5 tips for representing yourself in divorce court
When planning a divorce, you will need to consider your options for representation in divorce court. Some couples choose to self-represent, legally referred to as “pro se,” instead of hiring a divorce attorney. The following tips offer guidance for the potential pro se petitioner, as well as red flags that could mean it's time to seek help from a lawyer.
As explained by family lawyer Keith M. Horner, “you do not ‘need’ an attorney, but it is advisable that you consult with an attorney even if you decide to proceed on your own in a divorce or custody matter”.
Tip #1: The longer the marriage, the more likely you need a lawyer.
The amount of spousal support, or alimony, to which a spouse is entitled may increase significantly after a couple has been married for 7 or 10 years, depending on the divorce laws in your jurisdiction. Accordingly, if the marriage lasted around a decade or more at the time of dissolution, it's in your best interest to seek legal aid.
Tip #2: Consider your investments.
If you and your spouse have acquired profitable assets, even if those accounts were opened prior to the marriage, it may be best to consult with a divorce attorney to ensure your rights are properly preserved. The same is true for vested pensions or any premarital property that has significantly increased in value over the course of the marriage.
Tip #3: Uncontested usually means uncomplicated (but not always).
The biggest advantage to an uncontested divorce is that it allows both parties to finish the divorce process at a quicker, less expensive rate. If you and your spouse have mutually agreed to go your separate ways, do not have many assets to divide, or have otherwise agreed on how everything will work post-dissolution, self-representation is likely a good, cost-effective option. However, midway through the process, you may end up disagreeing on the division of assets and responsibilities. At this point, your case may require the intervention of both an experienced attorney and a family court judge.
Tip #4: Remember, the judge handles these matters all day.
Self-representation can be nerve-wracking, making an already stressful situation even more challenging. However, if your divorce would benefit from the efficiency of the DIY model, don’t let the thought of the courtroom sway your decision. In many no-fault divorce cases where everything is agreed upon via settlement agreement, there may not be a hearing or court appearance required at all.
If a conflict arises, be prepared with sufficient, well-documented evidence of your position (with copies for all parties involved), as well as prepared statement on your position for the court to consider. If the issue involves witnesses, make sure they are also prepared ahead of time and served with subpoenas. If the contested issue becomes too overwhelming to handle on your own, a family law attorney may be able to step in at the last minute and offer thorough representation.
Tip #5: The same rules still apply.
While the court may grant extra leniency if a particular form is missing from your file, DIY divorcees are still bound by the same rules of evidence, candor, and civil procedure as any attorney, and could face significant penalties for lying, hiding information, or otherwise engaging in misconduct. Likewise, as a self-represented party, you may be required to speak to the judge directly, which should be done as succinctly and politely as possible.