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.
In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld a ruling by the trial court that the court did not have authority to allow one member of an unmarried couple to buy out the other in order to separate their interests in a jointly held home — a solution routinely applied in divorce cases.
Dean Fusco and Robbin Austin had been in an almost 40 year relationship and for many years had shared a home that they had purchased together. When they broke up, Dean moved out of the home they had owned together for about 23 years and Robbin remained in the house but ultimately, like many estranged couples, they were unable to see eye-to-eye on a fair way of dividing their possessions including the equity in their house.
Since they were not married, Dean and Robbin could not take advantage of the relatively short process of divorce which typically takes between 5 and 12 months to accomplish except in the most hotly contested cases. Instead, they were relegated to the ordinary civil docket which often moves even more slowly. In order to receive his share of equity in the house, Dean had to file an action for partition — a procedure designed to separate joint ownership in real estate.
Not only is the procedure more cumbersome and, in most cases, more drawn out than divorce litigation, the remedies available are also limited.
Because Robbin was living in the home and wanted to remain there, she asked the court simply to determine what the house was worth and to award Dean his share based on the evidence of what he had contributed over the years both financially and in labor and management. That was, after all, what any divorce court could do and probably would if the parties were already separated.
The court said no. Historically, partition in Connecticut can have only two results. One is called ‘partition in kind’ . That means the property is literally divided up and each party walks away owning his or her part of the whole. That may work fine with open land or a farm, but can hardly work in a single family home.
The other option is ‘partition by sale’. This is used when the nature of the property doesn’t lend itself to a line drawn in the sand. So, because this was a single family home, that is what the court ordered.
Robin, who didn’t want her house sold, appealed the trial court’s decision.
There is a statute she pointed to that does allow the court to order one party the option of buying out the other even when they are not married and must go the partition route.
The statute did not apply here. The problem, according to the Appellate Court who denied the appeal, was that this third option only applies in a small class of cases in which the party to be bought out has an interest deemed to be “minimal”.
Even though Dean had contributed less than Robbin financially, he had worked on the house over the years and the trial court had not considered his interest to be minimal.
The lesson of this case is not that anyone considering buying a house with a significant other outside of marriage or civil union should marry. The lesson is that partners in real estate purchases, whether or not they are in love, need to have a clear written agreement about how their interests will be determined in the event that their partnership some day ends.
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
In a decision released this week, the Connecticut Appellate court once more addressed the issue of whether and to what extent a divorcing couple can agree to make child support and alimony non-modifiable. It has long been clear that absent clear and unambiguous written language to the contrary, both alimony and child support may be changed by the court as the circumstances of the parties change. This language is normally found in the terms of a written separation agreement, i.e., a contract, between the parties which is adopted by the court at the time of the dissolution and made a court order.
Historically, it has been easier to put a lock on an alimony award than on a child support award for reasons of public policy. The courts have always ruled that only under certain very limited circumstances may the parties to a divorce limit the rights of their children to receive support from their parents.
This week’s decision in Malpeso vs Malpeso involved a situation where the husband was to pay $20,000 per month to the wife as” alimony, or separate support for the minor children” . The ambiguity of that language alone, stated in the disjunctive, made the agreement unusual. The agreement went on to provide that this sum, which it now referred to as simply “alimony” would not be modifiable for 8 years. An exception the parties had agreed on as part of the contract was a calamitous circumstance affecting the economy of New York and similar to the events of September 11, 2001. Clearly such an event had not occurred. Still, the husband argued that his circumstances had changed.
In response to her former husband’s motion to modify the order before the 8 years had expired, the wife objected citing the language of the agreement and the trial court agreed. The appellate court reversed saying the agreement was ambiguous as to whether by “alimony” the parties meant to refer to the order that the agreement had earlier characterized to include child support. Based on that ambiguity, the court held that the longstanding presumption favoring the modifiability of child support prevailed.
In an earlier post, we discussed another recent case in which the parties had agreed, at the time of the divorce, on an ending date for alimony. In that case, the court held that selecting a termination date alone did not make alimony non-modifiable as to term. Both of these cases underscore the need for careful drafting of agreements regarding both alimony and child support. In the event of any ambiguity at all, the courts do not look to the original intent of the parties, but instead to the policies that favor modification.