United States: Would You Like Your Lawyer, A La Carte?

I was researching material for this blog when courtesy of some "cookie" embedded in a website, I was treated to an opportunity to save substantially on my divorce legal fees by signing on for a service that offered me "al a carte" divorce services by law firms standing by to help me without the "unnecessary" cost associated with full service divorce representation. Sounds appealing, right? Why buy the whole car when only the tires need to be replaced?

So as the reader has probably already surmised, this piece is being written by one of those pricey full service divorce lawyers. Thus, as the Latin's would say Caveat emptor (let the buyer or in this case the reader, beware).

The typical person in an unhappy marriage faces a myriad of issues. Custody. Division of property and the debt that accompanies it. Division of future assets like pensions or other retirement plans; child support; spousal support; alimony; health insurance; life insurance. The list goes on but you get the point.

If each of these issues was wholly independent of the other, a la carte divorce services might make more sense. But, that is usually not the case. So let's take custody. That should be an easy topic to sever from the rest, right? Kids are not for sale and so money issues should not really tie into custody.

Well, not so fast. Do you have primary custody? Then you will probably be a head of household for tax rates and you will be able to deduct the kids on your return even though the other parent contributes more to child support than you do. Do you have shared custody? Then your tax treatment is probably going to be different. Do you have the kiddies more than 146 nights per year? Then your support is subject to adjustment. If you have primary custody of minor children that's a reason why you should get a greater percentage of the marital estate. At least that's what the statute says. Spousal support and alimony pendent lite (which is to say spousal support with a Latin spelling) are calculated differently if you are getting child support and you get child support because of how much custody you have of your children. The parent with primary custody will want to ask whether there is life or disability insurance should the other parent experience disability or its more lasting cousin, death.

So you hire a la carte lawyer to help you draft a custody stipulation. Is that lawyer also going to assess and advise on the issues I just described? You want to say yes but you know better.

Let's use property division as another example. Mother keeps the house subject to the mortgage because she will have primary custody. Do you want Mother to refinance the house to get your name off the mortgage or are you OK with having an extra $200,000 in debt sitting on your Experian credit report for a house that's now in her name? And if Mother takes up with Mr. Loser and together they decide not to pay the mortgage on that home where the kids live, do you know whose credit rating is going to be dinged and who might be liable if the house sells for less than the principal balance due in foreclosure? One guess only.

In fairy tales, everything turns out right. That's why you don't read a lot about lawyers in books by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen. Lawyers came about because things go wrong. Like the parent who signed up to pay for his kids' college in 2006 thinking that he had a solid job paying him $200,000 a year. He loved his kids and with $12,000 a month in after tax income he felt confident that he could afford it. But then came the Great Recession and it has now been eight years since he cracked $140,000 a year in income. Meanwhile his loving children all chose to go to private universities and so far they have averaged 6 years to complete a four-year program. He didn't need a lawyer, right? So now he wanders the streets with a $250,000 judgment accruing interest at 6% that has almost no chance of being addressed in a bankruptcy. A lawyer might have suggested capitating the cost of enrollment, the length of enrollment and a failsafe provision in case he lost his job. But, this 21st century Dr. Pangloss trusted that all would be well.

Some readers will call these war stories a form of fear mongering. Bad things don't always happen. The entire life insurance industry is built around the premise that in any given year only a small fraction of people actually die. Only a small portion of legal agreements blow up in bad ways. But when they do, they can inflict a lifetime of financial pain. The trouble with on line or over the phone legal advice is that you'll never be able to find the lawyer or algorithm that gave it to you when it turns out badly.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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