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January is “Divorce Month”: Beware the Dangers of DIY

January is “Divorce Month”: Beware the Dangers of DIY

The festivities are over, the bills are coming in and everyone is returning to reality. Couples who for most of the year only have to live with each other after work hours, have suddenly spent a whole lot more 24/7 time in each other’s close company. Little irritations have magnified, habits have got on each other’s nerves, in-laws visiting for the annual family bun fight have heightened tensions…

Whatever the reasons, and whether only one party was at fault or both, January’s worldwide reputation as “divorce month” applies equally here in South Africa. This means that the legal and personal risks associated with divorce are peaking now, in January.

On the legal side of things a particular risk to be aware of is the temptation for couples splitting on an “uncontested” (i.e. by mutual agreement) basis to opt for a “DIY” divorce.

Beware, that’s a siren’s call…

The dangers of a DIY divorce

Divorce is full of both legal and practical pitfalls, and any mistakes a divorcing couple makes now could well live with them, their children, and their extended families for life.

The hard fact is that whilst DIY divorce may seem affordable and workable, specific legal assistance and guidance is worth every cent it costs – and particularly in uncontested matters the cost of proper legal help certainly won’t break the bank. Without such advice, the average couple risks the exact opposite of “affordable” in the form of a great deal more expense (not to mention stress and heartache) than had they consulted an attorney upfront.

To illustrate some of the many relevant issues the couple must take into account –

Formalities

Getting divorced means complying with a list of formalities and requirements, and appearance in either the High Court or the Divorce Court. Getting anything wrong here is a recipe for disaster.

Consent paper

A settlement agreement (often called a “deed of settlement” or “consent paper”), setting out what the couple has agreed to regarding children, maintenance, division of assets etc, should be made an order of court to give it the status of an enforceable judgment. The agreement should cover everything important, clearly and unambiguously – overlooking something vital (easy for the layperson to do) will come back to haunt everyone.

Children

The most vulnerable parties in any familial breakup, children enjoy special protections in our law, and parents need to take into account questions of parental responsibilities and rights including “care and contact” (the new terms for “custody and access”), guardianship, maintenance, formal “parenting plans”, health care and the like.

Maintenance

In addition to child maintenance, one spouse may have a claim on the other for spousal maintenance, either on an interim basis or longer-term.

Financial implications and division of assets

Particularly where valuable assets are involved (a house or other property perhaps, or rights to a pension fund) the divorcing couple should agree on a split, on how property transfers will work, who will pay for what, who will assume financial obligations like home bonds etc. Which “marital regime” the couple was married under becomes important here, as does the question of whether or not there is an ANC (ante-nuptial contract) in place. A whole host of other legal and practical issues are also at stake.

A final thought on controlling costs…

If you have a particular need to control costs, be open with your attorney and ask for advice on whether you can minimise them in any way.

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