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Can I do my divorce (or bankruptcy) case myself?

Posted by attorney Glen Ashman

Thinking of filing a court case without a lawyer?

Be aware that court clerks and judges can't give you legal advice. For example, they cannot:

  • Explain the meaning of a particular statutory provision or rule
  • Give an interpretation of case law
  • Explain the result of taking or not taking action in a case
  • Help you complete forms, or advise you regarding what is legally required when a form elicits information from you
  • Tell you whether jurisdiction is proper in a case
  • Tell you whether a complaint properly presents a claim
  • Provide advice on the best procedure to accomplish a particular goal
  • Apply a rule or statute
  • Explain who should receive proper notice or service
  • Tell you what you left out or presented improperly

The judge in a case cannot give you legal advice or assist you in the case. The judge’s job is to supervise and administer the entire case and to resolve disputes between the parties, and the judge must remain impartial (not lean in favor of one side). You cannot engage in so-called ex parte communications with the judge (meaning only you communicating with the judge). You are on your own.

Many forms that you find online or get from courts and stores will be inadequate or incomplete, or less than optimal. When you prepare legal documents improperly, you may end up with no result or an unsatisfactory one, or you may spend more on legal fees to fix a mistake than you would have spent on the matter to begin with (if the matter even can be fixed). You will save money by hiring a lawyer.

Having someone that accurately assesses your legal issue can prove invaluable. The legal system can be complex, difficult to navigate and hard to interpret. Most legal dealings and paperwork leave no margin for error. Attorneys are well-educated experts in their field of study and are prepared to support you with most issues you may encounter. Also be aware that it is a crime for a person other than a lawyer to give you legal advice of any kind. So not only may that paralegal or form preparer's advice be wrong, but it also may break the law.

Situations where you should retain a lawyer include divorce, debt problems, in any lawsuit, buying / selling / transferring real estate, creating a will, when a family member dies, adopting a child, signing a contract, or when injured by the fault of someone else.

Two of the most dangerous cases to do pro se are divorce and bankruptcy.

In both, the amount you spend on a lawyer often will be less than the costs of your pro se mistakes.

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