I had dinner with a friend not so long ago. The conversation eventually landed on her friend’s marital problems and how, despite their best efforts, the couple was headed for divorce. We talked about how difficult that emotional process is and if they’d be OK. They were young, in good health, and didn’t have any children. It sounded like a simple case and everyone would land on their feet. After a pregnant pause, my friend asked “Do they even need a lawyer?”
My answer to that question is almost always “no.” No, you don’t need a divorce lawyer, but you may want one. That’s up to the people in the case.
Divorce is simple. Marriage is a set of rights and benefits conferred by the county (albeit defined by the state and federal government), and it must be dissolved by the county. Divorce is the county granting permission to dissolve the union it sanctioned.
Why Am I Explaining This?
Before I go any further, I should probably explain why I’m telling people how to not hire me. Seems like a bad business decision, right? The short answer is that I’m not in the business of convincing people they need help, I’m in the business of helping people in need. If someone doesn’t want to hire a divorce lawyer, I’m not interested in insisting they do. I don’t run up my client’s bills and I certainly don’t insist that people retain attorneys when they’d rather go it alone. I also firmly believe that people should have an understanding of routine legal issues. Divorce is a process that touches so many lives and I hate that there’s not more and better information available about the topic.
Where To Start
The list of issues you need to address in a divorce are few in number, although broad in nature. You need to meet the criteria laid out in the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, including jurisdiction, separation, and residency. Those issues are important because, if you don’t meet the criteria to get divorced (although you almost certainly do) or meet the criteria to bring your case in Cook County, the court won’t grant your divorce.
The Chicago Volunteer Legal Services has some great explainers on tackling a pro-se (meaning self-represented) divorce. You can find them here.
Once you get past the legal requirements, you need to figure out how you’re dividing up your property, whether support will be paid, and, if you have children, how they will be cared for. This means who makes decisions, what sort of parenting time schedule will be used, and how their financial needs will be met.
The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, which governs divorce proceedings in Illinois, is all available online through Illinois’ legislature. The IMDMA provides some pretty detailed rules addressing all the issues I outlined above. I can’t give legal advice via a blog post, but I can encourage every reader to read the law and then Google those issues they don’t understand.
In additional to the resources at the CVLS (above), there are a variety of forms available through the Cook County Clerk of Court. Cook County offers forms for petitions, notices, and judgments at every court location. There are also a variety of pro-bono agencies, whether the JUF Legal Clinic, the Chicago Bar Association pro bono services, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, and the like. There are also the family law clinics at the DePaul Law School, Loyola Law School, and Chicago IIT Kent.
Cook County also has online resources for people representing themselves. You can find them here. The self-help desk located at the Daley Center assists pro-se litigants with all aspects of their case.
Why Would Anyone Hire A Divorce Lawyer?
That’s a great question. I have a few thoughts on that.
- Thoroughness and Accuracy — If you’re reading this post, odds are your case is completely agreed-upon. There are no pending issues, everything is amicable, and you just want it done. That makes sense. An attorney makes sure the case just gets done. Does a home need to be retitled? How about a retirement account divided up? These are routine issues, but most people don’t have experience tackling them. Likewise, there are procedural steps that every case must go through. It is sometimes easier (and far less stressful) to have a professional handle it.Likewise, there’s a reason why online forms are free. That old adage that “you get what you pay off” applies. An attorney knows what your judgment must include and how those provisions should be phrased.
- Advocacy — Attorneys are advocates. We advance our clients’ positions. We also ensure that the agreement they are entering into is in their best interests. Simply put: non-lawyers know less about the law than lawyers and are not as well-suited for assessing the fairness or enforceability of an agreement.
- Emotional Distance — Divorce is draining. Often the dynamics that led to the divorce seep into the settlement discussion, complicating the case. It’s hard to negotiate fairly with someone when there are deep and tumultuous emotional undercurrents. An attorney facilitates arms’ length negotiations and removes much of the emotional weight. It helps with the parties reach a fairer agreement.
I hope that helps. To be clear, I’m not advocating for anyone to not hire an attorney nor is any of the above intended as legal advice for people looking to represent themselves. I do think everyone should understand their options and that we should de-mystify this process.