When It Comes to Divorce, You Get What You Pay for
Nothing is immune from economic ups and downs, not even the decision to divorce. When times are tough, even the unhappiest of couples are more likely to tough it out and stay together rather than undergo the emotional and financial upheaval of divorce.
Among couples who decide to untie the knot in hard economic times, some might consider doing it on the cheap. Some opt to forgo legal representation in favor of cookie-cutter property settlement agreements available on the Internet. This de-facto waiving of knowledgeable legal representation by an experienced divorce attorney can prove short-sighted, however.
Be warned: Decisions made during a divorce can last a lot longer than many marriages.
Attorney Marc A. Scaringi, who focuses his practice at Scaringi Law P.C., among other areas, on divorce, property settlement and child custody law, has seen these regrets firsthand. A small parade of unhappy clients who divorced without legal representation are now attempting to reopen arguments over everything from who gets the pets and how the marital property is split to who has custody rights concerning the kids.
Though it's always better to address these problems during the divorce, Scaringi says the following examples show that sometimes it's possible to correct problems that surface after an ill-considered divorce agreement.
"Agreements made without an attorney can come back to haunt you," Scaringi warns.
One couple, three dogs and a faulty Internet property settlement
One couple thought they could hash out their property settlement and divine a shared custody arrangement without an attorney, instead using an Internet legal service.
But the custody agreement they selected from an online legal service wasn't for their kids - it was for their dogs. There was just one problem, but it was a big one.
No one told either party that under Pennsylvania law, there can be no legally binding custody agreements for animals, even the most beloved pets. Dogs and cats are considered property under the law. So as much as you might want to, you can't treat them like kids in a custody agreement.
Problems arose when the ex-husband accused his wife of violating the terms of their custody agreement, kept the dogs and in a letter drafted by an attorney informed his ex-wife that she would never see her beloved dogs again.
The woman took the letter to Scaringi, who immediately saw the huge hole in the former couple's divorce and custody paperwork.
"The whole custody agreement is invalid," he says, recounting the case. "They had worked out a property settlement online, including shared custody of pet dogs, a custody schedule and terms and conditions - just like those concerning children. The problem is, Pennsylvania law doesn't recognize such custody agreements.''
Scaringi and the woman are now in court seeking to have a judge treat the dogs as personal property and divide the ownership.
"We believe strongly in our case," Scaringi says. "We will have the custody agreement voided and invalidated, and the judge will award the dogs pursuant to equitable distribution."
The many regrets of divorce without representation
The canine case points up the potential legal folly of Internet divorce services. But it is just one of the many pitfalls of doing a divorce on the cheap.
"There is a danger involved in using Internet-based services," Scaringi warns. "It does pay to use an experienced divorce attorney when going through a divorce."
Sometimes it could pay very well.
Scaringi tells of another case in which a divorcing wife elected not to have her own attorney. The woman took her husband's word for what some of their property was worth. He claimed some real estate in another country was all but worthless. Turns out it wasn't. Not by a long shot. After the woman had transferred her interest in the real estate to her husband in a divorce agreement, she found out he listed the property for sale for more than $1 million.
The woman has since brought her case to Scaringi Law in an attempt to stake her claim to the property.
"Reopening divorce cases are uphill climbs," Scaringi says. "It is harder to undo what has already been done. Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish. You think you are saving money by not using an attorney, but in the long run you could lose big time."
A father's lasting lament from his unrepresented divorce
Sometimes the losses can't even be calculated in terms of money. An unrepresented client in a custody case can unwittingly waive some of his or her rights as a parent.
Such is the case of a father who only wants to raise his child without interference by his ex-in-laws. During his divorce, the dad went without representation. As a result, his child's maternal grandmother gained custodial rights with the father's consent.
Now, it is all but too late for the father to change his mind.
"He did not really understand the long-term consequence of that decision, which became part of a court order," Scaringi says. "Now he is in an adversarial relationship with the maternal grandmother - his ex-mother in-law. He allowed it. He agreed to it, and it makes it much more difficult years later to try to undo it, to reverse it."
In the end, the legal hurdles proved to be too high.
"We tried to terminate the maternal grandmother's custodial rights, but the judge would not allow it,'' Scaringi says. "It becomes difficult to remove grandparents' rights once they are awarded by a judge. Unfortunately for him, years go by and people change. Now he is trying to parent his child, and he is receiving some interference and other influences from his ex-mother in-law that he has to live with."
The terms of a divorce can be just as lasting as a marriage. But by untying the knot or handling a custody matter without an experienced divorce and custody attorney, many people might be unwittingly tying their hands.
Coming next time: Divorce is not to be entered into lightly. Scaringi shares his advice for those who have no valid answer for why they want a divorce.
"The longer you do this as a divorce attorney, the more and more cases you see being filed by spouses on the flimsiest of grounds," he says. "It has to be a serious thing. You are destroying a marriage, disrupting children and rocking finances. For what? You have to think long and hard before taking a step that will have such serious and lasting consequences, particularly when children are involved."