What should I do if I’ve received a letter from a lawyer?

Most family law cases begin with a letter from a lawyer. While there are many variations of this letter, they almost always contain the same information.

– They notify the recipient that s/he is separated

– They ask that the recipient retain a lawyer

– They propose to exchange financial statements as a first step towards an amicable resolution

– They give a deadline by which to respond

Often times, if there are urgent matters, they will be addressed in the letter as well.

So what should you do if you get this letter? As with anything in law, there is more than one option to choose from.

Ignore the letter

The first option, ignoring the letter, is one that every person should avoid.

In family law it is especially important to think a few steps ahead. Ignoring the letter forces the opposing party’s lawyer to do one thing – recommend that his or her client proceed to Court. Often times a lawyer may write a follow-up letter to remind the client’s spouse of the importance of responding, but very rarely would a lawyer waste his or her client’s money on writing more than two letters or reminders.

The reality is that if communication is ignored, the party who received the letter can be fairly certain that they will end up in court. Doing nothing is identical to telling the other lawyer “take me to court.”

From our experience, people who ignore the letters usually do so for one of three reasons. But we would ask that they reconsider doing nothing, even if:

Hiring or retaining a lawyer is simply too expensive

Hiring a lawyer is expensive, but if a party is holding off on retaining one because they can’t afford the costs, there are options they should pursue. This includes getting assistance from Legal Aid Ontario, or visiting a Family Law Information Centre to speak with an Advice Lawyer.

And, many people are shocked when they find out how much more it costs to hire a lawyer after court proceedings have started.

They think the problem will just go away by itself

Trust us – the problem won’t go away if it’s ignored. It will just get worse.

They think their ex is bluffing and he/she will not instruct their lawyer to start court proceedings

If a spouse has taken the time and money to retain a lawyer, it means they are serious. There is no reason for them to bluff. They have a goal in mind and this is why they hired a lawyer.

Call the other side to negotiate directly

This is often a good strategy, but it comes with some caveats. It will only work when communication between the parties is good enough for them to engage in a discussion without arguments, no serious power imbalance between the parties exist, and full transparency of financial matters is available.

If the above conditions exist, negotiating directly is a great idea and may save the individual significant legal fees. However, if this were the case, the opposing party likely would not have retained a lawyer to write to their spouse.

Contact the other lawyer and self-represent

While this is not an option we would recommend as the individual likely does not have a strong understanding of family law, or what to request, it may be the best option for them. If someone does choose this route, it’s advised that they:

DO

– be courteous and professional

– focus on practical issues, and minimize emotion

– be clear as to what they are asking for

– consult with a lawyer who charges hourly if they’re in doubt

DO NOT

– ignore the other lawyer’s deadlines. If they can’t meet them, do communicate that

– rely on the other lawyer to tell them how the law works and what it says. The lawyer’s job is to protect the opposing party’s interests

Hire a lawyer

Hiring a lawyer after receiving a letter is an excellent option. First of all, the individual will have the guidance and information they need to begin negotiating a settlement rather than immediately preparing for court. Second, the lawyer will start identifying their objectives and lining up what evidence they’ll need to win their case. If their position is weak, they will hear about it early on and know the reasons why. If their position is strong, they will know what they need to support their case. Simply put, the party would have a practical strategy on what to do and what not to do.

Have you received a letter from your spouse’s lawyer? We would be pleased to meet with you to discuss it, free of charge.

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