What to do if you need a family law attorney

Oct 18, 2022

No one thinks they’ll end up in a family law courtroom, but when you do, you want every resource available, because it’s your family on the line. What does a family law attorney do? What if you can’t afford an attorney? How to find an attorney? In this episode Tracy and Susan guide you and answer what to do if you need a family law attorney.


Susan Reff: On today’s episode, What do you do if you need a family law attorney? We will discuss all the options from representing yourself to getting a free lawyer through a free legal service to hiring an attorney and all the ways that those can help you or hurt your case.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: This is the.

Announcer: This is the Lady Lawyer League podcast. Omaha’s Leading Lady Lawyers Empowering Women to Be Legal Savvy. Hosted by Susan Reff and Traci Hightower of Hightower Rough Law.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Welcome back to the Lady Lawyer League podcast. On today’s episode, we’re talking about family law. And, you know, we’re still at the beginning of season three and we kind of took a break this summer to plan some of these things and spent some time with family and kind of did some growing in our office.

Susan Reff: Yeah, we it was really exciting. We now have four people on our staff that speak Spanish, So our two new newest hires, both are bilingual. Yeah. So one of the ways I try to talk to people about it is like court and law is scary enough and sometimes feels like a foreign language. But now to have that many people that can help people who speak Spanish is awesome.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah, it’s Spanish in the legal sense is literally a double foreign language.

Susan Reff: A double foreign.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Double foreign language. Yeah. But so talking about family law today, you know, we wanted to answer some questions that are frequently asked, questions about what happens if you can’t afford a family law attorney.

Susan Reff: Yeah. And what resources are available. And realistically, how much does a case cost, how much do attorneys cost, things like that?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So I think really if we start with what is family law and that encompasses a whole host of different types of things that can happen in court, right?

Susan Reff: So family law can be anything from child, just a child support case or paternity to divorce to a modification of custody. But then there’s all these kind of like side areas that some people put in family law and some people don’t like protection orders between spouses or a juvenile court case with a family.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And there’s adoptions and guardianship. Yeah. So all of these things are family law and these are in the civil law realm. So when you think about the legal world, you really have two different pieces, and that’s criminal law and civil law, right? And so family law falls into the civil law area like personal injury and worker’s compensation. And those types of things are all civil law. So any of those areas where you’re not being charged with a crime.

Susan Reff: Yeah. And and people the goal of the case is to make a decision. It’s not to punish anyone or to make decisions that deter people from acting in a certain way in the future. Like what do they call that, like using court as a deterrent? Yeah, that’s not going to happen in a family law case, right?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So, well, sometimes if there’s a court order, a goal.

Susan Reff: Yeah, right. The whole goal isn’t to punish people or deter behavior. It’s to, like, make a decision about whatever someone’s asking the court to do.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So earlier you said paternity. What does that mean?

Susan Reff: Paternity is a case where unmarried folks have a child together and paternity legally is who’s the dad like paternity. Maternity is who’s the mom. And that’s usually very obvious who the mom is, but it’s who’s the dad of this child. And then in a paternity case, the judge would also decide custody, who has custody of the child and what the parenting plan schedule will be, and then child support.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right. So it’s basically a divorce without debts and assets.

Susan Reff: Right. And a divorce without being married.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right. So a lot of people ask us or like in a networking group, I’ll always answer the question like, what does a family law attorney do? What’s your answer? What’s your like 32nd answer or ten second answer?

Susan Reff: Oh oh. What does a family law attorney do? I mean, like, really, we help people through the court process, you know, for whatever type of case they have. But like on the fluffy angle, I would say we help people manage their emotions and expectations, right? Yeah.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: I always say we help people, like move on from the issue or the problem that they have right now so they can like continue in their life.

Susan Reff: Yeah, that’s a good way to kind of put both of those things together.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah. And in our office, all the areas of law that we practice affect a person. So family law affecting the person as opposed to a corporation or something like that. So helping that person move on from that sometimes traumatic experience that they’re having right now, separating debts and assets, if it’s a divorce or figuring out custody and parenting time, if it’s just custody, and then literally moving on and having a court order.

