Q#1. Must I have a lawyer to get a divorce?
A. No, at least that is the short answer, just as you do not have to have a doctor to remove your appendix. Both the South Carolina Judicial Department and the South Carolina Bar provide self-help forms. The Judicial Department web site is www.sccourts.org and under the tab “General Public” it has “Self-Help Resources.” The Bar website is www.scbar.org and under “Public Services” it has a tab for “Self-Help Resources. I provided this information but I do not recommend it. Every divorced lawyer I know, even those who practice in family court, hired a lawyer to represent him or her. These lawyers understand what the self-help advocates do not.
Q#2. What are the grounds for divorce?
A. In South Carolina, the grounds for divorce are adultery, physical cruelty, habitual drunkenness, desertion for one year, and continuous separation without cohabitation for one year. The last ground, the only "no fault" ground, probably accounts for ninety percent of all divorces in South Carolina.
Q#3. Can my spouse and I use the same lawyer?
A. No. The Bible teaches that man cannot serve two masters.1 Likewise, a lawyer cannot represent both the husband and wife in the same case. An ethical lawyer should not represent both parties in a divorce. A lawyer is even ill-advised to prepare a separation agreement for both parties. A frequent problem I encounter is that one spouse thought that a lawyer was representing both parties only to find out later that the lawyer only represented the other spouse.
Q#4. How long will it take?
A. Like most questions in family court, this one is not simple and the answer is only a guess. See Chapter 30, The Final Hearing, page 63, for statutory minimum time periods on the different fault grounds. Sometimes the time periods can be reduced if the opposing party waives notice requirement and the right to answer. Delays in family court are common, and rarely caused by the ground or grounds of divorce. Issues with child custody, visitation, child support, alimony, equitable apportionment of property, and attorney’s fees cause the delays. Scheduling is a major problem of delay, but scheduling time varies depending on the state of the court’s docket. Delays can be lengthy. The Supreme Court of South Carolina requires cases to be dismissed 365 days after filing the summons and complaint, unless the parties have requested a final hearing. This cause all cases to be tried within one year of filing, but it does not work that well or easily. A simple divorce on a oneyear separation with no collateral issues is usually quick, six weeks to two or three months.
My best estimate without knowing more is six to nine months where the parties reach an agreement before settlement but probably nine months to one and a half years for contested issues. Once a settlement is reached, most judges are accommodating to the parties in getting the approval hearing scheduled quickly, often within one or two weeks.
Q#5. Will you will properly represent me?
A. You must have some confidence in me or you would not have come to me. I am qualified. If you hire me and I do not properly represent you, then you may (a) cancel my services under our written Retainer Fee Agreement; (b) fail to recommend me to your friends; (c) sue me for malpractice, or (d) report me to the South Carolina Commission on Lawyer Conduct. Despite these threats that may be used against me, the simple answer is that I am a professional, I get much satisfaction from my work, and I try to avoid taking cases on which I do not want to work.
Q#6. How much is your fee?
A. We have two lawyers and two legal assistants in my office. Fees vary depending upon the case. We sometimes use independent contractors or experts. The client is responsible for all court costs and expenses. We charge a non-refundable minimum retainer fee, usually $3,500, but sometimes more, that is applied toward these charges. Accurate estimates of fees are nearly impossible because of many factors over which we have no control. See Chapter 32, Fee Agreement, page 66, and Appendix A, Retainer Fee Agreement, page 72.