Most of us realize that divorce – especially one in which children are involved – is best faced with the assistance of an experienced family lawyer. This is equally true when self-employment, substantial assets or –just as important — substantial debt complicate finances.
Still, while divorce rates reportedly fell in the depths of the Great Recession, marriages held together by nothing more than inadequate cash flow cannot last forever. Proof of this is the skyrocketing percentage of divorces being prosecuted and defended without benefit of counsel.
If you find yourself in a situation where divorce is both inevitable and urgent, and the funds to retain a lawyer are completely out of reach, there are still steps you can take to protect your interests at minimal cost as a pro se litigant. Here are 6 ways to survive divorce without formal legal representation:
1.) Visit your state’s judicial web site. You can usually find it easily by searching your state’s name and the word “judiciary” or “official web site” There you will find a wealth of information on a variety of subjects many of them specifically created for do-it-yourselfers. The judicial web site will also provide you with links and templates to forms that will be needed in your divorce action. Simply browsing these forms may alert you to options you hadn’t considered. If your spouse has access to funds that are out of your control, one such option is to file a motion asking the court for an allowance from your spouse sufficient to secure legal representation once the case is underway. While not in such an immediate way, a temporary order of alimony might also help level the playing field.
2) Ask for fee waivers. Filing fees and fees for process servers can run into hundreds of dollars. If you qualify, you may be granted waivers of these fees by simply filing the appropriate application and supporting financial information.
3) Become a smart observer. Don’t wait until your hearing is scheduled to visit the courthouse. Learn when motion sessions are being held and when contested divorce cases are being heard. These sessions are almost always open to the public. Once you have sat through several contested hearings and a few uncontested divorces, you will know much more about the process and you will also be alert to some of the hurdles you might otherwise not have anticipated.
4) Find out whether your courts have dedicated pro se assistants. If so, these individuals may be able to help you sort through the paperwork to make sure you have all the documents the judge will require in order to go forward with your hearing. Be careful though. Pro se assistants, just like other judicial personnel, are not allowed to offer you legal advice. This means, for example, that while they can tell you whether your written agreement is in proper form, they cannot advise you about whether it is fair or whether you have covered all of the issues.
5) Don’t skip the discovery process. Although non-lawyers cannot sign subpoenas, court clerks generally can do so on your behalf. If you are counting on your estranged spouse to provide you with full information about income, bonuses, overtime, retirement accounts, spending history and more, you are making the most common and, in the long term, costly mistake that pro se litigants make –one that handily outstrips any short-term savings realized by foregoing legal assistance.
6) Consider engaging a lawyer as coach. This can be a win-win situation for both lawyer and client. The lawyer’s risks are minimized when he or she remains in the background and is not attorney of record. This is because once a lawyer becomes attorney of record in a case courts can require the lawyer to continue working on the case even if he or she is not being paid. Even if the lawyer is eventually allowed to withdraw from representation, losses have already accrued that may be uncollectible or, at best, difficult to collect.
From the point of view of the litigant, using a lawyer as coach has a number of benefits. While a lawyer acting in this capacity cannot attend hearings or negotiate with others on your behalf, he or she can help with any and all other aspects of preparing for negotiation or trial. What’s more, since a lawyer acting as coach is not responsible for the ultimate outcome of the case, she has the freedom to assist in limited ways according to your own needs and budget. For example, one client may want legal assistance just for preparing documents and for guidance in gathering financial information about the other party. Another individual may feel comfortable sorting out the numbers but need assistance in preparing for a hearing by organizing exhibits and questions for witnesses, or by planning overall strategy and argument to the court. Still others who have reached a tentative agreement with their spouse might simply want a lawyer to review the financial affidavits and draft agreement and offer an opinion about whether it is fair and complete. Finally, it is not unusual for litigants to seek legal assistance – either coaching or full representation only after they have run afoul of procedural rules and feel that they have reached a roadblock in their case.
Some lawyers charge their normal hourly rate for divorce coaching but others may be willing to charge a substantially lower hourly rate for these so-called unbundled services. Lawyers are quite accustomed to discussing fees; so never feel shy about asking. Our own firm charges less than half our regular hourly rate for divorce coaching services.
While self-representation – at least at the outset of a case – might be unavoidable, it is no cause for surrender. Every new challenge brings with it the possibility for ingenuity and growth.
In a case set to be released on May 21, 2013 the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a lower court’s ruling that lowered the child support of a visiting father from a presumptive amount of $100 under existing guidelines to $75 as a result of the mother’s relocation within the state.
