THE BLOG

Why It's Important to Read Every Word of Every Divorce Document You Sign

02/06/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

I don't know about you, but if I go to the doctor for something and the doctor writes me a prescription, I go get it filled, read the directions and start taking it. In other words, I don't question it. I don't read and analyze every word on the package insert. I might skim it, but if it's a doctor I really trust, I just do what he or she says. And so far, in my over four decades of life, it's worked for me.

So, when I was going through a divorce, and my attorneys told me to sign things that they prepared, I pretty much did the same thing--skimmed it over, trusted them, signed the documents and was done.

BAD, BAD, BAD way to do things. Here is the best advice I can give you: KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE SIGNING.

One of my best friends is an attorney, and ironically, when it comes to business, if someone gives me a contract to sign, I always send it to her to have a look.

This is what I love about my friend (who is one of the smartest people I know.) She will call me up and say, "Ok, paragraph 3, point number 2A basically says that if you hate working with this guy, and you change your mind and don't want to work together anymore, you cannot get out of the contract. Is that ok with you?" She then goes through every single point of the contract and spells out in ENGLISH what exactly I am signing. Why? Because I don't speak lawyer!!

So, in my divorce, I didn't send the docs to my attorney friend. I trusted my attorneys and signed the documents they prepared without really understanding what I was signing, because I didn't know what half the words meant.

Do you know what the following terms mean?

Petitioner, respondent, dissolution of marriage, discovery, jurisdiction, marital settlement agreement, petition, order, collusion, custodial parent, motion, temporary support, writ of summons

When I was newly separated, reading documents with these terms in them was like reading Chinese. And back then, I wish my attorney would have sat down with me, (like my best friend does) and explain exactly what these were. He just assumed I knew.

Furthermore, you might say, "Well Jackie, why didn't you educate yourself? Why didn't you research the terms and read the docs thoroughly until you understood them?" Know why? Because with everything else I had going on in my life: being there for two small kids, job searching, coping with my emotions, figuring out finances, trying to deal with my ex, and a million other worries, I didn't have time to take a crash course in law 101. AND, for what I was paying my attorney, he should have taken the time to do what my best friend does.

The whole point of this article is, know what you are signing because even the smallest thing--just a few words--could make a big difference later on. That's all I'm saying.

Plus, once you learn lawyer language, reading documents doesn't take as much time. The point is to learn it. Don't be afraid to say to your attorney, "I have no idea what this means. Can you tell me in English exactly what I am signing?"

No one will think you are stupid. Trust me. I have a masters degree and I couldn't figure it out, same as one of my best friends who is a neurologist and doesn't understand what the Dow Jones industrial average is.

We all know our field. Why on earth would we know divorce law unless we had to go through it ourselves?

In closing, I'd like to say that I am not telling you not to trust your attorney. You could have the best lawyer in the world, which I hope you do. What I'm saying is, be empowered by getting educated, so that there are no surprises in your future when your divorce decree needs to be pulled out of the drawer because your ex isn't doing what you think he or she should be doing according to your decree, and then you say "Wait a minute, doesn't it say that he can't do that?" And according to your degree, he can.

There is nothing more empowering than knowledge. Remember that, and take the time to thoroughly understand what the pen in your hand is about to help you sign. Ask your attorney about every possible scenario: lots of "what if" questions. If you do that, the surprises that come with life have so much less of a chance of having a negative impact on you. To put it bluntly, you will have covered your *ss!

Jackie Pilossoph is the author of her blog, Divorced Girl Smiling, and the comedic divorce novels, Divorced Girl Smiling and Free Gift With Purchase. She also writes feature stories, along with the weekly dating and relationships column, "Love Essentially" for Chicago Tribune Media Group local publications. Pilossoph lives in Chicago. Oh, and she's divorced.