It is never easy when you make the decision to separate from your spouse. A separation creates many issues and questions that must be resolved, including what the parenting arrangements will be, how much child and/or spousal support might be owed, and how property will be divided. Separation can add additional financial stress as people try to disentangle their joint finances, while still maintaining a standard of living similar to that which existed during the relationship.
Often adding to the financial pressure is the question of hiring a lawyer. There is no doubt that lawyers are expensive and people sometimes wonder if they really need to hire a lawyer to separate, especially when things are amicable. A lawyer will provide you with advice about how the laws apply to your particular circumstances and work to protect your interests. Without legal advice people may enter into an Agreement that they may not otherwise have if they were aware of their rights and obligations. While there is a cost to hiring a lawyer, it can often save you from paying more in the long run.
When hiring a family law lawyer (or any lawyer), here are some tips to consider:
- Do Your Homework
Before booking a consultation, research lawyers in the area. Ensure that the lawyer you plan to meet with has experience in family law. If you have a family member or friend who has gone through a separation, ask him or her for a referral. They can provide you with information on their own experience with that lawyer and whether or not they were pleased with the services they received.
Some things to consider when researching lawyers:
- Areas of practice – do they practice exclusively in family law or is it one of many practice areas? In larger centers you will find more lawyers with niche areas of practice while in smaller towns, lawyers will often practice in a few areas.
- Level of experience – Experience is just one factor to consider. Lack of experience is not necessarily a reason not hire a particular lawyer. There are many capable and competent young lawyers that are eager for work and who provide great service. One question to consider asking a more junior lawyer is what support system they have in place if they run into an issue they don’t know how to handle.
- Cost – Before meeting with a lawyer, ask about what his or her hourly rate is. Everyone’s budget is different.
An initial consultation with a family lawyer will usually last anywhere from one to two hours, depending on the lawyer and the circumstances of the case. When booking a consultation, make sure to ask if you will be charged for the consultation. Feel free to ask when booking an appointment.
- Read the Retainer Agreement (if you aren’t given one, ask for one) and Make Sure You Understand It
The lawyer should provide you with a written Retainer Agreement that outlines what services the lawyer is being hired to provide, what his or her fees are, what retainer deposit is required, and how you will be billed. Read the Retainer Agreement before signing it, ensure that you understand it, and ask any questions you have before signing it. Don’t sign anything under pressure – you have the right to take the Agreement away to review it and think about it.
- Ask Questions About the Lawyer’s Billing Practices
Make sure you understand the lawyer’s billing practice. Find out how often they bill; if they bill on an hourly rate basis or some other way of billing; how often you will be required to replenish your retainer; how account statements will be provided to you; whether payment plans are available; and what happens if you cannot pay an account.
- Make Sure You are Comfortable with the Lawyer
There are many good lawyers out there but just because a lawyer is capable and competent doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is the right lawyer for you. In your consultation with the lawyer, ask about what suggestions they have for proceeding with your file and ensure that the lawyer’s style complements your own objectives and desired outcomes.
- Gather Your Financial Documents and Other Relevant documents
When you meet with your lawyer, he or she will have a lot of questions about your finances as well as you ex-partner’s finances. Bring copies of your last three years of Income Tax Returns and Notices of Assessment if you have them as well as proof of your income. If you have records of other assets and debts like bank statements, credit card statements or a mortgage statement, bring those along as well. Other relevant documents to bring are existing Agreement or Court Orders or any court documents that have been served upon you.
- Don’t Delay in Finding a Lawyer
Obtaining timely legal advice can save you from making decisions that may work against your best interests or that you wouldn’t have made if you had a full understanding of your rights and obligations. While hiring a lawyer may seem like one more thing to add to your “to do” list in an already stressful situation, the lawyer can help to take some of the burden off of you as you work towards a resolution. The sooner problems can be resolved, the sooner everyone can begin to move forward.