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Lawyers vs Non-Lawyers in California Divorce


By Ed West, NetDivorce, LLC

Should California divorce consumers risk wasting a lot of money by hiring an unnecessary divorce lawyer in an uncontested case or risk hiring a less regulated non-lawyer? I’m Ed West of NetDivorce, LLC., with 30+ years of very high volume California retail divorce under my belt, and I say that if you and your spouse can make your own decisions about your family and property, then subject to a few tips and warnings, while divorce is full of tough choices, this isn’t one of them.

Once you have made the difficult personal decision that your marriage has broken down and cannot be saved by the diligent effort of both spouses, your path is clear.

Amidst the resultant swirling anxieties of conflicting emotions, fears for the effects of divorce on any children of the marriage and self protective thoughts about your property and income, the first practical hurdle you will face is how to get the divorce actually done.

40 years ago, there was no choice. There were no alternatives to divorce lawyers, and the lawyer-controlled system was heavily stacked against the possibility of your acting as your own lawyer in your own divorce case, no matter how simple the case might have been. Lawyers had an effective monopoly on divorce. Divorce was how young lawyers survived the first few years of practice (and we do mean, “practice”). Divorce work was almost always easy for lawyers in those days – because they got ALL cases, the few contested ones and the mass of uncontested ones. Additionally, the profession’s monopoly ensured a breathtaking level of lawyers’ fees in exchange for the easy work. Divorce was the bar’s cash cow.

You now have options as a divorce consumer. Also, divorce costs have plummeted. However, with choice has come increased concerns about provider competence, fraud and accountability. Welcome to the new California divorce crapshoot.

This will be the first in a sequence of articles outlining the choices that face divorce consumers at the beginning of the process. The first choice will be that between hiring a divorce lawyer and hiring a non-lawyer divorce service provider.

A lawyer is a professional person with an high level of education. Most lawyers attempt to do good quality honest work and succeed in doing so. Like all professions/occupations, there are good and bad lawyers. Egalitarian, dues-seeking protective state Bar Associations still do not do a very good job of weeding out the bad ones. Improvements have been made over the years, but the process weeds out only convicted lawyer criminals and those who have committed some blatant fraud within their practices. Lawyers who are simply not very competent are still protected by the Bar.

A non-lawyer divorce provider can be almost anyone.The available range of education, qualifications, competence and responsibility is far wider and much more risky than that of lawyers. The trade-off is cost. You won’t find a lawyer to handle an un-bundled uncontested divorce for less than about $600, and at that fee level, you really do need to be careful – less so if the lawyer is just starting out, but then that fact causes its own problems. Non-lawyer divorce providers in California will charge anywhere in the range of $129 to about $600 for an uncontested case.

Non-lawyer providers fall into two general categories: bricks and mortar Legal Document Assistants or online divorce service providers. While many bricks and mortar LDA’s have websites, those sites are usually pretty thin and provide no actual online divorce forms preparation capability. With LDA’s you usually have to call, be quoted a price (with some, almost as high as lawyer’s fees – generally in the $500-600 range), make an appointment, wait, drive, park, wait, fill in a questionnaire, wait, have an embarrassing personal interview with a stranger and then wait for the documents to be prepared and delivered. For whatever reasons, there appears to be very little cross-over between storefront paralegals and online providers.

The prior paragraph provides a clue as to the subject matter of the next article in this sequence about practical divorce choices, but here it is a mere description of non-lawyers within the divorce industry.

While this article is written specifically with the California divorce industry in mind, any value contained herein may well extend to similar situations in other states.

Following is my advice to the new divorce consumer about whether or not to hire a lawyer or a non-lawyer to handle your divorce. It is based upon observations from my first 30 years of experience in very high-volume, low-cost, non-lawyer, California retail divorce (both in bricks-and-mortar, with California Legal Assistance Centers between 1981 and 2001, and now with NetDivorce, LLC, from 1999 to present).

If you can make it to the end of the following list, you should hire a non-lawyer to handle your case.

  • If any aspect of your case will be contested between you and your spouse, you need a lawyer – end of discussion. This means ANY aspect of your case, including the divorce itself. And it means any level of dispute. Even if your spouse claims that black is white, you need a lawyer. This consideration doesn’t address cost at all, and I fully understand that you may not be able to afford a lawyer. You still need one! Further, if you or your spouse continues with the divorce process when contested issues exist, a spouse who does not have a lawyer will be exposed legally in some way. That spouse will likely suffer to some extent in the future as a direct result of not having a lawyer, particularly if the other spouse does have a lawyer. The first spouse to break down and hire a lawyer generally wins on all contested issues.
  • If you have a large marital estate – you own a lot of stuff – you need a lawyer to safeguard your interests in that property. That’s because there are inevitably property, tax, trust, income, capital gains, inheritance, insurance, etc. considerations connected to valuable assets. These issues are often not considered, even by the owners of valuable property, during times of stress. A lawyer will not be stressed and will consider these issues on your behalf and safeguard you through advice and ancillary action. The non-lawyer will generally not even know of the existence of these numerous considerations that are inevitable and generally exist proportionally to the value of your marital estate. What is a large marital estate? There is no hard and fast rule. If you suspect that your marital estate is large, it almost certainly is. If pushed, I would set the limit at something like $2-3 million of NET marital estate value. If most of your estate is real property or retirement plans and you are in complete agreement on all issues, then I would stretch that limit higher. But don’t forget that if your marital estate is $200 and you’re arguing about it, then you’re back to the first tip above.
  • If you have an interest in an ongoing business, whether a corporation, LLC, partnership or an unincorporated dba-style business, and you and your spouse are not going to assign the entire ownership of the business, including all assets and income, to one of you alone, you need a lawyer – in fact, your divorce lawyer may need to hire a business lawyer.
  • If you have a special needs child of the marriage who will require adult child support and perhaps lifelong care, you need a lawyer to set up appropriate trusts within your divorce.
  • If you have specialized or unusual medical, tax, trust, insurance, employment, retirement or business issues that will outlive the short divorce process, you need a lawyer.
  • This is a tough one, but this tip is sound and may be the most important listed here. If there is violence or a realistic possibility of violence or if there is fear of child abduction, you need a lawyer. Again, I understand the costs associated. Yet what cost your health and safety or that of a child?

The above is a non-exhaustive (though I think pretty good) list of when you definitely should hire a lawyer. If you can think of another situation that fits the mold of those above, hire a lawyer.

If you’ve made it cleanly through the above list, you should seriously consider hiring a non-lawyer to handle your case. You will save a lot of money, which can be better spent elsewhere. If you do hire a non-lawyer, exercise higher than normal caution. Find an experienced provider. Keep a body on them. Know that your ultimate protection against fraud is the Consumer Fraud Division of your local District Attorney’s Office.

Non-lawyer divorce providers are cheap alternatives to divorce lawyers. However, they are not substitutes for a divorce lawyer if you need one.

Regardless of whether you hire a lawyer or non-lawyer to handle your divorce case, you should remember that you are the ultimately responsible person for your own future and that of any children. Even if your lawyer or non-lawyer provider does a fine job, s/he still walks away after a few months (probably less). You stay – with the consequences of the divorce, both good and bad. Never forget that you are always responsible for decisions affecting your own life, whether you want to be or not.


Lawyers vs Non-Lawyers in California Divorce

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