The trial court in Kavanah vs Kavanah found that Leo Kavanah’s costs in traveling back and forth between Southington, Connecticut and Monroe, Connecticut were ‘extraordinary’ within the meaning of Connecticut’s child support guidelines as they address reasons for deviation from presumptive support amounts.
The higher court held that the trial court had not sufficiently explained the basis for its conclusion that Mr. Kavanah, who had been ordered to do the driving for visitation, would be incurring extraordinary expenses — as opposed to normal expenses — as a result of his wife’s relocation.
This, alone, would not necessarily affect future cases assuming that parents seeking deviation for this reason were careful to present evidence of their visitation costs and that judges ordering deviation were careful to make specific findings about why they were reducing support.
However the Appellate Court did not stop at finding fault with the thoroughness of the lower court’s decision. In addition, they cited with approval another Superior Court decision, Weissman vs. Sissell, in which the court had observed that “[m]any non-custodial parents have some transportation costs to see their child—for parents living within driving distance of each other, for example, the non-custodial parent is likely to pay for fuel and other costs picking up or dropping off the child,
but these ordinary expenses usually do not warrant a deviation from the presumptive amount.’’
Appeals are expensive and, in the case of family law, difficult to win, so it is relatively rare to see a support case with so little at issue reach the Appellate Court.
This is not to say that the difference between $100 and $75 was insignificant to the parties in this case or to other divorcing parents. Certainly the Kavanah case has not closed the door on deviations for low-income individuals for whom in-state or other short-distance travel costs are burdensome, but it raises the bar for how the issue must be presented to the courts and makes it imperative that the court be reminded to make appropriate findings to justify why — in a particular case — transportation expenses that might be normal for some people are extraordinary in the context of the individual circumstances of the family before the court.
Talk about being a day late and a dollar short! In Michael Farren’s 2010 divorce, the trial court found that Mr. Farren had destroyed his substantial earning capacity by physically attacking his wife and ordered that 75% of the marital assets be awarded to her.
Unhappy with the outcome, Mr. Farren filed a post judgment motion with the trial court on the 20th day after judgment –just under the wire to preserve his right to appeal the decision. But there was a problem. After initially stamping the motion “FILED”, the clerk noticed that Mr. Farren had forgotten to pay the required filing fee for a post judgment motion and faxed the motion back to him. Mr Farren paid the fee and re-filed the motion the following day but the trial court refused to hear the motion because of the late filing.
After an appeals process that has taken almost three years, the Connecticut Appellate Court in a decision released this morning denied his appeal, agreeing with the trail court that one day late is still late.
That wasn’t the only fatal mistake Mr. Farren made regarding the rules of procedure. The rules required that he file a memorandum of law together with his motion. He hadn’t. Ms. Farren moved to dismiss the motion and won. Mr. Farren argued that because he had corrected the oversight by filing a memorandum after the fact, no harm had been done. The trial court was not persuaded. Again, the Appellate Court agreed with the trial court that rules are rules and strict enforcement of them can never be error.
It is not possible to tell from the decision whether Mr. Farren was representing himself at trial. He appeared pro se in Appellate court but was joined by counsel on the brief. In a way it doesn’t matter whether the deadlines were missed by a pro se individual or by his lawyer. The result was the same.
Mr. Farren may never have been able to alter the division of assets in his divorce case had be been allowed to bring his appeal on the merits, but he didn’t get the chance. This was an appeal restricted to issues of procedure.
The role of the Appellate Court in situations like this is not to substitute its judgment for that of the trial judge, but just to determine whether the trial judge committed clear error or an abuse of his or her considerable discretion. In this case, all the trial judge had done was enforce the rules of court.
Lawyers often speak among themselves about the difference between deadlines and “drop-deadlines.” In this case, at least for Mr. Farren, failing to file his post-judgment motion within the 20 day appeal period was a drop-deadline — a lesson that took three years to hit home. Appeals are long, arduous, and costly and in the case of family law, not often successful.
In this era of increasing pro se litigation, it is important to understand that courts are not necessarily willing to bend the rules depending on the experience or lack thereof of those who appear before them.
In a decision to be released next week, Keller vs. Keller, the Connecticut Appellate Court has overturned a hefty order of alimony and support entered by a Superior Court judge.
The Defendant husband held a law degree from Columbia University and was licensed to practice in two states. After a brief practice, he had gone into finance and most recently had owned a hedge fund that had , at first, done very well but had later turned sour. At the time the order entered, the fund was closed. The evidence showed that Attorney Keller had no income and the family was living on borrowed money and the last of their liquid assets.
