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Do I need a lawyer?

Produced by an AmeriCorps Project of Western Massachusetts Legal Services, updated by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed July 2023

You do not need to be a lawyer to file a divorce, separate support, custody, or child support case. You can file your own case. In Massachusetts, you have the right to represent yourself in any legal case, including divorce and separate support.

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Cases like divorce and custody can be very complicated. The stakes are high. Having a lawyer to help you can be very important, especially if your spouse is violent, abusive, or controlling.

If you can get a lawyer, it will be easier than doing the case by yourself. A lawyer can help you decide what kind of case to file, and can help you file it. A lawyer can work with you on an agreement with the other parent. If there is no agreement, a lawyer can help you with the trial. If your spouse has abused you or disagrees with you on how to do the divorce or separation, or if there are complicated questions in your divorce or separation, it is best to get a lawyer to represent you.

How do I find a lawyer?

If you get public benefits or your income is low, call your local legal services office to see if you can get free legal services. The legal services office may be able to help you, or they may refer you to a private lawyer who will handle your case for free ("pro bono").

If legal services cannot represent you for free, you can try to find a private lawyer who will charge you a "sliding scale fee." Sliding scale fees are higher for people with more money and lower for people with less money. Tell the lawyer right at the start if you are worried about paying them.

Often lawyers charge a "retainer." This means that you pay them money up front. As they work, they pay themselves from the money you gave them. When they use up the money, they give you a bill that shows how they used the retainer. Then they ask for another retainer. Try to find a private lawyer who will agree to handle your case without a "retainer" or with a very small retainer.

Private lawyers charge by the hour. It will cost you less if the lawyer does not have to spend a lot of time gathering information. Whenever you can get the information or documents that the lawyer needs, you are saving money. Keep your own file. Be prepared for meetings or telephone conversations with your lawyer. If your lawyer tells you she will need certain information, have it ready for her. All these steps will help to keep the costs down.

In some cases, the court can order your spouse to pay your attorney's fee. Read Requesting an Order for Your Spouse to Help Pay for Your Attorney.

If you do not find a lawyer or you choose to represent yourself, you still might be able to get some help. Some women's centers and legal services programs offer "do it yourself" divorce clinics to guide you in doing your own divorce.

Several courts offer Lawyer for the Day programs. These can provide basic legal advice, help you understand laws and your rights, and help you fill out court forms.

Court Service Centers can help you get legal information, fill out court forms, learn about how the court works, and find other resources. They can help you with 1B and fault divorce cases but they cannot help you with joint petitions for divorce.

There is also a Divorce chapter in the book Family Law Advocacy for Low and Moderate Income Litigants that explains in detail how to get a divorce. Your local library or county law library has a family law section, where you may be able to find some of these books.

Who to call for help

Find Legal Aid

You may be able to get free legal help from your local legal aid program. Or email a question about your own legal problem to a lawyer.

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