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Getting a divorce without a lawyer can be overwhelming. And unlike small claims courts, which are better designed for people to represent themselves, the family court system can be more complicated and slightly more intimidating. But it’s not always necessary to hire a lawyer during the uncoupling process. Here’s when it might make sense to go it alone.
Yes, you can get a divorce without a lawyer. If you forgo legal representation, your case is considered a pro se divorce. But the court expects you to complete all the tasks according to your state’s legal process — just as a lawyer would.
That means you need to fill out all the relevant legal forms, serve the papers to your spouse, file your legal docs with the court and represent yourself in court if it comes down to it.
Here’s a breakdown of what you need to do to file for an uncontested divorce on your own.
Depending on where you live, you might have a mandatory waiting or separation period. Look up your state laws to find out your divorce requirements.
A do-it-yourself divorce is generally best for no-fault, uncontested cases. A no-fault divorce means that you don’t need to prove that one spouse is to blame, and an uncontested case means that you and your partner agree on alimony, custody and how you will divide everything.
Compile and fill out the legal forms you need for your divorce, including the divorce petition and relevant affidavits. If you need help navigating the legalese, you might consider using an online divorce service to generate your divorce documents for you.
Be sure to check whether your state requires a notarized signature before filing your paperwork with the court.
If you and your spouse can’t agree on how to split your assets or key issues like custody and alimony, your divorce is now contested. You’ll need to resolve a contested divorce through mediation or by going to court. Contested cases are more costly than uncontested divorces — especially if you go to trial.
Mull over a few divorce services that can help you fill out your divorce forms.
We asked four lawyers to share their dos and don’ts for representing yourself in divorce court.
What advice would you give to couples preparing to go to court without a lawyer?
First, you need to know what the judge use to decide your case. Does your state or court system have a law or rule that spells out what factors the judge must consider? If so, you need to make sure everything you share with your judge fits into that law or rule. By organizing your thoughts this way, you can make sure you’re addressing evidence that’s both relevant and useful to the judge’s ultimate determination.
Second, make sure you know how to turn in your exhibits and how to get them admitted into evidence. Every jurisdiction is going to have different rules about how to do this. Some courts require them to be emailed in, while some ask for you to drop them off in person. Some courts require a cover page for each exhibit, while others don’t. If you don’t follow the rules for exhibits, your judge may not let you enter them into evidence. Start early to organize your exhibits, disclose them to the opposing party and get them turned in the right way. And when you’re in trial, make sure you know how to get your evidence admitted.
Third, if you have the chance to cross-examine your spouse, plan out what questions you want to ask ahead of time. Organize your questions around topics. For example, ask all of your financial questions together and then move on to questions about the parenting plan or another contested issue. During the trial, you will likely hear additional topics you want to address. Write notes to yourself on your sheet of predetermined cross-examination questions so you remember to ask about those additional topics as well.
How can couples make the most of handling their own divorce?
Most people think they will be able to tell their story in court so the judge can understand their situation. This is not the reality. The reality is the judge asks questions, expects brief answers and has very little time for each case. And this is only worse now with COVID-19.
Here is how you can make the most of handling your own divorce:
1. Don’t go to court if at all possible. You don’t have to go to court and can actually complete your divorce outside of court and then have the court approve it. The judge knows very little about your family, and will only hear the worst of each of you in a hearing. If you make your own decisions through mediation, then you have the control over your own life. Neither of you will be happy with what the judge orders, so you’re far better off to figure it out yourself with the help of a mediator.
2. Organization is the key to success. Clearly outline for yourself what you want to say. Get all your financial documents well organized early. Spreadsheet them with proposed divisions. For parenting time: If you’re concerned that the other parent is not safe, organize all your evidence. Get police reports, and write down events as they occur so you can give exact details.
3. Know what to expect. This will be one of the most stressful experiences of your life, which is why it’s best to settle your divorce outside the courtroom. If you are attending in person, each of you will sit at your own table and be expected to present your case to the judge with the same skill and ability as an attorney. You will have to testify to the judge, and your ex will get to cross-examine you (ask you questions). At the end, after hearing the worst about each of you and your children, the judge will make decisions that you may not like, and there won’t be anything you can do to change it.
4. Wear your Sunday best. If you don’t have a full suit, that’s OK — they don’t expect that. But you should be showered and dressed as if you want to impress this person.