In Connecticut and elsewhere, judges may make orders of alimony and support based on a finding that the payor has earning capacity even if he or she is unemployed or underemployed. Tn the Keller case, the judge did just that, finding that Attorney Keller had a gross earning capacity of $25,000 per month. Based on that finding, the court ordered him to pay combined alimony and support of $9,000 per month during the pendency of the case.
The Appellate Court overturned the order, not because the lower court did not have discretion to consider earning capacity but because the court failed make a finding as to Attorney Keller’s net earning capacity. Under Connecticut law, orders of alimony and support must be based on net income whether that income is real or merely imputed.
The lesson for litigants hoping to obtain orders against their unemployed or underemployed spouse is to present evidence specifically on the subject of what they believe their spouse could earn after taxes.
A new article on Forbes.com by Attorney Jeff Landers gives a nice overview of the reasons to gear up early once you sense that divorce may be one outcome of your marital problems.
While Jeff seems to suggest that divorce dirty tricks are the exclusive province of men, in our experience the risks and considerations he outlines in this otherwise informative article apply to both genders.
Landers points out that consulting an attorney early can not only provide you with a crucial checklist for contingency planning, but can also assure that your spouse won’t beat you to the punch by consulting several of the best area lawyers simply to disqualify them from representing you. He also notes that starting the action assures that if the matter goes to trial down the road, you will be the one, as the plaintiff, to present your case first.
Our clients in Connecticut should also know that by filing for divorce certain Automatic Orders take effect the moment the divorce papers are served on their spouse. These orders prevent the other party from doing a number of things including moving out-of-state with children, hiding assets, taking sole ownership of joint assets, changing locks on the marital residence, changing beneficiaries on existing insurance policies and more. The full text and a summary of the Automatic Orders can be found here on the Connecticut Judicial Website.
Bottom line? While you’re hoping for the best and working on your marriage it also makes sense to prepare well for the worst
After more than 20 years of marriage that ended in divorce in 2003, Connecticut resident Peter Larson seems to have been no stranger to the courts. When he returned to court in 2010 to seek a reduction of child support and alimony orders, he had two previous efforts at modification under his belt and probably felt confident that he would win his pro se bid for relief. After all, his income had gone from about $85,000 in 2003 to about $21,000 and he was unemployed.
And, in fact, he did come away with some degree of success without the help of a lawyer. The trial court recalculated his child support dropping it from its original level of $347 per week to $115 per week. In addition the court reduced his alimony order to $1 per year — not a permanent victory on the alimony front, but still an important win.
Unfortunately, Mr.Larson’s former wife, Matilde, did hire a lawyer who filed a counter-motion for contempt seeking past due child support and attorney’s fees. Ultimately, although he received a break in his current orders, Mr. Larson was also ordered to pay almost $100,000 in past-due support and was also ordered to pay almost $27,000 in attorney’s fees.
In a per curiam decision of the Connecticut Appellate Court scheduled for release next week, the Court upheld the trial court’s action.
As he had at the trial court level, Mr. Larson represented himself on appeal. His arguments of error were;
- The trial court hadn’t reduced child support enough
- The trial court should not have found him in contempt of prior orders
- The order of attorneys fees was excessive because the fees were unreasonable
The Court’s response to these claims makes it clear that Mr. Larson would have benefitted from consulting with a lawyer before filing his motion and, later, before filing his appeal. First, the court stressed the enormous discretion accorded to trial courts by appeals courts in family matters. It is never enough on appeal that the appellate judges might have decided the case differently. This means that strategic errors at the trail level can rarely be corrected on appeal.
Second, Mr Larson would have been cautioned that, because he was not fully in compliance with existing orders, he should have expected a counter-offense if he chose to seek a modification. Based on the amount of the arrearage that the court found, it is clear that his former wife had tolerated his non-compliance for a very long time up to the point that he made the first move in 2010. To the extent that Mr. Larson thought his current financial situation would — or even could — protect him from being held in contempt for falling behind, he was mistaken and any experienced lawyer would have made that clear to him.
Third, he would have been advised that law that requires courts to consider the respective finances of the parties when allocating responsibility for attorneys fees in divorce cases, does not apply in enforcement proceedings where there has been a finding of willful contempt. In such cases, attorney’s fees can be shifted to the party who failed to obey a court order as a simple matter of punishment.
