As an experienced family law attorney in the Inland Empire, practicing in San Bernardino County, Riverside County, Orange County, and Los Angeles County, I would advise any person considering divorce to speak to an attorney. The divorce process is different for every person, but a conversation with a divorce attorney at the beginning of the process can help educate you and, hopefully, help make the process less intimidating and less difficult. I have helped litigants at every stage – before marriage with premarital agreements, during marriage with post-nuptial agreements, during separation with mediation, and after separation with legal separation and divorce. From the hundreds of people I have helped, I know that having an understanding of the what, why, when, and how of divorce gives people confidence and ultimately results in a better outcome for that person.
So, once you make the decision to file for divorce, it is a good idea to speak with a family law attorney. Even if you are not sure you will want to hire an attorney, it is advisable to seek out some advice or information before you start the process. Many attorneys will offer a first initial consultation, which can be very helpful in order to get an understanding of the process and give you an idea of what to expect.
Every case is very different depending on the facts – the length of marriage, if children are involved, how old the children are, if the couple owns significant assets, if there is domestic violence, if there is a proposed move out of state, if there is a family owned business, and the list can go on. Speaking with an attorney before you file about your specific case and concerns may help you avoid common mistakes and may give you a strategy to get the results you want out of the divorce process.
In my experience, questions asked in that initial consultation range from very simple to very complex. However, some simple questions to ask an experienced family law attorney are below.
(1)What documents do I need to file for divorce?
Often people will come into my office and have no information about the financial situation they are in. In most marriages, one party will handle the finances and the other uses the debit card as needed. It is very common and very normal. However, if you have decided to get a divorce and you are the spouse in the dark, you will want to change that. Being able to give your attorney some information regarding your finances will be extremely important in making decisions about what orders to ask for, what the strategy of the case might be, and what results you can expect.
Collecting documents to provide your attorney will help in the initial stages of the divorce process. The following are a list of documents I would suggest you gather: The last 2 years of personal tax returns and business tax returns; Wage information for both you and your spouse (i.e.: W-2s, 1099s, Profit and Loss Statements); Real estate documents (i.e.: deeds and/or mortgage statements); Bank accounts statements for checking, savings, credit unions, etc.; Documentation for any major assets you own with your spouse or individually; and/or Statements reflecting any debts or financial obligations you have with your spouse or individually.
Gathering these initial documents will help the attorney give you advice about your specific case, rather than just general information.
(2)How much does divorce cost?
Understandably, one of the biggest concerns people have when they come into my office is the cost of divorce. There are horror stories we have all heard regarding costly divorces, but those are often unique cases with unique people. Finding out the cost of a divorce, whether you hire an attorney or not, is extremely important.
The California Courts generate a Fee Schedule and update the schedule from time to time. The Superior Court of California Statewide Fee Schedule can be found online and is a useful resource. Also, each county has a fee schedule which will reflect any variation in fees for local charges. It is a good idea to look up the cost for filing in the county you will file your divorce. The fees to consider are the initial filing fee, motion fees, and stipulation fees. Beyond the filing fees, there are service fees, fees for depositions, fees for experts, fees for trial, fees for court reporters. However, not all fees will apply in every case. In talking with an attorney, he or she can give you an idea of what financial commitments you will have to make, even without hiring an attorney.
Beyond the court fees, if you are considering hiring an attorney, you will want to ask specifically about the financial investment of an attorney and how the costs are broken down. Knowing this will give you more confidence in your decision to hire an attorney.
In our office, we require an initial deposit, often called a retainer. The initial deposit varies on the type of case, the complexity, and the issues covered. The initial deposit is put into a trust account. Simply put, a trust account is a bank account holding clients’ money. Trust accounts are used to hold funds paid up front by a client as an advance on fees and expenses before work is done and prior to the client’s approval of billing.
A monthly bill is generated and sent to the client indicating what task was completed and what time was spent on each particular task, and any expenses incurred on the client’s behalf. Receiving a bill regularly from your attorney is an extremely important piece of communication from the attorney to the client. It not only gives a case update, but also can help explain certain aspects of the case to the client. Once an invoice is generated, the lawyer has “earned” the fees, and upon the client’s approval of the lawyer’s billing, the funds are removed from the trust account to satisfy the bill.
The State Bar of California has very strict rules regarding trust accounts – specifically called Income on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) – and attorneys are under an ethical obligation to follow these rules. Attorneys must use an approved financial institution and the institution must report the account to the State Bar of California.
As a final note on the cost of divorce, ask the attorney if there are any ways to reduce fees or costs. You may qualify for a Fee Waiver, which is an application you complete and submit to the court. If you qualify, you may not have to pay all or some of the court fees. Some courts will even provide payment plans. Also, the attorney might give you some tips on how to limit attorney billable time – how to best communicate with the attorney’s office or how to provide documents when asked. Many clients are unaware that certain things will increase attorney fees – dropping off a stack of unorganized documents, calling the attorney “after hours”, or providing documents last minute.
(3)How long does the divorce process take?
