What is a Pro Se Divorce?
A pro se divorce is when a person represents him or herself in court and waives their right to an attorney. Some people use this strategy because they cannot avoid a divorce lawyer. However, the divorcee might have a difficult time doing all of the legal work alone.
What is a Pro Se Divorce?
A Pro Se divorce is a divorce where a spouse chooses to represent his/herself in court rather than hiring an attorney. The whole process of getting a divorce is the same but you are personally responsible for completing and filing legal forms yourself.
When to go Pro Se
Most commonly, people choose to go Pro Se because hiring an attorney is too expensive. In some cases a person will hire an attorney and then fire them because they feel that they can do a better job themselves. Whatever the reason, before you decide to forego a divorce attorney consider all the factors of your divorce.
If the divorce is uncontested and without fault it may be realistic to consider a representing yourself. The best scenario for Pro Se lawyering is one that involves an uncontested divorce of a short-term marriage with no children and easily distributed assets and debts. Uncontested means that the people involved agree on the terms of the divorce. The parties have to agree on terms including:
- property/debt distribution
- spousal and child support and
- custody and visitation
- and other issues related to marriage
If you get along with your spouse well enough to agree on the terms of your divorce on your own, you can a lot save stress, time, and money.
Before you take steps toward representing yourself you should consider the advantages and disadvantages. Let’s start with the advantages.
The biggest and most obvious advantage is the cost. If you and your spouse can agree on the terms of your divorce you can save a lot money on attorney fees.
Divorce lawyers typically charge in the neighborhood of $250/hour. When everything's said and done an average divorce can cost over $15,000. The price can vary depending on the degree to which an attorney is involved.
- If you hire an attorney for full representation, they will handle every part of your case.
- For limited scope or partial representation an attorney will only deal with a few agreed upon issues.
- If you hire someone for consultation only, they would be available to review/prepare documents and provide advice when need but they wouldn’t represent you in court.
People who represent themselves tend to avoid legal strategies that purposely drag out the process. Generally there is no legal strategy when you self-represent. The process is quicker and less complicated.
If the parties involved behave rationally and calmly it is an advantage to be able to communicate directly between one another rather than through their attorneys. Direct communication is always ideal.
Although saving money is a huge advantage consider the disadvantages to a Pro Se divorce.
Family law and court procedure are complicated things. If you commit to representing yourself you must be sure that you are able to know the law and know the process. You may bend up biting off more than you can chew when dealing with issues like child custody, division and distribution of pension benefits and so on.
Another disadvantage is, if you chose not to hire a lawyer you’re on your own. Expect zero help from the court and especially not from the opposing lawyer. If you are unable to organize and develop a plan for litigation nobody will do it for you. You must be prepared.
Finally, if you’re prone to acting on impulse Pro Se may not be for you. When you represent yourself there is nobody to stand between you from any bad impulse that you might have. You may act out of emotion whereas an experienced attorney will keep a level head and stick to the plan.
Common Mistakes People Make
A painful divorce can bring out the worst in people so it’s a bad idea to represent yourself in court if you are prone to act out of vengeance or impulse. Do not represent yourself in divorce court if you want to use the court to punish your former spouse. Divorce is not a way to get moral vindication. If you can not keep the legal factors of a divorce separate from the emotional factors you need to hire an attorney.
The grounds for your divorce should include legal information and not necessarily emotional information. The court is only interested in the legal aspects. Do not include any inappropriate or inflammatory language or details in your petition. You are acting as your own lawyer so you should behave the way a lawyer does.
For example if your spouse drinks too much and cheats you would not want to petition saying
“I want a divorce because my husband is a drunk cheater.” You want to include the facts and leave out the emotions and say,
“Petitioner requests a divorce on the grounds that the Respondent abuses alcohol and has committed multiple acts of adultery.”
Tips for to successfully represent yourself
If you plan on representing yourself during your divorce the most important thing you can do is know the process. Familiarize yourself with your state family court laws and the rules of your local county court.
You can be more confident if you’re able to see the road ahead of you. Learn the step that you need to take and develop a roadmap & timeline. There are deadlines that have to be met and procedures that have to be followed. It’s less panic inducing to know them ahead of time.
You can find information at your local courthouse law library or your state law library (search for your state law library website). You can also search for free legal advice clinics in your town. The amount of time you get with a lawyer will be more limited if you go this route.
Things To Consider
Experienced attorneys prefer not to go to court against someone who is self representing. If one person decides to go Pro Se it may disrupt the normal courtroom dynamic in which the court is passive and impartial. Rather, the court may want to protect the Pro Se litigant in order to keep things fair. For this reason many lawyers will formally (by registered mail) admonish a Pro Se litigant to retain legal counsel. No attorney wants to come to an agreement only to have a court object because it is seen as unconscionable (grossly unfair or one-sided).
Even if you appear in court Pro Se it is smart to hire an experienced divorce lawyer at points along the way to advise on the more complicated steps, such as:
- before you file any papers in court,
- whenever you are served with court papers,
- and before you sign any agreement.
If you have to return to court later for unfinished business or improper filings it negates the purpose of representing yourself. Uncontested divorces make it is easy for a person to appear Pro Se, but it is still a good idea to review any paperwork work with a divorce lawyer.
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"Earlier this year I started the process for filing a divorce. I started the process by myself filing pro-se, but when it came to negotiating child custody and support things were getting out of hand and I got concerned about making a mistake. I called Sterling Law Offices and Attorney Dan Exner helped sorting through what we had already done. Dan was great and his guidance helped us work through some issues I do not think we would have resolved. I thought it would be charged an arm and a leg for legal services, but Dan was understanding and helped me address the paperwork and process effectively. When we appeared in court for the final hearing I felt confident I knew what I was doing and did not feel nearly as scared as before. He did a great job coaching me so I was prepared. It was as good as an experience as you can have when splitting up a family."Sally J.
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