While Larson complained that he had not been given a fair chance to challenge the reasonableness of the fees, the appellate court noted that, not only had the trial court afforded him the opportunity to do that, but had actually scheduled a separate hearing for that very purpose. Although Larson attended the hearing he did not, according to the court, present any evidence on the subject. It is not unusual for inexperienced litigants to expect the trial judge to take the lead in a factual inquiry.
In a 201o op-ed piece published in the New York Times entitled “A Nation of Do-It-Yourself Lawyers” John T Broadrick, chief justice of New Hampshire, and Ronald M. George, chief justice of California, stressed the disadvantages faced by litigants who, for financial reasons, feel compelled to go it alone. The authors urged members of the bar to step up to help mitigate the problem by offering so-called unbundled legal services so that litigants who could not afford comprehensive representation could nonetheless receive limited assistance in the form of consultation, coaching, and help with document preparation.
What many do not understand is that limited representation can be a minefield for lawyers since the rules in many states do not adequately protect them. We cannot reasonably expect lawyers who would otherwise be willing to play a supporting role in a lawsuit, to risk taking responsibility for the final outcome of litigation they do not fully control or to be required to provide additional or even comprehensive services without remuneration.
Still, in every community there are lawyers who recognize the problem and who are willing to address it as long as roles are clearly defined and the expectations are clear. When the stakes are high, it makes sense to seek them out.
A recent decision of the Connecticut Appellate Court in the case of Felicia Pierot Brody vs. Cary Brody illustrates what can happen when the focus of a divorce case shifts from the issues in the marriage to the credibility, or lack thereof, of one of the parties to the case. In the Brody case, one thing that happened was that a lot of personal information became public – e.g., the husband’s awkward excuse for stashing condoms in his travel bag. Another consequence: Brody was ordered to pay $2.5 million in lump sum alimony even though his prenuptial agreement was meant to prevent that and even though the court was unable to ascertain his income. The trial took place in 2010. Recently the Appellate Court has ruled against Brody on all six issues he raised in his appeal.
For all most of us know, Mr. Brody might have told the truth from start to finish. However, the judge found him not to be credible which, as the finder of fact in a civil case, she was privileged to do.
Any judge will tell you that the best way to appear to be truthful is simply to tell the truth. Still, any divorce lawyer who’s practiced as long as I have, has encountered more than one client who is shocked to learn that their lawyer expects them to be honest.
What kind of lawyer wouldn’t help you hide your assets, understate your income or cover up your extramarital affairs? The answer: any good one. Yet, despite our best efforts, there are plenty of folks who remain unconvinced that honesty is the best policy even when the truth isn’t pretty.
The fact is, there isn’t much that happens in a marriage that the judge hasn’t heard before. Also, there can be two very different sides to every story even when the story is told by honest people. Your secret spending or infidelity might have led to enormous drama in your household, but in divorce court, might barely cause a ripple. Unless, that is, you deny the deed and the judge isn’t buying it.
Brody was not a divorce between members of the 99% although the basic issues were fairly universal. There was an issue of irresponsible spending — in this case buying one too many Ferrari automobiles , a wine cellar, and an airplane. There was an issue of suspected infidelity with no proof other than a few unused condoms. There was a business purportedly in decline — in this case the Defendant’s hedge fund. There were some “he-said-she-said” claims of verbal abuse. All matters divorce judges deal with day in and day out.
No case in Connecticut goes to trial without first going through at least one formal attempt at settlement usually with the assistance of a judge or court-appointed Special Master. Most cases settle before trial. Of the small percentage that do not, only a handful are appealed and those few find little success in overturning the decision of the trial judge.
In this case, the Defendant raised a number of issues that might have served him well during settlement negotiations. His business really had been embroiled in litigation with the SEC, for example, and the prenuptial agreement arguably offered him protection from a lump sum alimony award that would have to be funded by liquidating personal assets.
At trial, however, the judge found him not to be a credible witness. For one thing, he had admitted testifying falsely under oath in an earlier divorce proceeding that his wife had commenced but later dropped. Back then he had denied removing his wife’s jewelery from a safe, but had later come clean. Added to that was the finding that the Defendant had stonewalled during the discovery phase of the trial pretending that certain documents sought by the Plaintiff didn’t exist. With those two strikes against him, the case was pretty much over. The Plaintiff, whose personal net worth at the time of the marriage had been 29 million, and whose dividend income from her separate property was approximately $100,000 annually was awarded alimony and, tacitly, the designation of honest litigant.