Top 10 Things to Consider Before Representing Yourself in Divorce Court
Can you afford NOT to hire an attorney?
10. Consider Your FutureThe outcome of a divorce is a court order that does more than just end a marriage.
The judgment and decree of divorce will also determine who owns your house, who owns your bank account, who gets your retirement when you turn 65, who gets your car, your personal property, and most importantly, who has custody of your kids, and how often you get to see them.
Some of the court’s decisions will be permanent. Some things can be changed, but only with time and certain circumstances.
It’s important to think of all the ways your divorce will impact your life, your children’s lives, and your finances, and be sure you understand how to approach each of these issues at every stage of your case.
9. Decide What You WantWhat’s your goal other than not being married to this person anymore?
Would you like to be free to move across country?
Would you like to have all your income for yourself?
Would you like to keep living in your house and driving your car?
Would you like to collect alimony for the rest of your life?
Would you like to remarry and have your new spouse adopt your kids?
When you walk out of the courthouse on the day your divorce is finalized, what do you want life to look like?
8. Get RealNow, find out how many of your ideal goals you can have – realistically, and at the same time.
For example, custody and parenting time will be affected by how far apart parents live from each other.
If a person can’t refinance his mortgage or make mortgage payments by himself, he’s not very likely to get to keep the house.
Alimony is not only determined by the income of both spouses – the court also considers how long the couple was married and the health, age, and education of the person seeking maintenance and whether he or she is capable of self-support.
Money earned during the marriage belongs to both spouses. So that retirement account you have been building for twenty years… might be half his.
Do you have realistic expectations?
7. Get Some Advice. From An Attorney.The best and quickest way to find out the answers to your questions is to get some free advice.
But not from your neighbor or family or co-workers – unless they are licensed family attorneys, they can only advise you from their own experience.
Every divorce is different. The fact that your sister is getting $1,000 a month in child support for her one child does not guarantee you will get $3,000 a month for your three kids.
Law schools and local legal aid organizations sponsor free clinics where you can get help with forms and answers to basic legal questions.
And most attorneys will give a free consultation over the phone for 15 minutes or charge a nominal fee for a whole hour in their office. It may be well worth your time and money to get your questions answered by a professional.
6. Learn the LanguageIf you decide to go ahead with representing yourself, take some time to learn the language of the law.
“Service,” “Petition,” “Answer,” “File,” all have specific meanings in the legal world that are very different from regular usage. Understanding key words can have a big impact on whether your case makes it through the court system.
The internet is a great resource, as are legal clinics. Don’t get your case dismissed because of a misunderstanding of a basic term of art.
5. Picture the Worst That Could HappenThe law is not entirely objective. While we like to think the statutes are clear and decisions should be black and white, at the end of the day, if you don’t settle your divorce, another human being who does not know you or your kids will make the decisions for you.
That human being, the judge, is endowed with the power to use her discretion to apply the law to your facts as she finds them and make a decision she believes is fair and equitable.
If the law allows for it, you could lose, and lose big, in a contested divorce. Prepare your mind for that.
4. Gather All Your DocumentationA no-fault divorce is not about character. He might be the cheatingest lowlife this side of the Mississippi, but the court does not consider that when divvying up your assets.
Gather together your pay stubs for the past few months, your last few years of tax returns, your bank and credit card statements for the last few years, any receipts or other documents showing anything you owned before you got married. Any documents showing anything you inherited or can trace back to a gift given just to you.
This is another opportunity to consider the strength of your claim to the house, the car, the bank account. Do you have the paperwork to show the court why it should be awarded to you?
3. Secure FundingEven if you choose to represent yourself, law suits incur expenses.
Typically, you will need to pay someone to serve the summons and petition on your spouse.
Unless you qualify for a fee waiver, there is a filing fee of a few hundred dollars.
The court wants couples to try to settle so you will need to pay for a mediator or neutral at least once. You may go through several rounds of mediation. Mediators charge similar hourly rates to attorneys.
Each time you bring a motion (including modifications after the divorce is finalized), there is a fee. If you end up in trial, you might need to make thousands of pages of copies. You will be taking days off work for court appearances and mediation.
Plan how you’re going to pay for it in advance – judges don’t like parties who ignore their orders, even if it’s because they can’t afford another fee.
2. Settle As Many Issues As PossibleYou might think of settlement as a payoff – hush money paid when someone is accused of terrible negligence or behavior they don’t want on the public record.
In divorce court, settlement means coming to an agreement. It probably seems counter-intuitive to try to come to an agreement with someone you have disagreed with for years, but generally, coming to an agreement about how you’re getting divorced is far better than letting a judge decide.
Try to work out privately who gets the kids for which holiday and spring break which year. Be realistic about your finances and who should get to keep what. If you drive one car and your spouse drives the other, maybe let it go that you bought that car. Just decide that each of you keeps one car and call it a day.
All the agreements people make before going to court will be honored by the court unless they are patently unfair or made under coercion. Judges would rather sign an order they know you agree on than decide for you.
1. Remember, It's NOT TelevisionDivorce is a civil matter. It’s not criminal court. With any luck, you will never see the inside of a courthouse. But if you do, there are rules of procedure and decorum that the judge, attorneys, and the parties (the people getting divorced) need to follow.
There will be no pounding on the desk shouting, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Court is not the place to get things off your chest. If you need to feel heard or get revenge on your newly exed ex, find another outlet.
The best days in divorce court are extremely dull.