When getting divorced without a lawyer makes sense — and when you should hire one.

You probably know of people who suffered the torments of hell going through divorce, and you also probably know people who pulled it off without much fuss. Why are some divorces sensible and others catastrophic?

The answer can depend, to a surprising extent, on just one factor: how much you rely on lawyers and courts to resolve troublesome issues. The less you use the court, the less cost and heartache, and, in many cases, the better quality of the final result. But how do you avoid courts and lawyers?

Make Decisions by Yourselves

In theory, at least, it’s simple: You do best if you and your spouse work out thorny issues together, with help from a neutral third person, such as a mediator, if you need it. You don’t let lawyers haggle over such vital matters as how your children will be raised, what happens to the family home, and how your property will be divided. If you and your spouse can work these issues out yourselves — and many, if not most, couples can — you will save yourselves time, money, and anguish. More important, you will spare your children the ugly spectacle of extended parental fights, helping them come through the divorce as undamaged as possible.

If you are able to resolve the big questions of children, money, and property, you then just need to ask the court, in writing, to grant a divorce. In many states, you don’t even have to appear in court. Many courts now make it relatively easy for people to handle an uncontested divorce without a lawyer.

Keep Lawyers From Fanning the Flames

When you’re emotionally distraught or angry, turning all the details and hassle of a divorce over to a lawyer may seem like a perfect solution. Unfortunately, it can turn out to be a deal with the devil. Most observers — and people who have been through an acrimonious divorce — agree that lawyers frequently make things worse, not better.

This happens because lawyers operate under a prime directive: the zealous pursuit of their client’s interests. One lawyer can’t fully represent both divorcing spouses, because each spouse’s best interests are different. So, when one spouse brings a lawyer into a divorce, the other usually does likewise. There may even be a third lawyer to represent the children if there is a custody dispute. And then it can get ugly. When two or more lawyers are fighting for their clients’ interests, the battle can go on and on, intensifying in passion, until the clients run out of money and limp to the settlement table.

Worse, if there are children, the fight depletes not only your pocketbook but also your children’s sense of security and self-esteem. Once the legal fight is over, trying to establish a normal ongoing parenting relationship between both parents and the children can be very difficult.

How to Keep Lawyers Civil

If you and your spouse do hire lawyers, you can stop your lawyer from engaging in lengthy, expensive arguments with your spouse’s attorney. Explain that you believe a combative approach does not suit your or your children’s needs. Most lawyers would rather have a satisfied client than feed their ego by fighting the other side’s attorney.

How Collaborative Law Works

Some family lawyers are trying a new method called "collaborative law," in which the clients and lawyers agree that they will not go to court but will share information voluntarily and work cooperatively toward a settlement. Collaborative lawyers will take cases only where the other spouse has also hired a collaborative lawyer, and the lawyers sign an agreement that, if the case can’t be settled, the parties have to hire another lawyer to do the litigation. This removes the lawyers’ financial incentive to go to court and encourages everyone to settle earlier.

When to Hire a Lawyer

It makes a lot of sense to hire a lawyer if there is a real problem with abuse — spousal, child, sexual, or substance. In that situation, a lawyer can help you get the arrangement you need to protect yourself and your children.

It can also make sense to hire a lawyer if your spouse is being dishonest or vindictive and you just can’t cope with it. In that case, you may need someone to protect your interests.

It’s also prudent to hire a lawyer if your spouse has an attorney. This is especially true if you have children or are facing complicated financial issues. It could be difficult and emotionally intimidating to go head to head with a seasoned pro.

If you can’t afford a lawyer, consider calling your local legal aid office. If you qualify financially, a lawyer will at a minimum discuss the legal aspects of your case with you and may continue to answer questions on an ongoing basis during your proceedings while you represent yourself. Ask whether the legal aid office has a pro bono program. The office may have a list of private attorneys that are willing to take on cases referred by legal aid, at little or no cost.

If you don’t qualify for legal services or pro bono help, you’ll have to shop around for someone to represent you.

If you fear that your spouse might harm you or your children or abscond with your property, take action immediately. Move to a safe place, and, if necessary, get a temporary restraining order to keep the spouse away. It’s very important that you also get a temporary order for custody of your children, so that you’re not accused of kidnapping.

If you need money, you have the right to use your joint accounts. Take the amount of money you realistically need plus some extra for emergencies (but try not to take more than half of what’s there unless you absolutely have to), and immediately file an action in court for support.

How Divorce Mediation Can Help

Mediators help you and your spouse get over the emotional barriers to negotiation and fashion a sensible divorce agreement that meets the both of your needs. Unlike lawyers, mediators work with both spouses at the same time. They don’t represent the individual spouses’ interests, the way a lawyer does. Instead, mediators facilitate a negotiation between the spouses that in most cases results in an agreement satisfactory to both sides.