Not everyone wants to pay or hire a lawyer to get a separation agreement or divorce—but there are reasons to consider all your options.
Look, we get it. Lawyers get a bad rap. The cost for legal help can be high, to the point of prohibitive. And if we didn’t have our own parents’ divorces to haunt us, we all saw Kramer vs. Kramer growing up. Nobody wants to spend money just to split half their money with their ex.
For many of us, a call to a lawyer also makes a separation all the more real, and scary. It can feel like a definitive step, a signal, and one that might not be welcomed or appreciated by a soon-to-be ex-spouse. It is definitely a big deal and a big decision.
But does it have to be?
A domestic contract
If you and your ex (or soon-to-be ex) are on good terms, and you’ve agreed to the basic terms of your separation, you might be thinking a lawyer is unnecessary.
And it’s true.
You don’t need a lawyer to draft a separation agreement. A domestic contract can be signed, and dated, with a different witness for each signature that is an adult. That is a legally binding contract.
But problems can arise. One issue is enforceability. If you want an agreement that will let you sleep at night, because it can be enforceable by a court if you or your ex tries to change things later or without consent, then you need Independent Legal Advice (a lawyer) to review and sign-off on that agreement with full financial disclosure attached to that.
Another potential pitfall is signing an agreement without all the information about your rights under the law. It is good for both you and your ex to know exactly what the law says with respect to anything you are giving, giving up, or negotiating on.
A happy medium might be to draft a domestic contract on your own, and only hire a lawyer when you need help with a certain part, or at the end to provide Independent Legal Advice on the agreement.
Informed decision making
In our experience, the role of a good family lawyer isn’t to make decisions for you or to tell you what to do.
It’s to help you realize where all your choices are, and to feel confident that you are making fully informed decisions when it comes to really important things like your finances and children.
For example, you might feel inclined to trade a pension for the value of a business, or waive any spousal support in lieu of a vehicle or the matrimonial home. But if you haven’t both filled out a financial statement, had your pensions or businesses valued or had a legal expert review the terms, are you sure you are offering (or getting) a fair deal?
Of course different lawyers have different approaches, and the one you pick (and your ex picks) can certainly affect the way you each make your decisions and how you go about negotiating.
This is also where mediation can come in instead of each party hiring their own lawyer. This can save you money and keep things positive, while also making sure everyone is aware of their rights and options. If there are children involved, mediators ensure the children’s interest remain at the forefront
On the other hand, if it’s the case that you got surprise divorce papers or a letter in the mail from your ex’s lawyer, or you are being taken to court by your ex, then spending money on a lawyer may well be worth the time, stress and legal outcomes it saves you in the end.
Finding the right fit with a lawyer
You can have a good relationship with your lawyer, whatever that means to you. There are lawyers that want to help clients and their exes move forward in positive ways, and those that put the interests of any children first.
And yes, there are also those that have a more aggressive approach and won’t hesitate to threaten to take things to court.
So take the time to really pick the lawyer you want, and make that decision in the context of your future with your ex: if there are kids involved, you are potentially going to be dealing with this person for a long time to come, and it can make it a lot easier if you are on good, amicable terms.
Remember, you are hiring the lawyer, not the other way around. You are the boss in this scenario, so feel free to ask questions before signing onto anything, or even before making that first information appointment.
Want to get a downloadable checklist to prepare for your first lawyer’s meeting? It’s part of the exclusive content available on our members’ site!
Sending an email to find out how a firm or independent lawyer (or mediator) works, what the costs are, does not tie you to that person. And if you do meet with a lawyer and it’s not a fit, then you have every right to pick a new lawyer.
You are running the ship, and any lawyer you hire is there to help guide you.
Ontario Attorney General: What you Should Know about Family Law in Ontario
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