When a couple decides to divorce, there are many major issues that must be resolved during the process before everything is finalized. Both sides are going to want opposing things, and you probably have an idea of how you want the outcome to look after the divorce is over. However, you must understand your idealist picture is likely far from reality.
If you choose to seek the guidance of an attorney (which is highly recommended), finding out what you can realistically expect begins with the initial consultation. This is your first opportunity to sit down with a family law expert and explain the significant details surrounding the issues that will be important during your divorce. Only then can you begin to piece together a more accurate representation of what lies ahead, and even that is likely to change before everything is said and done.
While the relevant issues will vary on a case-to-case basis, there are some topics that are essential in pretty much every divorce. You should come to the consultation prepared to fill your attorney in with at least a rough outline of the details concerning these matters, as well as any others particular to your situation. An initial consultation also gives you the opportunity to ask questions regarding the divorce process, fees, deadlines, expectations, etc., so come with a list of questions and don’t be afraid to chime in if you need clarification on anything.
General consultation information
Hopefully, most of the basic information for both parties (names, date of birth, contact info, family facts, etc.) will be taken down prior to the consultation on some type of client intake form; however, still come prepared to go further in depth with this information if necessary. Other background divorce topics will include:
- Filing dates and deadlines — Due dates are extremely important throughout the divorce process, so you and your attorney will need to be on top of when things need to be filed. These deadlines will vary by state and local jurisdiction, so you will need to be aware of your local court’s guidelines. Your attorney will also need to know if the divorce has already been filed, and if so, the date of filing and whether you are the petitioner or respondent.
- Local divorce process — Again, the family court system varies by location, and you will need to be aware of what to expect. For example, states will have various requirements for the length of separation before a no-fault divorce can be finalized. Others can require mediation or parenting classes, and these standards can change down to the county level. Where you are filing for divorce can make a big difference in how the process works, so it can be difficult to determine the exact details based off a few Google searches.
- Expenses and fees — Divorce isn’t cheap. Your attorney should be willing to not only discuss what the courts will charge for filing various required paperwork, but also be open about their own fee structure (and if they aren’t, you should find a new attorney). You may also discuss the costs various expert witnesses that might be required, such as financial advisors, business evaluators or custody specialists.
- Attorney credentials — Do not be embarrassed or afraid to bring up questions regarding your attorney’s background. You are going to be trusting this person to get you through one of the most difficult experiences of your life, so it is natural to want to know their qualifications. Depending on the complexity of your divorce, you may wish to find a more specialized attorney if they don’t have much experience in the areas you will be dealing with.
This can be a hot-button area when it comes to divorce. Your attorney will want to know some general information regarding the following:
- The existence of a pre- or post-marital agreement — If an agreement exists, your attorney will need to assess the strength of its validity. While a prenup can be a very powerful tool, there are many factors related to how it was executed that can potentially render it unenforceable.
- Anything that could be considered a premarital, or separate, asset and debt — It can be difficult to distinguish individual assets from the marital estate. The longer the marriage, the more blurry these lines become, and your attorney will want any information that can be used for defending or refuting claims of individual ownership.
- The current marital assets and debts — This will include a rough outline of your bank accounts, retirement accounts, mortgages, vehicles, credit cards, etc. It is also important to know whether your state is a community property or equitable distribution state. In the states that have community property laws, all money and assets acquired during the marriage are considered owned equally by either party and are split 50/50. On the other hand, equitable distribution states do not go by this presumption and will divide property in a “fair and equitable manner.” Depending on many different factors, one spouse could receive a far larger or smaller distribution of assets.
- What assets are the most important to you and where you would be willing to compromise — The cheapest and quickest way to finalize a divorce is by both parties negotiating their own settlement without appearing before a judge. Giving your attorney an idea of what you want to fight for and what you would be willing to concede can help them begin to formulate a game plan.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series describing general discussion topics of initial consultations.