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Choosing the right divorce attorney is the most important divorce-related decision you will make. Your attorney-of-choice might come highly recommended with dozens of stellar reviews, but you should still do your homework. Look into his/her experience and qualifications, and discuss the aspects of your case to verify whether you and this attorney are a good fit. Obtain as much information as possible during your initial consultation. It is beneficial to prepare a list of questions to which you want answers prior to your consultation. Here is something to get you started:
- What is your experience?
If your divorce case is fairly simple, with no children and minimal financial issues, you might feel comfortable working with a less experienced lawyer. However, if you are looking at a highly contested divorce riddled with financial questions, significant assets, and complicated custody disputes, you should locate a more experienced attorney who specializes or has considerable experience in the issues surrounding your case.
There are specialties within the area of family law, ranging from custody law and guardianship, to international divorce. Look into the specialization(s) of your attorney. You might also require that your attorney have certain financial experience. Ask your attorney about the various financial aspects of divorce, including:
- Child support and how it’s calculated in California,
- Spousal Support and its availability to you in California,
- Division of assets, property, and retirement benefits, and
- Financial disclosure requirements between parties.
Ask your attorney if and how these areas pertain to your case and whether he is knowledgeable in them.
Don’t be shy about interviewing your attorney about his/her training and experience. How long has he/she been practicing law? How long has he/she been practicing divorce law in California, in particular? What counties in California is he/she familiar with? How many cases does he/she currently manage? Has he/she managed cases similar to yours? How many divorce cases has he/she taken to trial? If your case ends up going to trial, will your potential lawyer be able to handle the case?
Because many divorce cases result in a settlement, you should ask your attorney about her negotiation or settlement training and experience. You need to be able to trust your attorney to negotiate a reasonable deal that heeds your desires. Do you and your attorney share the same notion of a “good deal”? What percentage of his cases result in a settlement? Are most of his settlements finalized via mediation, or informally in court? Has she had any collaborative or mediation training? Ask as many questions as it takes to ensure that you and your attorney are on the same page and can cultivate a relationship of openness and trust.
- What is your fee structure?
You want to inquire into your divorce lawyer’s fee structure. Does she offer a fixed fee? Or does she bill you for each hour she spends on the case, including answering your phone calls and emails? While fixed fee engagements are uncommon, some firms have begun quoting a fee for each phase of a case. You might also be able to establish a budget or cap fee in the hourly billing model so that expenses do not exceed a set maximum amount without your permission. Ask about rates, retainers, and your options as a client. If you are unsure about how you are going to pay for your attorney’s services, do not hesitate to ask her for help in figuring out the best way to finance your divorce.
- What additional costs should I expect independent of my own?
Ask about any other additional costs your lawyer expects will be involved. You are looking at a lengthy list of possible third-party costs such as filing fees, court reporter fees, physicians, psychologists, private investigators, expert witnesses, forensic accountants, process server costs, etc. You might venture to ask for an estimate of the total cost of this divorce. While this question is impossible to answer with precision before things get rolling as the cost depends upon the level of conflict in your case, your lawyer can help size up the price tag. An experienced attorney should be able to estimate expenses for each phase of the case.
It is hard to predict just how long divorce proceedings will take. You want to be prepared for the financial implications.
- What can I expect in terms of communication?
How often do you hope to speak to your attorney in a given period? Some attorneys are more communicative with their clients than others. While some may check in with a client on a monthly basis, others reach out only when their clients contact them or if the case progresses. Whether or not you require a certain scope of communication, it is good to know in advance what to expect.
Ask your attorney how she prefers you contact her or how often. Can you email, text, or leave voice mails? Does your attorney share her private number? Does she have a direct line through which you can reach her? Will main communication be with your attorney directly or via a secretary or paralegal? Will this lawyer be the lawyer always handling your case? How long does your attorney take to respond to messages and phone calls? How do you get a hold of him if there is an emergency? What does he consider to be an emergency? In addition to asking these questions, let your lawyer know your communication expectations. You want your attorney to be available to you without feeling like a nuisance.
- What are typical divorce procedures?
All states design different divorce procedures that you and your lawyer must follow. Read about California, which is a community property state, here. In particular, the financial information gathering process is a daunting one. When a couple files for divorce, both spouses need to provide certain documentation to each other and the court. This helps all parties get on the same page about property and finances, and leads to a more efficient divorce. Ask your lawyer about these requirements and about how to get started. What documents do you need to start gathering? What can you do if you suspect your spouse will be hiding assets? What documents can you request from your spouse? When are documents due to be turned over to the other party?
Your lawyer should be able to estimate requirements and timelines, though the length of time always depends on the complexity of a case. Knowledge of necessary divorce procedures should help you gauge the time commitments they require and help you prepare for the road ahead.
- What are my options in filing for divorce?
Inquire into which different types of divorce options are available to you. It might surprise you that there isn’t one single way to file for divorce. You might ask, for what type of divorce should you file? What is a contested divorce and what will that entail? What does a collaborative divorce look like? Should you file for a no-fault divorce? How do you and your spouse reach a mediated settlement agreement? When and how should you file? Discuss with your attorney your particular circumstances and the meticulous paperwork involved.
A judge may order your spouse to provide you with financial support while the divorce is pending or once it becomes final. In California, spousal support is payments that one spouse may be ordered by the court to pay the other spouse for support as a result of the divorce.
Temporary spousal support may be ordered while your case is pending, and judges generally use a formula to calculate the amount, which may vary by county. You can find your local county rules here.
Support can also be ordered once the divorce becomes final, as part of the final divorce or separation judgment, often referred to as permanent / long-term spousal support. For long term spousal support, a judge will instead look to a set of factors to determine support. Those factors can be viewed here.
- How will the judge determine who will retain child custody?
It is crucial to understand from the beginning which factors are important to judges when deciding which spouse to whom to grant custody, particularly when you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse cannot agree privately. Ask your divorce lawyer about the process, what matters, and your chances. Does your case involve any impairment that might affect child custody? It is important to strategize from the onset if you anticipate a high-conflict custody battle, especially because custody battles tend to drag out divorce proceedings for months or years beyond what they would be otherwise. Ask your attorney about visitation arrangements, establishing and modifying custody arrangements, moving out of the area with your children, and coordinating custody until an arrangement is finalize
9. What’s the game plan?
Set some goals during your consultation. The main goal might be settlement, but how do you get there? An initial consultation is not too early to establish a game plan with your lawyer. Disclose your wants and needs, and ask your lawyer how to make it happen.