Susan Reff: Right. Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So if someone. Can’t afford a family law attorney. What are they? Are they able to get divorced and able to have a court order at the end?

Susan Reff: Yeah. I mean, anyone is free to go to court and represent themselves. You know, that’s called pro se representation. You are your own attorney. Good and bad. You know, the bad of it is and I tell people this all the time and I’ve seen it, a judge will treat you as if you are an attorney. You’re expected to know the rules. You’re expected to file things by deadlines. You’re expected to know how to file things, file the correct thing, you know, be in the right place at the right time with the right information. And in my opinion, those things are invaluable services that a lawyer provides. There’s, for example, in a divorce, let’s say there’s ten steps to get divorced. Anyone could probably figure out what those ten steps are. And I don’t know if there’s ten or 15 or three. Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: I was going to say a lot of mine have like 800.

Susan Reff: I know. It just depends on the case. Right. But whatever the steps are for that particular case, somebody could probably figure out how to, you know, what those are, but then how to do them and how to do them. Well, like, that’s where a lawyer, you know, an experienced attorney really pays off.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: One of the things that I was thinking of is as a pro se person, so again, that’s a person that’s not represented by a lawyer. You’re representing yourself. They’re also expected to have the same decorum in court. And I’m thinking about this story that we just recently heard about a pro se person in a trial.

Susan Reff: Should I tell the story?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yes, please.

Susan Reff: So apparently this was a divorce trial and the wife had an attorney and the husband did not have an attorney.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Disclaimer This is not our case.

Susan Reff: No. And we’ve heard this like third hand, but like this stuff happens and a and the main thing they were fighting about and they hadn’t been married very long was this house. And the husband had owned the house before they were married and then they were married for a while and then they were splitting up, obviously. And he’s like, why should she get any of the house? It’s my house. It’s my house.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And and he’s pro se, right?

Susan Reff: He has no. And her attorney kept going into asking both sides questions about how the House was paid for during the marriage and how long she lived in the house and yada, yada. And the mortgage statements were coming in and and all of the issues about the house and.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And they’re in a trial.

Susan Reff: Yeah, this is all in front of the judge, which is very courtroom. Yeah. Very typical to be talking about the house. Right. I mean, this comes up in a lot of divorce cases. It’s not unusual. And this guy is getting all frustrated and apparently, you know, not understanding that when you’re married, what’s yours becomes ours. And she does have a claim to some of the equity in the home. And apparently the judge had explained it very clearly to this guy and he just wasn’t having it. So they stopped for the day and the judge was like, let’s all take a cool night. We’re going to come back tomorrow and we’ll pick back up and everyone will have good nights, whatever. So they come in in the morning and the judge kind of goes, okay, great, everyone’s back. Hopefully everything’s fine. You know, we’re going to keep talking and, you know, hopefully everyone got to think about things and the guy looks right at the judge and is like, Fuck you. And the judge was like, okay, so you are ramped up from yesterday instead of cooled off and apparently then proceeded to tell the guy what he could do. And I think she had to at that point set some pretty serious boundaries with him.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So I don’t think that person’s helping himself being a no say person.

Susan Reff: No, I don’t think telling the judge fuck you is ever a good idea, ever pro se or not.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: I’m laughing because I just wish I could have seen that.

Susan Reff: And I know.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Just it’s that idea that you don’t know how to behave in court when especially the other side is represented. So, you know, in all seriousness, if you can’t afford a family law attorney, you are expected to have some decorum in court and you cannot say fuck you to the judge. No, it’s not going to get you very far.

Susan Reff: But I think I think a person like that probably would have acted that way, even if they had an.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Attorney, probably. And their attorney would have been also very agitated. Yeah, That person. Yeah.