Some people have walked into my office wanting the divorce to be over as quickly as possible. I often have to educate people about the waiting period. In California, there is a statutory waiting period and any person filing for divorce has to wait at least 6 months before their marriage can be legally terminated. The earliest date a marriage can be terminated is 6 months, plus 1 day, after the date the Petitioner serves the Summons and Petition for Dissolution on the Respondent or the date the Respondent first appears in court, whichever is first. There is no way to expedite or change this. No exceptions.
Why do you have to wait 6 months? I call it a “cooling off” period. The state does not want people to file for divorce on Friday and get remarried on Monday. The 6-month timeframe provides each person time to truly consider whether or not they want to move forward with finalizing a divorce.
Once I educate people about the 6-month timeframe, the next question is generally if their divorce can be done in 6 months. I then have the opportunity to explain the timeline of a divorce. The person who files for divorce is called the Petitioner and the other party is the Respondent. In California, once the Petitioner files the initial document, called a “Petition for Dissolution”, the Petitioner has to serve the Respondent. The time for service may be quick or it can take weeks.
Once the Respondent is served with the paperwork, the Respondent has 30 days to file a “Response to the Petition for Dissolution”. If the Respondent files the response, there are a few more required steps, including both parties serving Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure on each other. And, then finally, the parties will either come to an agreement or not. This is an oversimplification of the process, but it is the basic roadmap.
Obviously, cases in which the parties come to an agreement can be completed fairly quick. I have had many cases that resolve by the 6-month period, when the parties have an agreement or very limited issues. However, if an agreement is not likely in your case or there are complex issues or facts, then your case can take longer. Additionally, there are factors outside of the parties’ control that also may cause the case to take time to resolve. For instance, the court cannot accommodate the scheduling desires of the parties or experts may get involved for evaluations and their schedules now come into play, or valuations of property may need to be completed and could take time.
Providing the specifics of your case to the attorney you speak to will help them give you a realistic assessment of the timeline you are facing.
Do you have to hire an attorney? The short answer is no. I often tell potential clients that you do not need to hire a pool man or a gardener; however, when you do hire the pool man or gardener, the job is always done better. They do the work fulltime; they have the tools; they know the tricks. It is the same for an attorney. I work full time on your case and I have all of the tools at my fingertips. I know the differences between the courthouses and all of the judges. I know how to contact the clerk and get the right answers. Hiring an attorney is an investment, but it can be very worth the money you spend.
When you know you want to hire an attorney to help you, getting more information about the specific attorney will be very important. A family law attorney will walk with you through a very difficult time in your life and, so like any relationship you have, you need to make sure you will be able to get along with and communicate with your attorney. In the initial meeting, take some time to get to know your potential attorney. Some great questions to ask are below.
(1)How experienced are you in family law?
Not all law is the same. It is a common misconception that attorneys handle every type of law. Now, for some attorneys, this is a true statement. However, for your family law case, you will want to find an attorney who is knowledgeable in the area of family law and has experience dealing with the emotional aspect of the case. The subject matter of a family law case is your life and your family. So, in choosing an attorney to represent you, you will want to choose someone who you are confident with and comfortable with. Find out how experienced he or she is in the area of family law specifically.
I have been a family law attorney for over eight years and have handled a variety of cases and issues. I make it a priority to stay up to date on the law and I am continually seeking out educational resources to be a better family law attorney. I recently took the California State Bar Legal Specialization Exam to become a Certified Family Law Specialist. I passed the exam and I am waiting on my application to be approved.
In addition to my experience and my knowledge, I understand the anxiety and fear most of my clients have when dealing with family law issues. I am able to handle the emotional side of the cases and want to take a burden off of my clients’ backs when they hire my office. I will not add to the stress of the case, but lessen it. I strive to always communicate with my clients and provide great service to them.
(2)How does your office operate?
When engaging the services of an attorney, you will want to know how his or her office operates. Is it a solo attorney who handles all the calls, meetings, document preparation and appearances in court? Or, are there multiple attorneys handling the same case, with any one of the attorneys appearing on your behalf? Or, is there a paralegal who you will be mostly dealing with?
Certain clients do not want to talk to office staff and other clients never want to talk to the attorney, but would rather deal with the paralegal. In interviewing an attorney for your family law case, you will want to ask about how the office operates to first decide whether or not it is a good match for you and also to set up your expectations.
In my office, there is always a case attorney assigned to be in charge of the case and make all appearances in court for the case. However, there are generally a number of other people who the client will get to know, as the support staff will get very involved with each case. Further, I am very accessible via email, but I will not text message with my clients. Understanding the boundaries an attorney has will help you decide whether or not the relationship is a good fit for you.
In conclusion, the decision to file for divorce is a difficult one. Make sure you seek out the advice of an attorney before doing so, even if it is to just get some practical tips in the beginning of the case. If you decide to hire an attorney or you know you want to hire an attorney, make sure you determine the person you hire is a good fit for you. Our office offers free consultations and have extensive experience in all aspects of family law. Give us a call and schedule a phone or in person consultation today!