Even when children are involved, a couple -- if they don't fight over custody -- can get a divorce without a lawyer, says attorney Steven Sarshik. But, he warns, they must be aware of important financial considerations.
Sarshik, who practices in New York, outlines steps for a do-it-yourself divorce in a new book, "Without a Lawyer," (New American Library, 212 pages, $5.95 paper), co-authorized with writer Walter Szykitka. He also describes other legal matters you can handle on your own, including filing for personal bankruptcy, filing a sexual discrimination charge and forming a corporation as a small business owner.
Sarshik's argument is that most of us feel competent enough to skip a lawyer's help when we sign a purchase contract for an expensive car, or enter into a lengthy lease for an apartment. Getting your own divorce "is just going one step further."
The courts increasingly "will be receptive" to no-lawyer divorces, says Sarshik who, as a former special counsel to the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, worked with then-commissioner Betty Furness. "It's just like a tide; it's going to happen."
Eventually, "It may be like going to get a marriage license." Very few people, notes Sarshik, "hire a lawyer before they get married" even though "lots of money can be involved."
Before filing for a divorce, Sarshik writes, try to reach a custody agreement with your spouse. "The court will usually abide by your decision." If there's a dispute, hire a lawyer.
Settle in advance, if you can, on a fair amount of child support, he says. Usually the court will accept that if it seems adequate to meet the children's needs. Like alimony, child support can be raised or lowered later, "if there is a substantial change of circumstances."
Don't forget, says Sarshik, to consider the tax consequences of alimony and child support.
Alimony is tax-deductible; child-support is not, he writes, "which is why it is important to specify . . . exactly how much money is allocated" for either.
Sarshik gives an example:
Mr. Dunbar wants to pay his wife $200 (deductible) in alimony and $100 (not) in child support. Mrs. Dunbar wants the figures reversed, since she would have to pay taxes on the alimony, but not the child support.
Another factor Mrs. Dunbar considers is that if she remarries, she would lose the alimony, but not the child-support "and therefore is in a better position if most of the money is paid for child support."
However, if the children are in their late teens, says Sarshik, Mrs. Dunbar might choose more alimony, since the child-support payments would end as soon as the children reached majority.
Couples often can reach agreement on big matters, says Sarshik, but their negotiations break down over "minor issues" of who gets the house plants and custody of the cat.
His advice: "Try to keep a sense of proportion during your discussions."