Susan Reff: Yeah. I mean, we’ve all had our clients do stuff in court that we’re like, Oh, that probably not the best choice of things to do. I mean, never anything that extreme. But you know, people are people they’re going to they’re going to behave the way they are going to behave.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Okay. So if you can’t afford a family law attorney, we get this question all the time. I’m just going to get a court appointed attorney.

Susan Reff: Oh, yeah. I’ll just go to court and ask the judge to give me a free lawyer. Yeah.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah. So that doesn’t happen in civil law cases?

Susan Reff: No. You have no right to a free lawyer in a civil case. Any kind of civil case.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: This is only in the criminal law world.

Susan Reff: Yes.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And then sometimes even you don’t. But that’s for another episode.

Susan Reff: Yeah, we’ll talk about that later.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: But you are not entitled to a court appointed attorney in family law. There are other resources that you may be entitled to a free attorney through Legal Aid or other services in Nebraska called like Volunteer Lawyers program. And so those are other resources that folks can check out, but those are all based on income, things like that. But you are not entitled to a court appointed attorney, right? Period period. We could end the episode on that but won’t.

Susan Reff: Yeah. No free lawyer in a divorce outside through the court.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Well, okay. There is one exception. When you may be held in contempt of a court order in a family law case, you might be facing prison or jail jail time. You could be entitled to a court appointed lawyer.

Susan Reff: There are so many exceptions. Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: That is the one exception.

Susan Reff: Here’s the one exception. Yeah. If if you are facing contempt of court and jail’s a possibility, you get a court appointed attorney.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So and this is coming from two family law attorneys. We are always going to recommend you not go to court without an attorney.

Susan Reff: Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And that happens. It happens a lot where people represent themselves. You can go through a divorce where both people are not represented and it gets done fine. In Nebraska, there is a Supreme Court of Nebraska website that has self help forms. Folks can use those. They can get through their divorce pretty simply and easily. The problem is, for example, those forms specifically say if you own a house or you have a retirement account, do not use these forms. And guess who uses those forms?

Susan Reff: Everyone.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah. And yeah, the problem is the money that you save now really is going to cost you a lot more money in the future if you’re not dealing with those debts in assets correctly now.

Susan Reff: Well, and like a divorce, your marriage wasn’t one size fits all, so your divorce can’t be one size fits well.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Maybe you thought it was and that was your problem.

Susan Reff: Yeah. I mean, and a divorce shouldn’t be something that you just signed some papers and you’re done with. Like it didn’t take you that long to get to that point. Why are you in such a rush to just. I mean, I get emotionally why people want to be done, but that emotion is even going to be a process. So we spend I mean, how many cases do we get every year that are cleaning up those pro se or even other lawyers that make mistakes in divorces? We have to we do clean that up. And those are very expensive.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Well, sometimes they’re impossible to. Yes. And sometimes we have a consult with someone who was pro se throughout their divorce and their spouse was pro se, and they try to do it on their own. And they were amicable and they were civil and they just didn’t do anything about what’s going to happen with the house. Is someone going to be finance it, for example? And there’s decree is silent on that. We have to try and help them clean it up. And if the other person now isn’t in agreement, it’s literally impossible. There is no protection for that person later. And they wouldn’t know that they wouldn’t know. And a decree that they need to have that language.

Susan Reff: And the judge isn’t going to tell them. Like I think a lot of people think that the judge is this protector of them. And literally, if a judge sees a proposed order that these people want to get divorced, whether it’s written by an attorney or pro se, a if it appears to cover the majority of things, the judge is going to sign it. They’re not going to come in and interview you and make sure that you covered all your bases because they’re going to trust that you did that yourself.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right. So, all right, we’re in this point where we don’t really recommend anyone do their divorce pro se. So how should someone go about finding the best family law attorney?

