 3 candidates.
Having done your due diligence on each candidate’s background, it is now time for you to decide which divorce attorney you are most comfortable with. Do you feel secure in their offices? Do you feel welcomed and important? Do you click with the support staff, with whom you will have much contact over the next year or so? Do you feel like the attorney is genuinely concerned about your case, and do they provide you with clear information about what your reasonable expectations should be? Do you click personally? Do you feel you will receive the proper level of customer service? Any number of factors could go into your overall comfort level, but make no mistake, you should hire the divorce lawyer with whom you are most comfortable. It bears repeating, you should hire the divorce lawyer with whom you are most comfortable.
Do not schedule a single consultation and then hire that one lawyer.
Step #6: Hire the divorce lawyer with whom you are most comfortable.
Divorce lawyers want to help people during this trying time in their lives, but make no mistake, at the end of the day, the practice of law is a business. And now is the time to handle the business details. In order to hire a divorce lawyer, you will be required to sign a contract and pay a retainer fee, in an amount that has been agreed upon between you and the attorney (see our previous discussion on the cost of divorce). Every lawyer you speak with will know that money is an issue for you, but experienced, compassionate divorce attorneys are much in demand, and the fact is they can command substantial fees. Now is the time to marshal you resources, and lean on friends and family for support. If you have found the divorce lawyer who makes you feel comfortable and puts your mind at ease, money should not be a barrier to creating your working relationship.
If you follow these 6 steps after you have been served with divorce papers, you are ahead of a vast majority of other people in your situation, and well on your way to both being satisfied with the divorce attorney you retain, and getting satisfactory results from your divorce.