People & Places

Legal Matters: 'Limited scope' consultation can help in divorce, custody cases

Getting a little help from an attorney

Matthew Brandes

Simmons, Perrine, Moyer and Bergman
Matthew Brandes Simmons, Perrine, Moyer and Bergman

In the United States today, many people find themselves in court with a divorce, custody, domestic abuse, juvenile or adoption case.

In Iowa, 37,285 domestic cases were filed in 2018, and a similar number were disposed of.

Unless you are in juvenile court, however, you have no right to receive help from a lawyer at state expense, with few exceptions.

Since divorce, custody, domestic violence and adoption cases are handled in district court, more and more citizens are coming to court without a lawyer because they can’t afford legal representation.

Recent data suggest one of the parties may be in court without a lawyer 60 to 80 percent of the time in a divorce, custody or domestic abuse case.

Giving up rights

If you are a person facing a divorce or custody case, you need to know there are risks in deciding to go it alone.

The biggest risk of representing yourself is giving up rights because you don’t know the law.

This is a problem you can avoid by consulting a lawyer up front.

An attorney — in a single, one-hour appointment — can help you understand your rights, the law and give you advice on how to move your case ahead.

The typical cost of an attorney in Iowa is between $150 to $350 per hour.

Spending an hour or two with a family law attorney early is a good investment because you may unknowingly do things that are harmful to your legal position. Also, it may become very difficult to step back from an uninformed agreement at a later time.

If you communicate well with your ex, an attorney may be able to coach you through the entire process of negotiating and preparing documents to finalize your case without appearing for you in court.


The Iowa Judicial Branch now provides forms on its website — — for people to represent themselves in unmarried custody and divorce cases.

A family law lawyer providing “limited scope representation” can help you behind the scenes. The attorney can help you complete the forms, answer your questions about their use, provide support calculations, and coach you on negotiating their completion without taking control of your case.

A limited scope attorney can provide help without a retainer if you will pay for service as you need it.

Even if you do not communicate well with your ex or have disagreements that will have to be decided in court, self-representation with limited scope service from an attorney still is an option.

A limited scope attorney can still help you behind the scenes, or you can hire the attorney to appear for you in court through a single service engagement.

There are risks with either route, but the biggest risk is that you will lose. In many cases, however, this is a risk whether you hire a lawyer or not.

A future articles will help you decide if self-representation with limited scope service from an attorney is an option you might consider in your divorce or custody case.

Matt Brandes is a family law attorney with Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman in Cedar Rapids. Legal Matters appears once a month in The Gazette.

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