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Divorcing in a Second Language? Advice from a Bilingual Lawyer

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By Erin Levine
 

Divorce can be difficult in any language, but divorce in a non-native language can bring its own set of challenges. Legal jargon is difficult for native English speakers, so you can imagine how much more difficult it might be for someone whose native language is not English to follow along in court (especially at a time when emotions are running high).

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When Monica Espinosa walked into my office a few months ago, I knew she’d be the perfect fit for our team at Hello Divorce. She’s amazing for so many reasons (I’ll get to them in a moment), but one reason I am so excited for her to join our team is because she is a native Spanish speaker. In practicing law for the last 13+ years, I’ve noticed that if English is someone’s second language, no matter their level of success or how fluent they are in English, sometimes it’s just easier and more comfortable to share very personal information (as you do when going through divorce) in your native language.

 

Check out her bio and you’ll see she’s built some solid legal chops over the last decade. But I’m also deeply inspired by the reason she went into law in the first place. Monica is the child and grandchild of Mexican immigrants who had limited education and financial resources. Cultural, educational, language and financial barriers left her feeling powerless to advocate for herself and her family when they experienced or witnessed injustice. These experiences cemented her commitment to social justice, drove her to go to law school, and then to work in criminal defense and later, family law.

 
Make sure to tune into Erin Levine discussing the legal process of divorce on our podcast, “Divorce and Other Things You Can Handle”

 

I sat down with Monica to ask her advice for those entering or in the middle of the divorce process who are not native English speakers. If this describes your situation, I think you’ll walk away from this interview with several actionable tips:

 

Does divorcing in English put a non-native speaker at a disadvantage?

Unfortunately, I think it can. There are nuances that are sometimes lost in translation that can make the difference between winning and losing on an issue. Also, although many court forms have instructions in other languages, responses and any declarations that the court will read must be in English. So, in addition to the challenge that native English speakers face of learning and understanding the court process and legal terminology in English, this creates an added level of difficulty that native English speakers do not encounter.

 

In court, interpreters do their best to interpret, but with the fast pace in the courtroom, sometimes things get skipped over and the person may have no idea what is happening. Judges or parties often speak quickly or over each other, which makes it even more likely that information is not properly communicated either to the party or to the judge. Sometimes, interpreters speak a different dialect or are unfamiliar with regional vocabulary used in other areas—for example, did you know that there are 11 completely different Spanish variations for the English word “drinking straw”?

 

Also, resources in languages other than English may be hard to come by, so simply accessing the self-help center at your local courthouse may be of little help for non-native English speakers.

 
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Language and culture are so intertwined. In your work with Spanish-speaking clients, how have you seen culture influence the divorce process?

Culture often influences the divorce process a great deal. It can affect how much a client is willing to disclose, as certain topics may be taboo or feel too shameful for a client to discuss. Cultural influences may be the reason a client chooses an alternative their attorney advises against. As an attorney, understanding these influences and creating a space of understanding and no judgment can go a long way in truly understanding a client’s specific situation, fears and goals.

 

What strategies would you advise people to employ during divorce, if English is not their first language?

I have three important tips.

  1. Ask the court for an interpreter. This varies by state, but in California, it is your right to have an interpreter in court. The process for this varies by county, and you may need to request this service in advance or pay to bring your own interpreter. But I recommend you take the court up on this service, even if you’re comfortable speaking in English. Legal terminology is different, it’s complicated and this is a time when emotions are running high. Having an interpreter there to translate can alleviate a little bit of that pressure.

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  3. Make sure the interpreter speaks your regional dialect. This varies by state, but in California, it is your right to have an interpreter in court. The process for this varies by county, and you may need to request this service in advance or pay to bring your own interpreter. But I recommend you take the court up on this service, even if you’re comfortable speaking in English. Legal terminology is different, it’s complicated and this is a time when emotions are running high. Having an interpreter there to translate can alleviate a little bit of that pressure.

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  5. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Even if you think you understand your interpreter, if you find that once the hearing begins you’re having a difficult time understanding or keeping up with technical legal terminology, let the judge know immediately. The judge should slow down and take time to break things down into smaller pieces that are easier to digest. If you still don’t understand, say so and ask the judge to break things down further. Resist the urge to just smile and nod to avoid hurt feelings. This can have serious consequences and you may inadvertently agree to something that is not in your best interest. Again: it is your right to have a full understanding of what is happening with your case in court. But the judge isn’t a mind-reader, so you need to speak up if things are moving too fast.

 
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Why is it a good idea for someone to find legal help from someone who speaks their first language? How should a person seek out this kind of help?

Having an attorney who speaks your native language is ideal for many reasons. That attorney will be familiar with resources available in your language and can easily direct you to them. They’ll know the local process for requesting a court interpreter (and whether a free interpreter is provided in your area). It’s also much more efficient to have an attorney you can comfortably speak plainly with, without having to rely on an interpreter. And while it isn’t always the case, an attorney who speaks your native language will likely be more sensitive to cultural norms and can more easily understand and convey these to the court if/when needed to support a client’s position.

 

To find an attorney who speaks your language, contact your local or state bar association. Often, they can provide you with a list of names. Then you can research each attorney on your own, and reach out to schedule an initial consultation (this is usually offered for free) to find out whether you can understand each other linguistically, and whether you feel you can trust and confide in them if you do decide to work with them.

 

If you’re a Spanish-speaker based in California and would like to speak with Monica, you can join Hello Divorce as a Starter Member (it’s free) and request Monica for your free 15-minute consultation. Or book as little as 30 minutes with her through our menu of flat-rate services here.

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About the Author

Erin Levine is a Certified Family Law Specialist and the owner and managing attorney of Levine Family Law Group, based in Oakland, CA. She is the founder and CEO of Hello Divorce, a platform that helps users divorce on their terms, offering curated articles and resources, DIY videos, instructional form templates, flat-fee legal services and mediation. Learn more or register for a free Hello Divorce starter membership at www.HelloDivorce.com. For advice, inspiration and tips to help you navigate your divorce, follow Erin on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.


 

It's easy to get lost in the legal talk of your divorce and even easier if you're doing it in your second language. Monica and Erin offer some great advice.
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