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I’m an excellent housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.
— Zsa Zsa Gabor
If you are like most people, you don’t want to spend any more money for something than you absolutely have to, whether you are fueling your car, repairing your roof or getting divorced. Who wants to make a divorce lawyer richer? After all, you’ve worked out who is getting what, the kids are covered, and all you really need is the piece of paper that says you aren’t married. It’s time to shop around for the lowest price, right?
Even the friendliest divorce proceeding is still a lawsuit, in a very literal sense. You will be the Plaintiff, your spouse will be the Defendant, and you are asking a court of law to dissolve your marriage based on one of the grounds identified in Section 3301 of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. Know what you are getting into.
Welcome to the divorce mill.
You’ve seen the ads for cheap divorces. Pennsylvania Divorce, just $[something cheap] complete! No-fault divorce, simple and uncontested! It sounds almost like some kind of machine where married people go in one end, and single people come out the other. What could be easier? After all, as long as everyone is entirely in agreement and ready to cooperate, Pennsylvania does not require a divorcing couple to pass through the courthouse door. In fact, many people do succeed in getting divorce decrees from these firms. Many do not, however, and during the course of my career I have been hired by numerous “refugees” to sort out divorces that the mills failed to handle properly. Before you pay the money and step into the machine, it is a good idea to ask a few questions.
Am I sure that my spouse will cooperate fully?
In my experience, a spouse who promises cooperation usually does cooperate… but not always. Before you hire a family law firm for your divorce based strictly on price rather than by skill and reputation, be very, very sure both of what services you are buying (and what services you are not buying!), and also that your spouse is on board with everything he or she will have to do to make sure that things go through without any hitches. Don’t just assume, ask and be certain.
Am I sure that all I need is a divorce?
There are rights arising from marriage that have to be claimed through the court or protected by a written agreement, or they will be lost forever once the divorce becomes final. These rights include spousal support, alimony and court-ordered distribution of property and debt (including pensions and other retirement assets). Divorce is supposed to bring economic closure as well as personal closure, and leaving loose ends can have extremely negative personal and financial consequences. When in doubt, consult a lawyer before taking any other action. Sometimes, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Who will be handling my divorce at the law firm I choose?
A lawyer? A paralegal? A secretary? Is the firm you are investigating able to tell you at all? Divorce mills make their money from the huge volume of the cases they handle instead of from individual case files, so they need to handle them as impersonally and efficiently as possible. That sort of business model requires that everything about how the divorce process is handled in-house needs to be thoroughly standardized, and then handed over to the lowest-paid person who can still do the work without spending too much time on any single case file. For all anyone outside the firm can know, the closest an actual lawyer gets to reviewing and overseeing your divorce process could be to sign your divorce documents as part of a stack of forms placed on his desk.
Can I talk to a divorce lawyer when I call the firm?
For that matter, can you talk to any human being at all? Whoever it is who picks up the telephone when you call looking for someone to handle your divorce may also be the one you talk to when you call with a question about your case. Can this person actually give you real information or at least put you in direct contact with somebody who can, or might you instead be talking to a receptionist whose job is mainly to find out where to send a pre-client information package?
What does the fee agreement promise?
Always read a fee agreement closely. It will promise some things, and fail to promise others. Is there someone at the firm who will answer your questions about it and explain the firm’s policies? Can you call for a simple status check on your case or ask a quick question to a lawyer, without facing additional charges?
Where will my divorce case be filed?
This is an especially important one. There are two counties in north central Pennsylvania — Cameron County and Potter County — whose court administrators have figured out that the local court system can make extra money by hosting out-of-county divorce cases. Their filing fees for divorces are particularly low, which makes them attractive to divorcing spouses who want to save money compared to what they might have to pay to file their cases closer to home. Filing in these counties is perfectly legal under Pennsylvania law, and the divorce decrees they issue are entirely legitimate; but if your case hits any sort of a snag while it is in process, you are here, while your case is there. Most often the Cameron or Potter County court will drop a case like a hot potato at the first sign of trouble and order it transferred to your home county, leaving you to pay transfer fees at each end that make the case more expensive than if you had filed your divorce papers locally to begin with. If you are sure that your divorce process will be as smooth as silk, with no other issues to address, then the odds favor you being able to file there safely… but shouldn’t it be you who makes that decision? A good lawyer will inform you of all the risks before you take the out-of-county plunge, and leave the final decision to you. Too many people with cases filed away from home have told me, over the years, that the law firms they hired never even told them that their cases would be filed out-of-county, let alone cautioning them about the potential hazards. Be smart… be sure.
Will they handle my case as quickly as possible without extra charges?
I once read paperwork from a divorce mill that offered “fast,” “faster” and “fastest” divorce service, depending on what the client was willing to pay. Since the court has certain procedural demands including (in many cases) minimum time requirements, it seems to me that the only way a law firm can offer faster processing of your divorce is by eliminating delays that were caused by the firm in the first place!
Will I get to review the paperwork before it is filed?
Before a Divorce Complaint may be filed in Pennsylvania, the Plaintiff has to sign (and attach) a statement called a “Verification” stating that the facts contained in the Complaint are true and correct to the best of his or her knowledge, subject to criminal penalties for making false statements. Is the lawyer asking you to sign a Verification that the Complaint is true, before you have even read the Complaint? Know for sure whether you will have the opportunity to check the Complaint for accuracy, and supply any necessary corrections, before it is filed.
Can you still represent me if a complication develops in my case?
If your spouse refuses to cooperate, if economic claims are raised, or if you discover something new that changes the way you want things to go forward, can your law firm still handle the case? Will a lawyer be available to advise you about what to expect or what to do?
Can I offer information or ask about my case without extra charges?
A divorce mill will tend to discourage telephone contact after you have retained them, even if you are only asking about the status of your case or providing a change of address. Client inquiries interfere with the orderly processing of the high volume of cases needed for the firm to remain profitable. One of the ways a divorce mill can put a barrier between you and the person you need to speak with is by charging you extra money for any telephone contact at all, once you have retained them. Review the fee agreement carefully for “hidden” charges before you sign it and pay the fee. A discount can stop being a discount very quickly, if additional charges start to stack up!
Let the buyer beware. As you look around for a law firm to handle your divorce, think about how you would shop for stereo equipment and consider approaching it the same way: think about what you really need, listen to the sales pitch, get a good idea of how your music will play on their system, and keep two important things in mind: first, that cheaper isn’t always better, and second, that a good speaker can make all the difference in the world.
How to do your own divorce in Pennsylvania.
If both you and your spouse are in full agreement to divorce and there is nothing to take care of but the paperwork to legally dissolve your marriage, consider my $98 do-it-yourself Pennsylvania divorce kit. No frills, no strings, no lawyers.
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If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call me to set up a personal consultation. This blog will feature periodic updates. Consider subscribing! Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. I try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that I will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
Michael B. Greenstein
1789 S. Braddock Avenue, Suite 570
Pittsburgh, PA 15218