Divorce is a major life event that can be completely draining, not only emotionally but financially as well. If you're going through a divorce but don't want to break the bank, you might be asking yourself, "Can I use a paralegal instead of a divorce attorney?"
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is a legal professional who is trained and educated in legal matters. They are not qualified to fully practice law in the capacity of an attorney as they have not been admitted to a state or federal bar.
"The easiest way to think of a paralegal is by using the term legal assistant," says divorce coach Shawn Leamon. "A paralegal helps a lawyer draft documents, prepare for trials, hearings, and meetings, and can help with almost anything that's not the actual practice of law." In most states, it is legal to use the services of a certified paralegal to help with the paperwork generated by the divorce process. In a few, independent paralegals have been given legal right to serve as “legal document preparers," so if you have a motion to file or a petition to draw up, you are within your legal rights to hire a paralegal.
Meet the Expert
Shawn Leamon, MBA, is a certified divorce financial analyst, coach, and host of the Divorce and Your Money podcast. He is the author of Divorce and Your Money: The No-Nonsense Guide.
If you are unfamiliar with the laws and procedures of your state, which most of us are, a paralegal can be a valuable asset in lieu of using an attorney. They're also a far better alternative to trying to traverse the treacherous legal landscape all on your own.
If you're weighing the options of hiring a paralegal for your divorce proceedings, read on for expert insight on what to expect.
Paralegals vs. Divorce Attorneys
Things Paralegals Can Do
- Legally prepare divorce forms for you.
- Instruct where divorce paperwork needs to be filed.
- Tell you how to serve divorce forms to your spouse.
- Assist you in filling out state-specific forms for modifying child support or alimony.
Things Paralegals Can't Do
- Give legal advice.
- Go to court and advocate for you the same way a divorce attorney will.
"A paralegal can help you gather information, prepare the right documentation, and get you prepared for the highly complex divorce process," says Leamon. "Many paralegals are excellent, and are almost as knowledgeable as many lawyers. However, if you are going to want someone to represent you in a negotiation or in court, you will need an attorney for that." In short, if you are experiencing a fairly simple, uncontested divorce, you can save money by using a paralegal instead of a divorce attorney. If your divorce is highly conflicted, with issues such as a custody battle or large assets to split, a paralegal is not something you want to consider. Their knowledge of court procedure and state divorce laws are limited, which makes them less valuable in a high-conflict situation.
How to Find a Paralegal
As with a divorce attorney, you should not contract with a paralegal without first researching their background. "Every state has different requirements on paralegals," explains Leamon. "If your state has a governing body or board certification for paralegals, that's a good place to start. One of the most important questions in dealing with a paralegal is experience—if you are facing a divorce situation, you want a paralegal with a lot of divorce experience, not one who has only done estate planning work, for example." Don't hesitate to ask prospective paralegals for their references from previous clients as well as questions about their legal experience and education. Online reviews, if available, can also be a great predictor of what to expect.
Check with your Better Business Bureau for any complaints.
Benefits of Using a Paralegal for Your Divorce
The primary benefit of using a paralegal over an attorney is cost. "Even if you have a great attorney, much of the behind-the-scenes work will be handled by a paralegal," explains Leamon. "Using a paralegal is beneficial because the hourly rate is lower, the work can be of similar quality as an attorney, and you can get a lot of value." If you aren't able to hire an attorney but need to use the court to protect your legal rights, a paralegal can guide you through the process and alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety especially if the case mainly hinges on paperwork and filing.
But evaluating the needs of your specific situation and applying sound judgment are key. "In complex or highly contentious divorces, using a paralegal can only get you so far in the process," asserts Leamon. "If your spouse has an attorney, and you have a paralegal, you may be at a disadvantage when the first court date arises."