Court order may help you pay for lawyer in pennyless divorce

Posted July 05, 2009, at 11 p.m.

Q. My husband has announced he wants a divorce and has moved out. We have been married for more than 15 years, and I have been a stay-at-home mom. Though we have a house and cars and money in the bank, nothing is in my name. I have no money to hire a lawyer, but the group that provides free legal services says our household income is too high! I feel so stupid and frightened. What can I do?

A. While it sometimes happens the other way around, with a wage-earning wife leaving an asset-less husband in the lurch, your situation is sadly common. All too often, women do not protect themselves financially. They not only trust their husbands to be providers, but allow them to be the gatekeepers and literal key-holders for homes, cars and bank accounts. Then when these men leave, their wives suddenly find themselves with no money — not just for an attorney, as you describe, but for food, gas, car payments, mortgages and all the expenses that go with daily normal life.

Feeling abandoned, helpless and frightened about the future is totally understandable. You have suddenly discovered how extremely vulnerable you are. And you will remain vulnerable in the legal process without legal help.

What can you do? Talk to an attorney! You think you don’t have any money because your husband has not given you access to the assets in his name — but he may not have the last word in this situation.

In a divorce action, the court has the power to order one party — in this case, your husband — to pay the legal fees of another party (you) even before the final divorce ruling whether he wants to or not and whether your name is on any of the assets accumulated during your marriage. In order for this to happen, you need an attor-ney to file a motion with the court to request that your husband provide an attorney with a retainer to prosecute or defend against the divorce. The attorney can also seek payment of any additional fees from the opposing party (your husband) at final hearing or by agreement in mediation.

Equally important, in addition to the issue of attorney’s fees, the court can also set interim rules making sure that your spouse continues to pay the mortgage and all the bills he had been paying or make some arrangements that keep your household going until the final divorce decree is made.

Since the specifics of your situation are not known, it would be unfair to say in this answer that a court order for your spouse to pay your legal fees is a sure thing. But it is a real possibility, and most family law attorneys will be able to give you a good idea of whether it is likely in your case after talking with you. Many attorneys routinely take on “penniless” clients in situations such as yours when the facts of the marital finances make such a court order feasible and likely. And with such an unfriendly start, you are going to need legal help to make sure your rights are protected and you get a fair settlement. So speak with an attorney — soon.

This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. Just go online to AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine, 04402-1329 will be forwarded to the LRIS.

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