5. Behave as if this person is deciding the rest of your life — because they are. Call the judge, “Your honor.” Wait until someone is done speaking before you speak, and disagree respectfully. Control your emotions and your facial expressions. Making faces and noises under your breath, yelling and stomping out of the courtroom never got anyone what they wanted.
What tips would you give to couples going through a pro se divorce?
Here are four tips on how to represent yourself in court:
1. Consult your local self-help services for procedural help. Many people do research on the law, but they forget to think about procedure. Submitting the wrong forms or filling out forms incorrectly can cost you dearly in time and money. Missing a deadline can have a devastating impact on your case or on the relief you seek. Luckily, many family courts have self-help services, which can include a self-help office, a law library or a self-help website. Plan to spend some time really taking in these services. You might find a very helpful law librarian or clerk, depending on where you are. If your court has a self-help resource, use it to the fullest extent.
2. Consult an attorney, even if on a limited basis. The practice of law has changed substantially over the past few decades. There was a time when attorneys would only take on a client with a significant retainer. Now, some attorneys offer a la carte services, which can include a limited engagement. Instead of spending tons of money hiring an attorney to handle every aspect of your case, you can decide to handle most of it, subject to limited review or advice from an attorney.
3. Know your ask. In court, every request you have must be made officially and usually in writing. So think about what you are asking for, and be sure to ask for it specifically. The judge is not a mind reader, so spend some time really thinking about each issue specifically and what an ideal outcome would look like for you.
4. Know your financials. Make a list of all your specific assets, including bank accounts. Do the same with your debts and liabilities, including mortgages, student loans and personal loans. Know your balances, know your income and know what you don’t know. It’s likely that all of this will need to be disclosed at some point during the divorce process, so it’s a good idea to be on top of it. You don’t want to find yourself later having to explain a contradiction, and financial omissions can have dire consequences in family court.
What advice do you have for someone representing themselves during a divorce?
I’ve represented many people against many spouses who represented themselves. Some self-represented people had terrible results, and some self-represented people had really positive, almost surprising, results.
The difference was the sense of entitlement.
The self-represented people who demanded something from the judge had a bad time.
You are allowed to demand your rights be observed, but you have to know and cite those rights in your demand. The self-represented parties who showed respect to the court and asked the court politely for help always seemed to get the help they were asking for.
The court would often remind everyone of the self-represented person’s rights and how we should all do our best to observe them. Honestly, I was happy to work with a self-represented person for a common goal.
But I never liked working against a self-represented person who wasn’t being polite to the court or myself.
Courthouses are scary places. I tell people a courthouse is a lot like a church: It starts on time, it usually ends a little late and the guy up front is in charge.
So, I tell people, “Dress like you’re going to church and act like you’re in church… or you haven’t got a prayer.”
You can find more tips for how to prepare for divorce on attorney Russell D. Knight’s blog.
Getting a divorce without a lawyer is best for simple divorce cases. You might consider a pro se divorce if you and your spouse agree on all of the following issues:
Instead of a divorce, you might have other legal options, such as an annulment or a legal separation.
An annulment ends the marriage because it wasn’t legal to begin with. It treats the marriage as if it never existed, but you need to meet your state’s grounds and time limit for filing.
A legal separation is a state-recognized marital status that uses a court order to chart each spouse’s rights and responsibilities. Although you and your spouse will live apart and have separate finances and property, a legal separation doesn’t terminate your marriage.
Not every couple needs to arm themselves with attorneys to go their separate ways. You might be able to file for divorce without a lawyer if you have an uncontested, no-fault case.
Learn more about the process with our comprehensive divorce guide.
An online DIY service that charges a flat rate to generate your divorce paperwork — but watch out for the automatic membership fee.
From gathering your financial documents to finding a good therapist, we asked the experts for their No. 1 tip for divorcing spouses.
Ways to protect your assets and what you need to know about marital debt.
How to navigate this delicate process when little humans are involved.
Save money by handling everything yourself, but only if it’s uncontested.
Avoid the courtroom by hiring lawyers specifically trained to manage conflict negotiations.
Depending on whether you go the DIY route or hire lawyers, it may cost you a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
It could take as little as a month or over a year, but there are ways to fast-track a few steps.
A cheaper alternative to going to court that helps couples resolve issues together.
A state-recognized marital status similar to divorce — but you can’t remarry.
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