Simplistically stated, in the State of Washington the divorce process starts with a petition for dissolution that is filed with the superior court having jurisdiction, and ends with a decree of dissolution, along with a findings of fact, conclusions of law, and if there are minor or dependent children, a parenting plan and child support order. There are many other pleading documents and discovery steps between the beginning and end, but the process utilized to get to the end will drive how extensive (and costly) you find the road to the final decree. Some of the key factors in how difficult your divorce might be include things such as the complexity of your finances and community property versus separate property considerations; whether your children, if any, are minors or adults, or have special needs; the future economic security of each spouse due to education, employment, and health limitations; and whether there are any pre or post nuptial agreements that would affect the terms of the divorce.
There are several possible approaches to a divorce. In stark contrast to the traditional method of hiring an attorney to provide conventional representation on a track towards a possible trial, you should consider the following option: Pro se (do-it-yourself); Unbundled Legal Services; Mediation in an attempt to resolve the legal issues required by law before the court can sign the decree; and Collaborative Law.
When you choose to resolve your divorce without any professional assistance, the court considers you ‘pro se’ and you are responsible for drafting your own pleadings and presenting your case to the court. When you proceed without an attorney, you can find the mandatory forms and instructions for completing those forms at www.courts.wa.gov. When the parties are in agreement in how to resolve their divorce, or when the issues are not complex, the Pro Se approach might be worth considering. However, you need to make sure that you are not underestimating the complexity of the task if you have significant assets and/or liabilities, or are in material disagreement with your spouse/companion on how the divorce should proceed financially or with regards to parenting of your children.
On the other hand, if you choose to have the benefit of professional assistance, there are several options open to you: First, you may want to hire an attorney for just limited parts of the case. The lawyer is hired to provide ‘unbundled legal assistance’ and is not "of record" with the court, meaning they do not officially represent you in court. Generally, this provides litigants with a pay-as-you-go alternative and some limited legal assistance. Not all attorneys offer unbundled services, and so this is a question to raise with the professionals you contact.
Mediation involves selecting a neutral mediator to assist the parties in reaching an agreement. Generally speaking, this is a voluntary and confidential process. In mediation, the parties are never forced into any agreement and the settlement proposals exchanged during mediation are confidential and can’t be used against them in the event mediation is not successful and the parties ultimately need a judge to decide their case. An important component of mediation is that the mediator can never give legal advice. You will still need to consult with an attorney if you require such advice when utilizing mediation. In Spokane County, if children are involved in a divorce, the parties are required to try mediation before they can proceed to trial. There is a registry of trained mediators (who may or may not also be attorneys) maintained by the Spokane County Superior Court’s Family Law Department.
Collaborative Law is another alternative dispute resolution method that involves keeping the parties out of court. The parties each have attorneys trained in both collaborative law and mediation. Typically, most negotiations take place in a round-table format, also commonly referred to as a “four-way” settlement meeting. A key component of collaborative law: The lawyers cannot go to court nor threaten to go to court. Instead, the parties work together to develop their respective interests in the underlying matter (divorce) and together with their attorneys work toward getting the information and advice necessary to make informed decisions. The attorneys then prepare any and all paperwork, which is then generally filed in a manner that keeps the terms of the divorce confidential from the public. If either party decides to go to court, both collaborative lawyers are disqualified from further participation.
You do not need to be "cooperative" with your spouse/companion for Collaborative Law to be effective. Many times, there is a high degree of conflict between the parties. The special training of the attorneys allows there to be a "safe box" for the negotiations, so that there is a leveling of the field so that both parties are equal in their negotiations, while getting legal guidance from their attorneys throughout the process. This is what brings makes Collaborative Law so different, and successful, in resolving legal issues during a divorce.