Common (and Not-So-Common) Mistakes to Avoid in a Do-It-Yourself Divorce

A DIY divorce can work if both sides are willing to complete divorce forms on time and agree to a fair settlement. If you handle your own divorce, you will save on legal fees, but there may be pitfalls along the way that a divorce lawyer could have helped you avoid.

Before deciding to take the DIY route, research the process of filing for divorce in your state, and consider issues that you think could become a sticking point between you and your spouse. Perhaps dividing up money and selling the house are easy things to agree on, but you will need some help figuring out parenting time.

There are plenty of step-by-step guides available to you, but don't overlook the value in getting advice from a family law attorney to avoid a costly and time-consuming mistake. Here are a few of the most common and not-so-common mistakes to avoid during a DIY divorce:

Thinking You Have It All Figured Out

Couples can misunderstand how "easy" an uncontested divorce will be. One spouse might seem relaxed and onboard until finances come up, or they second-guess the parenting time plan after they see how much they will owe in child support.

Here are issues that even the most careful couples have often not considered:

  • When will vacations with the kids be taken?
  • Are you prepared to split your ex's debt?
  • The house title is only in one person's name — what does this mean?
  • Are you prepared to pay your ex back for using their phone plan, health insurance, or flight miles?
  • Residency requirements: Will it upset you if your ex gets a new place far away?

Not Being Realistic About Child Support

Many divorcing couples who think they can handle the divorce on their own are thrown off course by the issue of child support. Child support is calculated by state law and is often based on each parent's income and time spent with the children, in addition to several other factors.

The purpose of child support is to ensure that children have the same financial support whether their parents are together or separated. Some parents think they can agree to a lower amount of child support, but family court typically doesn't allow this. Don't make the mistake of entering your own amount for child support in the divorce decree only to have the judge reject your divorce.

Thinking You'll Get 50% of Everything or a Large Amount of Spousal Support

Only a few community property states make 50% of all marital property a given, but others allow for the judge's discretion in property division. Many people go into divorce thinking they will "take them for everything they've got" only to discover they end up with a lot less money than they predicted.

You need to keep in mind:

  • You might get 50% of their assets but they can get 50% (or more) of yours as well
  • Anything purchased before the marriage cannot be touched (cars, boats, cabins, homes, pets, etc.) unless the value of the property increased during the marriage
  • Taxes can make two things with seemingly equal face value end up being worth very different amounts i.e. a 401(k) vs. real estate
  • Spousal support or alimony is often based on the judge's discretion (using legal factors) so it is nearly impossible to predict
  • Because you make less than your spouse doesn't automatically mean you will get alimony or spousal support

Thinking a Divorce Is Easy or "It's Just Paperwork"

Even the most amazing ex-partners and amicable divorce cases can take years. This is because local court systems have their own processes, customs, and legal red tape.

Hiring an attorney is like having a guide through the maze of the court system. They can help you avoid mistakes, react correctly to individual judges, and follow the correct divorce process much faster.

Focusing on the Divorce and Not the Future

It is easy to focus on getting away from your ex and starting your new life. Too many people don't think about what they will need to make their finances work on their own, once the divorce settlement agreement is final.

You need to plan for two households, paying bills on your own, insurance, cell phones, child support payments, and more. In some cases, people might split bills for their children 50/50, but your own household and expenses are suddenly on you.

A divorce attorney can advise how much money you need our of the settlement to live comfortably going forward.

Thinking You and Your Ex Can Amicably Switch off Time With the Kids

Without a legal parenting plan in place, even the best exes can run into trouble. Exes who remain friends may think they can just "see how it goes" with child custody or let the kids decide when they want to go to each other's houses. This can go south quickly if kids favor one house above the other, or want to spend all vacations and holidays with the other parent.

The situation can also change as exes date or marry someone else, have kids with new people, or move away for a job. If you want, you can handle problems as they come up, but it is smart to have a legal document to fall back on. If a major issue comes up, you will have something setting expectations for everyone to follow.

Letting Your Upset Ex Have More (Instead of Being Fair)

It can be tempting to feel sorry for an ex. Kindness will help the divorce process go smoothly, but you need to keep your best interests — and those of your children — first. People often hire a divorce attorney to do the negotiating for them, so they don't have to feel mean or stubborn.

Just because an ex has less money than you, dearly loves your pet, really wants your vintage car, or is upset they gave you a family heirloom, doesn't mean you have to give back gifts or let them take things you want.

Think about the rest of your life, and factor in what is important to you. You only get one chance at reaching a favorable outcome in your divorce.

Thinking Hiring an Attorney Is All-Or-Nothing

Many law firms take retainers and charge hourly fees for divorce work, but some firms are starting to allow "unbundled" options. You can pick and choose what legal services you pay a flat fee for and what to handle on your own.

This can keep the overall divorce cost down but still get you the legal help and legal advice you need for a successful divorce. Have a free phone consultation and ask how they offer services to see if the attorney is the right fit.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You may not need an attorney for a simple divorce with uncontested issues
  • Legal advice is critical to protect your interests in a contested divorce
  • Divorce lawyers can help secure fair custody/visitation, support, and property division

An attorney is a skilled advocate during negotiations and court proceedings. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Divorce is an ideal time to review your beneficiary designations on life insurance, bank accounts, and retirement accounts. You need to change your estate planning forms to reflect any new choices about your personal representative and beneficiaries. You can change your power of attorney if you named your ex-spouse as your agent. Also, change your health care directive to remove them from making your health care decisions.

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