Divorce without legal representation

My sister is in a very bad, totally one-sided marriage. Her husband was a real charmer during their years-long courtship but after the wedding he became a real “Mr. Hyde-ian,” hyper-controlling monster. They have been married two years and have one 18 month old child.

Sis wants a divorce but thinks she cannot afford to hire a lawyer because the husband behaves like he controls all of their assets. For example, Sis wants to work outside the home part-time, but her husband won’t “let” her and she meekly does what he says. He doesn’t give her a dime.

Her husband likes the situation as it is and does not want to divorce.

Sis doesn’t care so much about the matrimonial assets. All that concerns her really is custody of their child.

Assuming that she can file divorce proceedings without a lawyer and that her husband can afford a pretty good lawyer, this a very bad plan, right?

This does not sound like it’s going to end well, unless he’s willing to accede to her custody demands.

She might want to get some free advice from divorce lawyers, and check out some online forums for people who’ve been through divorce in her state. People who have been through messy divorce proceedings can often offer very valuable advice.

I would advise that she research things very thoroughly, and plan her escape very carefully. She needs to have a good idea of how he might react to her custody demands, and also needs to understand what he might conceivably do once he finds out she’s left him.

Like I said, I don’t think this is going to go well.

She should consult with a lawyer. In my state, Illinois, the filing of a petition of a divorce, forbids both spouses from dissipating the marital estate. Moreover, a court order can be obtained directing that part of the marital assets are to be used for the support of the petitioner, including paying for the divorce. My guess is that most states have similar procedures. A family law attorney in your sister’s state can confirm whether this is so.

Plenty of lawyers offer a free initial consultation. At the very least, she should talk to a lawyer to determine what her options are in her state.

You all raise great points.

Very poignant–her husband has some serious anger issues and in drunken states in the past he has threatened to beat her.

She can stay with us as long as she wants. The last time he threatened her she stayed with us for about a week until he was very apologetic on the phone. Once she got back home he was a pussycat for awhile but of course that didn’t last.

Our building has great security but all it takes is for one well-meaning resident to let him in.

She should really get a lawyer, even if she’s broke. A free consultation is a great place to start. Once she’s really ready to leave–is there someone who could lend her the money to hire a lawyer?

Does she have access to the family accounts, or is all the money in his name only?

I would also guess that, once she really starts planning her escape, she’s going to start caring about claiming matrimonial assets. Many people married to abusive spouses often settle for much less than they’re entitled to, in an effort to get out of the marriage quickly and keep risk of retaliation as low as possible. It would be a real pity for your sister to fall into that trap, especially since she wants custody of the baby.

And al27052 is right about her needing to plan very carefully. Her husband could become very dangerous when he learns she’s left. And she should make absolutely sure that he doesn’t see it coming.

Contact a woman’s shelter and ask for a list of those organizations capable of answering questions like your sister obviously has. After she does that, she’ll have a much better idea of how to proceed.

Everything is in his name.

Well, AFAIK, the assets that they have are a house that is under-water on their mortgage and three cars that are “paid-off”, all in his name. If she could get the car that she drives out of the deal, methinks that would make her very happy.

Since everything is in his name only–does she have an ATM card and the password? How about a credit card she can use, even if it’s in his name? Does she have any access to money at all?

Even if she truly has no access to their money, she’s probably still entitled to some portion of it–maybe even quite a bit of it, which could really come in handy. (The fact that something is in one spouse’s name only doesn’t automatically mean she has no rights to it. That’s one reason to consult a lawyer.)

I understand completely why your sister says she’d be content just to get the car she drives. But settling for that might really be bad for her later on. The expenses of getting her own place, finding a job, etc. can mount up quickly. Of course, as with any course of action she takes, she has to decide on this stuff herself. Having a lawyer lay out her options–some of which she might not even have known were options–can help her make informed decisions.

Does she even know that she has complete information on how much money they really have? If he’s really into complete control of the finances and financial info, the husband might have money or other assets that your sister is entitled to but knows nothing about. IANAL, but, from what I understand, that’s surprisingly common.

Laws are not the same in each jurisdiction, so the following may or may not apply.

She should hire a lawyer and immediately go for interim (temporary until the trail or settlement) restraining order, custody, child support, spousal support, advance on division of property, possession of the matrimonial home, freezing of assets, and legal costs. That should help her get the case started and fund it.

If there are joint assets (I realize that it seems that there are not any), she should consider immediately snatching them rather than let him snatch them first, and then use his interest in them to set off whatever he might owe her. Legal counsel should be consulted before doing this to ensure that it is permitted in her jurisdiction.

She should draft an emergency plan, keep detailed notes about absolutely everything, and collect every scrap of evidence, including all financial records.

What it comes down to is that if a mad dog is coming after you, you club it as hard as you can for as long as you can, until it stops moving. That’s what a good family law litigator can do for her if the litigator is brought in immediately.

Depending on the family relationship and family finances, her relatives should consider whether or not to chip in to her legal fees.

Attempting to litigate without legal counsel when there is such a large power imbalance would be very risky when compared to litigating with legal counsel.

AFAIK, she has no access to any money at all, just the nickles and dimes (almost literally) that he throws her way once in awhile.

I would be very surprised if she has any knowledge at all of the money and assets that they really have, other than the house and the cars. It’s quite possible that he has quite a bit squirelled away of which she knows nothing.