Counsel's Corner: Think carefully before settling your divorce

By Steve Lopez

The number of people serving as their own lawyers is on the rise across the country, and the cases are no longer limited to uncontested divorces and small claims. Even people embroiled in child custody cases, potentially devastating lawsuits and bankruptcies are now representing themselves.

The trend has resulted in court systems clogged with filings from people unfamiliar with legal procedure. Moreover, some of these pro per litigants, as they are known, are making mistakes with expensive and long-lasting consequences — perhaps confirming the old saying that he who represents himself has a fool for a client.

I have been in court on a number of occasions and have witnessed cases in which parents lose custody disputes because they were too unfamiliar with such legal standards as burden of proof and how to present their case before the Court.

A more recurring trend that I see in pro per case is buyer’s remorse.  They settle their case without taking the time to think about what they are giving up and getting in return.

The majority of lawsuits settle, family law cases are no different. Family law cases sometimes settle for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons. Wrong reasons include reaching a settlement just to end the conflict, especially when there is no post-judgment plan on how to decrease future conflict. In many of these cases, the conflict doesn’t really end. It is just delayed. I have been retained by clients to return to court with a post-judgment issue within 30-60 days of a signed agreement they reached on their own while in pro per. This is terrible for the newly divorced family as it gives the children a false sense of closure and can really make it more difficult to reach common ground with your spouse in the future.

The best settlements and agreements come from the parties after they have had a chance to review the settlement and have been explained all the consequences of the settlement.  The only way to facilitate these successful outcomes is with information.  In many instances, parties are clinging to an expectation or belief that is unrealistic and perhaps based on outdated information.  To overcome this obstacle I suggest consulting an attorney.  Nowadays, family lawyers are willing to work on cases on an as needed basis. This means that you can hire an attorney for about an hour or two to explain the settlement agreement to you without having to spend thousands of dollars on your divorce or child custody battle.

An expert point of view can also put a reality check to your expectations and preferences.
Routine issues that lead to impasses are overnights, shared parenting plans, and introducing new partners.  However, all these issues can all be guided by knowledge drawn from an experienced attorney.  A little information, or a short consult, can go a long way in helping you come to an Agreement that will stick and prevent you from having to come back to Court.

Therefore, before you execute that Divorce Settlement Agreement, consider getting an expert opinion on it.