THE KITCHEN TABLE SETTLEMENT NEGOTIATION
by Faith Jansen, J.D., Divorce Mediation and Settlement Negotiation Attorney
If you want to do your own divorce, here is an approach to consider:
Buy a Book to Learn about the Mechanics of Divorce
One excellent do-it-yourself divorce book for Californians is entitled Divorce in California, published by Nolo Press Occidental. (See www.nolodivorce.com). It is updated every year. For example, in the year that this article was written, the current edition of the book was entitled Divorce in California 2013.
Since family law is controlled by state law, not federal law, every state has its own unique set of divorce laws. When looking for a self-help book, make sure it covers divorce information applicable to the state in which your divorce will be filed.
Negotiating Directly with your Spouse While Seeing a Lawyer Behind the Scenes
In do-it-yourself divorce, you file your divorce papers in your own name as a self-represented party (also known as a Pro Per). Since no lawyer’s name appears on the court papers, your spouse must negotiate with you, not with a lawyer. (This type of divorce is sometimes called the “Kitchen Table Divorce” because it envisions the negotiation occurring between the spouses in the privacy of their home at their kitchen table.)
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, you may confidentially consult with a lawyer without revealing his or her identity to your spouse. You do not have to tell your spouse that you are speaking to a lawyer. Even the fact of contacting a lawyer to make an appointment is confidential within your attorney-client privilege. By having a legal consultation at key points during your negotiation, you will get important legal advice (and avoid serious mistakes) while minimizing attorneys fees. How much of the divorce work you do yourself and how much you pay the lawyer to do for you will be up to you.
Prepare a Rough Draft Settlement Agreement and Get It Reviewed by a Lawyer Before Signing Anything
To get a divorce without having a court trial, you have to prepare a marital settlement agreement which will be attached to the Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage. Many self-help books offer suggested paragraphs on CD’s which you may use to piece together a rough draft of your settlement agreement. When you have completed your rough draft, get it reviewed and critiqued by a consulting attorney who charges by the hour instead of charging a flat non-refundable retainer fee. It is worth it to pay for a two to three hour consultation in order to make sure that the wording of your agreement will have the legal effect you want. It is also a good idea to have your tax adviser look at the final draft before it is signed, to make sure that it will not trigger any unanticipated negative tax consequences.
People Who Should Not Do a Kitchen Table Divorce
Only people who can stand up for themselves in a negotiation should do a kitchen table divorce. If you were brought up to be an accommodating person who always defers to someone who is pushy or stubborn, then the do-it-yourself divorce is not right for you. Instead you may consider non-adversarial divorce processes such as mediation, in which a lawyer-mediator serves as a neutral guide and moderator, or cooperative law, in which you have a settlement lawyer acting as your spokesperson and negotiator.
Courthouse Self-Help Clinics, Websites, and Other Resources in California
The below list is a sample of self-help divorce resources available at the county and state level in California. If your divorce will be filed in a different county or state, investigate similar resources located there. (California requires you to be resident of the state for six months and a resident of the county for three months prior to the filing of a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.)