Susan Reff: So I think working with a family law attorney is a pretty personal relationship because first of all, you’re going to be telling your attorney a lot about yourself. So you feel a skeleton. Yeah. And we always tell people we’ve heard it all, which is not true, but we tell them that because we’ve.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Almost we think we’ve heard it all and then we hear something else like, Oh, shit, we never heard that one before. Yeah.

Susan Reff: We think we’ve heard it all. So we but we tell people like we’ve heard a lot, like, you know, and after a while cases do kind of start to follow a theme of another case. But the more you tell your attorney, the better they will be able to represent you and they can pick and choose what they will need to use in the case versus just spewing all of your information to everyone. That’s not going to happen. But so I think a person should interview their attorney and feel some sort of trust and connection with that person that they can say, I feel comfortable with you helping me through this process.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right. So it definitely has to be a two way street, too, because not every attorney is appropriate for every client. Right? In family law specifically.

Susan Reff: There are some attorneys who really kind of like take care hand hold. You know, they’re willing to listen when clients just need an ear. And then there’s attorneys who are like, I am here to do step one, two, three, four and all that other stuff I’m not interested in being part of. And some people that is not going to work for them.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And I think you know that in the consultation, like you’ll get that feel of maybe you’re the person who is okay with. That attorney that’s like, I’m going to do steps one through ten and be done. But maybe you’re the type of person that needs the attorney that’s going to handhold and really listen to you and your feelings. And sometimes when we describe what we do as family law attorneys, we will often say we are not therapists, but we can be good listeners. We’re just not helpful in having you learn coping skills and things like that.

Susan Reff: The thing and what ends up happening in you and I talk about this all the time is people get in these situations once they’re separated, but they’re still in their divorce. And there’s a tension between usually parents or people who don’t have kids about a money thing. And they call us and they ask us, what should I do? And it’s literally not a legal question. There’s nothing it’s and it’s probably not going to affect the case in any significant way. Like, Well, they really want to sign Billy up for soccer and soccer’s Tuesdays and Thursdays and I have Tuesdays and Thursdays. And what should I do? Should I let him sign up Billy for soccer? And it’s like. As Billy going to want to play soccer.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right?

Susan Reff: Like this is in the way in my head. It’s working. Is this is a parenting decision, not a legal decision. Right. But that’s a that’s a really easy example of the kinds of questions we get all the time. Like I. And the answer is, I don’t know. And I think our job is to tell people, will this affect the case if not? Try to work with the other parent and figure something out. Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So we get a lot of questions for people calling our office saying, I’m looking for a pro bono attorney. What’s that mean.

Susan Reff: A pro bono attorney? They sound really awesome, first of all.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right.

Susan Reff: Pro bono. Like I want to be a pro now. It means free.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Pro bono. Pro bono is a free attorney and then a pro se person is someone representing themselves. Sometimes people get those confused.

Susan Reff: Yeah, pro bono means free. And our office does take cases pro bono, but we don’t take them. Just by people calling us in. We take them through organizations where they’ve been vetted like through Legal Aid, through the volunteer lawyers program. We have partnerships with different organizations. They do a lot of screening to make sure the person fits within economic guidelines or if there is a grant that they’re funded for. Like, for example, the legal aid does help a lot of victims of domestic violence. So they you know, they vet them, they give us some background information, and then we we choose if we want to take those cases or not. And how many I mean, we can’t do all pro bono work. I mean, that’d be awesome, right? But it wouldn’t be a good business decision.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right? So I think really, all in all, if if you can’t afford a family law attorney, you can do your best trying to go through the process pro say, yeah, if your spouse is also pro se, well good.

Susan Reff: Luck. So what you’re saying is if there’s one attorney on the case, even if it’s on the other side, it’s better?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: I don’t know. Right. It depends on who the attorney is. And I was going to say, like us. Yeah. If there’s if there’s an attorney on the other side and your pro say, you know, as much as you can have conversation with your spouse. Yeah, really, it’s going to depend on how much do you trust your spouse? How much do the two of you know about your own debts and assets and accounts and things like that. But if there’s any question in, you know, what needs to be in a final decree, you really should be getting some advice from an attorney. Yeah. And that’s always going to be our our recommendation.

