The best advice I could provide you with on hiring an attorney for your divorce is that it is up to you to learn how to hire a lawyer. Let’s talk a little bit about what I mean when I say that. Yes, there is a technique to hiring an attorney. Going into an initial meeting with a lawyer when you are unprepared will likely mean that you will not get anything done of consequence. The reason is that, while the attorney possesses knowledge of the law he does not know anything about your case.
Divorces are incredibly fact specific. Yes, there will be some laws that are relevant to your case but in my opinion and experience the law takes a back seat to facts and circumstances in a divorce. Family court judges are given a great deal of latitude when it comes to making decisions in a divorce. They can utilize the “best interests of the child” standard when making decisions associated with your children. They can take into account “fairness” when dividing up the community estate that you and your spouse share. Be prepared to be at the mercy of a judge when it comes to your divorce.
Of course, your divorce is unlikely to make it all the way to a trial. Much more likely would be an outcome where you and your spouse negotiate your case over the period of a few months and then ultimately settle in mediation. The vast majority of divorces conclude this way. Much more unlikely would be a showdown in court with the judge playing tie-breaker. Television and movies make it seem like every divorce winds up in court, but the reality is far from that depiction of divorce you see on your television screen.
So, when you are setting out to speak to an attorney about your divorce case it is important for you to be able to come prepared to these meetings. You need to be able to present the facts and circumstances about your case. The attorney will need to learn them so that he can give you an assessment based on his experience. The only way that you can learn anything about the strengths and weaknesses of your case is by hearing from an attorney. If you come unprepared the attorney can give you general advice but you can learn general advice on this blog without ever going to see a lawyer.
The bottom line is that your case belongs to you. Even after you hire an attorney the case belongs to you and not your lawyer. A lawyer who is not even representing you will not have any information about your case heading into that meeting. You need to supply the attorney that you are meeting with some information before moving on. Coming to a meeting without some basic information means that you will likely walk out of your meeting with as much knowledge as you walked in with.
What information will your attorney need once you hire one?
After you have interviewed attorneys and have made a decision to hire one, you should begin to collect information that will be needed by that lawyer in order to properly represent you and your family. I’ve already impressed upon you (I hope) the importance of being prepared when it was time to meet an attorney for the first time. Now that you have actually hired an attorney it is still important to be prepared. Here is what I would collect and have ready for your first meeting with an attorney after you hire him or her.
Basic information with which your attorney will draft the Original Petition for Divorce
For the sake of clarity, I am going to write this blog post from the perspective of the spouse who will be filing for divorce. You should bring in information that will be necessary to file for your divorce. The most essential information that I can think of is your full name, your home address and your telephone number. Likewise, the same will be needed of your spouse- including their new address and phone number in case he or she has moved out of the family home.
Have you ever been married before? What about your spouse? If so, please be sure to include the name of your former spouse, the date of your marriage and the date of your divorce. If you have any children with your ex-spouse, the children’s age(s) and whether or not you are paying child support towards their support will be important as well.
What date did you and your current spouse separate? Sometimes this date is easy to ascertain such as when you or your spouse move out of the family home. However, in other instances it will be much more difficult to determine an exact date of separation. It may be that you have been thinking about getting a divorce for some time. Or, the decision may have just come to you one day out of the blue. Whatever your situation is, you need to come ready to tell the judge what date you separated from your spouse. That information will be included in your original petition for divorce as well as the final decree of divorce.
Next, if you have children that information will need to be provided to your attorney. Remember that an Original Petition for Divorce is the document that initiates your divorce and introduces your family to the judge. Your children are going to be huge parts of your case and as such you will need to provide your attorney with their names and ages early on in your case. You may find out that based on the ages of your children and their specific needs, your divorce will need to be negotiated differently than you had anticipated. There is no better time to get this information to your attorney than right at the beginning. That way, he can begin to consider your options and can plan out how to attack the issue of child custody, support and visitation.
Information about work, income and benefits
Next, you should come in with information regarding your job title, salary and retirement benefits ready for your attorney. The attorney will need to know what you do for a living as well as what your spouse does for a living. This is important so that the attorney can learn your schedule to determine what sort of possession/visitation of your child. Your income is important because you may qualify and need to be awarded temporary spousal support or even spousal maintenance after your divorce concludes.
If you have been out of work for an extended period of time the judge will need to know why. Perhaps you have been taking care of your children and your. In the time you have been at home minding those responsibilities, your spouse may have been in the workplace building their resume and accumulating skills. If you need time to get back into the work force, spousal maintenance may be available to you to assist with this transition.
Finally, if you have a retirement account of some sort then I would recommend that you bring in some statements for your attorney to review. Retirement accounts (at least the portion of a retirement account that is community property, are subject to division in a divorce. Your attorney will need to know the type of plan you have as well as how much is in the account in order to begin negotiating for you.
What else do you own?
We have already covered the possibility that you have a child, a job and a retirement account. What else is out there for you and your spouse? Do you own any real estate like a marital residence or rental properties. You should go online, if so, and print out statements from each mortgage company showing how much money you have paid on each mortgage this year as well as the value of that property will help your attorney begin to start picturing how to handle issues related to real estate in your divorce.
Do you own mutual funds, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA), stocks, bonds, or cash? Bring in certificates of deposit, mutual fund statements and any other documents that will be evidence of your owning these things. Your spouse may be requesting them shortly in discovery so it doesn’t hurt to have all of these documents ready for that time. If you delay and have to enlist your attorney’s support staff to help you look for the documentation then you should expect to lose time and money in that transaction.
What else do you owe?
As opposed to issues dealing with children and property, issues dealing with debt are usually not on the front burner of your mind when it comes to divorce. Although most of us have debt of some sort as a part of our daily lives it is not something that we give much thought of, either. Your home loan, credit card bills, and student loans are part of a divorce and will need to be dealt with.
Debts function as a bargaining chip in a divorce. You will need to determine with your attorney how to approach negotiations from the perspective of a person with debt. Maybe you are willing to take on debt in association with being able to be awarded more property. It could be that you wish to avoid debt and are willing to avoid being awarded property, either.
What financial records will your attorney need in a Texas divorce?
Your attorney will need you to provide him with bank statements showing how much money you have in various bank accounts. If you are contending that one of these accounts is your separate property you will likely need to be able to prove that in order to overcome the presumption that all property on hand at the time of divorce is separate property. This can be easier said than done may require the help of an accountant to trace the income from before it got into its current account.
Next, tax returns from the past three years will be needed for you and your spouse (if possible). This way you can definitively show what your income is. Your income is crucial for a number of reasons. First of all, if you have children then the amount of child support that you stand to have to pay is directly related to how much income you earn. A percentage of that income will be due each month in child support.
Next, your income will make a different during the course of your divorce because the judge or you/your spouse will need to decide who will pay what bills during the divorce. If you have no wiggle room in your budget and cannot find extra income then you will not be able to take on extra bills or pay temporary spousal support. Many times a spouse will allege that you earn more income than you actually do. When it’s your word against theirs the best way to counteract that testimony is to present the actual documents to your attorney so that he can prepare them for use in a contested hearing on that subject.
Answering the important questions in a meeting with your attorney-tomorrow’s blog post topic
At the beginning of a client’s case, I always do my best to sit down with a new client and map out their case. We will figure out the important issues and then discuss that clients’ goals and aspirations for their case. In tomorrow’s blog post we will talk about how to do the same thing with your own attorney.
If you are interested in learning more about our office or simply want to get some answers to your own questions I recommend that you contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are a great opportunity to ask and have answered questions about your specific circumstances.