The world’s oldest recovered message in a bottle1 was awash in the sea for more than a century. It was (eventually) safely delivered to the sender’s 62-year-old granddaughter 101 years after her grandfather tossed it into the surf. Most of us do not attempt our own mailing system, since more efficient, timely and reliable means already exist. Similarly, most of us do not write our own property settlement agreements or separation agreements. We leave it to legal experts … but … could you go down your own path, and do it yourself?
The DIY Separation Agreement
The Onion has a satirical piece about U-Haul ending its aircraft division2. Nobody would sign a plane over to an amateur for day rental, of course. We have laws and regulations controlling pilots, airports, and airplanes. We do not have laws preventing you from signing away your worldly possessions through your own separation agreement, so you really can, legally, do all the hauling yourself.
Just as an amateur renting a plane is a silly idea, though, so too is an amateur writing his own separation agreement. The document must hold up to legal scrutiny. It must be worded correctly, and it must protect all parties.
What’s Included in a Separation Agreement?
A quick run-down of some of the interested players in a separation agreement may surprise you:
- Your soon-to-be ex-wife
- Your children
- Your creditors
- Your children’s schools
- Your municipality or other taxing body
You will likely not put anything explicitly discussing creditors, schools or municipality in your separation agreement, but the choices you write into it affect all those entities.
The separation agreement needs to address debts, child custody, visitation, home ownership, and more. Which of the two of you is responsible for paying real estate taxes? Which schools will the children attend? Who pays the credit card bills? The questions stack up quickly.
Bound and Determined to Write Your Own Separation Agreement?
If you are utterly committed to drafting your own separation agreement, please remember these tips:
- Avoid cookie cutters — In Virginia, if the two of you agree on the wording and both sign it without duress, the separation agreement is legal. You do not need to invest in an online, cookie-cutter agreement, and doing so may lead to more trouble than it’s worth.
- Speak plainly — leave the legal jargon and polysyllabic words to attorneys (whom you will no doubt be relying upon eventually); nobody is impressed with “aforementioned,” “heretofore,” and “Vescere bracis meis.”
- Be clear — If you mean your 1989 Coachmen Catalina 21 RV, do not call it “The Mobile Man Cave.” Spell out exactly the property you mean, but do not go overboard, either.
- Be bold — A separation agreement is intended to help you and your wife move ahead with your lives, without leaving children, property or finances out. Be bold, and think about what you want from it, then write it clearly into the agreement.
- Let her be heard — Your nearly ex-wife has to agree to everything, so respect her interests. If the two of you cannot come to an agreement on the separation agreement, she will see you in court. Ca-ching!
- Stay within the lines — Do not be greedy if you write your own separation agreement. You get your separate personal property, and the two of you have to agree on splitting marital shared property. You also have to agree on sharing debts, financial responsibilities, and future bills.
- Leave an Out — Put in a paragraph that says, in so many words, “If something was overlooked or purposely left out of this agreement, it will be dealt with this way …” You may agree on a fifty-fifty split, so your attempt to hide your Cabbage Patch doll collection from her will not lead to fabulous wealth — you will have to later share half your proceeds from selling it off. The same goes for your wife’s secret, vintage comic book collection.
Don’t Sign Away Your Rights
If the two of you really agree on every nook and cranny of your lives as laid out by the separation agreement, all you both need to do is sign it.
But be careful.
You could be signing away valuable rights.
You also could be agreeing to something that is legally unenforceable (not the entire agreement; just a clause or paragraph). How could you know? You are no more equipped to be your own lawyer than you are to rent a U-Haul plane, so why cut corners with this vital document?
Just as you would not perform your own surgery or fill your own dental cavities, you should not do your own legal work. In the hands of a good attorney, you and your wife will both be protected from predictable and unforeseen circumstances related to a separation. You will know your children are protected, and your finances are preserved. You will have a professionally written separation agreement.
Your Safety Net: Hire a Separation Agreement Lawyer
Attorneys for your wife and you are interested in shielding you from unintended consequences, while helping each of you to retain as much property and dignity as you can. Having a professionally prepared separation agreement gives you the safety net you both need to move forward confidently to an uncontested divorce.
About that message in a bottle: the story ends happily; nobody was stranded on a desert isle desperately seeking help. The 20-year-old sender was simply on a nature hike in 1913, and threw a self-addressed postcard in a bottle into the Baltic Sea.
If you go down the path of doing it yourself, we at The Firm For Men will still be here, ready to get you back on course and help correct your navigational errors. Please call our offices at 757-383-9184. We have the legal experience, computers, courier envelopes, and all the right words to help you with your own separation agreement. Alas, no bottles.