Susan Reff: Yeah. It never hurts to have consultations with attorneys even if you’re in the middle of your case. Right. Pro se.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So so with the reoccurring theme of Google always has some good questions, we’re going to try and answer some questions from Google about family law.

Susan Reff: Google is the best source for legal advice.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: All right. So do, do, do.

Susan Reff: Oh, we did like a little like, intro music. Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Oc First question do in-laws have to be considered family law.

Susan Reff: To be considered family? What do in-laws have to be considered? Okay, I’m not really sure what this mean.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Google, What are you getting at?

Susan Reff: I think I think to talk about in-laws in family law, there’s no place for in-laws in family law unless people are in agreement to bring them in. They’re not going to end up in your court order. They’re not going to you know, they might be witnesses in your case if you go to trial.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Right.

Susan Reff: But you could literally just be like, you know, it’s just between the two people.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: This is Google confusing family and law in two different places.

Susan Reff: Family law and in law.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah. Yeah. So next, why was family law cancelled? Is this a TV show?

Susan Reff: Wtf? I don’t know what this means.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Maybe it’s talking about Family Guy.

Susan Reff: Family law. There must be a family law or canceled in the like cancel culture. Like. I don’t know.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah, well, it’s not been canceled in our office. We’re still doing it.

Susan Reff: Or at the courthouse.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: It’s still very active.

Susan Reff: What, like 60 or 70% of cases are family law cases? Yeah. In Douglas County, in Nebraska.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Not canceled.

Susan Reff: Not canceled.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: What will get you contempt of court and family law?

Susan Reff: This is a good one.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Oh, not following the court order.

Susan Reff: That’s really the definition of contempt, right?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Yeah.

Susan Reff: Not following a court.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So there’s civil contempt and that’s where you might be entitled to a court appointed attorney. But you don’t want to get a court appointed attorney and family law because that means you’re facing jail time. Yeah.

Susan Reff: While it might feel good to have a free lawyer, it’s not really that great.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So really also this is important because what will get you contempt is what’s called willful and condemnation. Oh, my gosh. Violation a violation of the court order. So you have to the other person has to show that you’ve been willful and condemnations, which is like, fuck you.

Susan Reff: Judge. Yeah, fuck you. So we talked about those definitions one time in a podcast and did some googling to determine what they actually. Yes. Yeah, it was fun.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And I think it’s really like the court order is clear. You have to make the mortgage payments and you’re not making them. And you have sent a text to your spouse saying, I’m not going to make the mortgage payments because.

Susan Reff: Some willful fuck you. Yeah.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: So that’s willful in condemnation of how to get rid of son in law and family.

Susan Reff: Is this like asking how to murder someone? That’s the first thought. How to get rid of this will get you.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Premeditation and.

Susan Reff: A yes. Yeah. Don’t don’t Google.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Don’t Google that.

Susan Reff: Yeah, they’ll they’ll search your phone.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: And we’ve saved you on this podcast. Don’t Google that next.

Susan Reff: Oh, it’s the same one. Hmm. Who do I like least son in law or father in law?

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Okay.

Susan Reff: What happened? You hit the. I’m feeling lucky, but. It’s just a touch thing. No. All right. If you want to get rid of your father in law or your son in law, just get divorced. Yeah. Then they go away. Right.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: There you go. All right. So this was family law in a nutshell.

Susan Reff: Yeah. Super fun. Yeah.

Tracy Hightower-Henne: Thanks for joining us on today’s episode. And please subscribe to the Lady Lawyer podcast. It’s really easy. Empower Women. Oh, I have a whole bunch of text messages. Subscribe to this podcast on all of the places that you can listen to. Podcast.

Announcer: Be sure to like and subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts if you would like to learn more about us at hrlawomaha.com

Susan Reff: We’ll see you next week.

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