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.
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 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.
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
According to a recent article published in USA Today, a study of over 7000 individuals conducted by researchers at the Ohio State University found that 79% of marital separations end in divorce.
The study found that the average length of separations that resulted in reconciliation was two years, while the average of those ending in divorce was three years. Surprisingly, the chances of reconciliation virtually disappeared among this group beyond the three-year mark. While many couples who lived apart for three or more years eventually divorced, others simply continued the separation indefinitely.
The study found that women with children under 5 years old were more likely to separate from their husbands rather than to divorce immediately.
All of this means that a great number of couples either delay or forego altogether the protection of laws designed to shield them financially in the event their marriage comes apart. These include laws governing the division of marital assets as well as laws regarding spousal and child support.
In a relatively new trend, some couples seriously contemplating trial separation begin the experiment by negotiating a formal post-marital agreement that sets out their respective financial obligations while still legally married and also in the event of an eventual divorce. In this way, they are able to enter into a trial separation — or in some cases even continue living under the same roof — with the security of an agreed-upon set of rules. This provides each of them with a degree of certainty about their financial future that would not otherwise be possible absent divorce litigation. With financial issues resolved, they are better able to understand the choices they face and to focus on other issues in their relationship.
Just like prenuptial agreements, post-marital agreements must meet certain standards in order to be enforceable. These standards are governed by the laws of individual states, but certain features are universal. First, they must be accompanied by full mutual disclosure of financial information. Second, they must be entered into voluntarily and both parties must have had at least the opportunity to have the agreement reviewed by independent counsel. All courts reserve the right to review both prenuptial agreements and post-marital agreements for fairness, but, provided there are no egregious flaws in the contract, courts generally support and enforce them as a matter of public policy.
Impending separation is not the only reason to consider a post-marital agreement. Events such as the birth of a child, a return to school, or the launch of a business can be good reason for couples to consider adding a post-marital agreement to their financial plan.
Yesterday, Forbes.com published an excellent article outlining 21 common red flags of financial hanky-panky leading up to divorce.
While a few of the signs of trouble apply only to high-asset families — e.g., frequent trips to countries with soft banking laws — others signal shady maneuvers that are common at all income levels.
If you notice that your spouse’s behavior has changed when it comes to earning, spending or borrowing money and, at the same time, all is not blissful on the home front, make some notes and do a reality check of your own. Even if you find nothing amiss, the clues you record might come in handy to your divorce lawyer further down the road.
And if your spouse suddenly decides it would be a good idea to re-mortgage the house to pay off cars or business and credit card debt, by all means take the temperature of your marriage before signing on the dotted line. The bigger the hurry, the more reason to slow things down.
As the result of our bad economy, more and more divorcing couples are attempting to act as their own lawyers. While this may save money in the short run, the long run consequences can be both devastating and irreversible, especially when it comes to how the parties divide their property. This is because, under the laws of Connecticut and many other states, once the court has approved an agreement to divide marital property, the agreement can never be modified absent a showing of actual fraud.
One of the biggest mistakes so-called pro se litigants make in handling their cases is failing to take advantage of a process known as “discovery”. Discovery is the mechanism by which lawyers collect evidence to use in lawsuits. In the case of divorce, lawyers routinely file formal requests for documents, not only directed to the adverse party, but also directed to employers, unions, banks, and others who might have financial information relevant in the divorce. Divorce lawyers then use the information they have gathered to prepare for negotiation and trial.
If they did not perform this crucial step in the litigation process, they would be forced to rely upon the notoriously inaccurate information provided by the adverse party on a single document known as a “financial affidavit”.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what the majority of pro se litigants do. This can result in serious miscalculations of the amounts of alimony and child support that should be paid and can also result in the over or under valuation of assets. It can even mean overlooking marital assets entirely.
When balanced against the cost of giving up a fair share of a lifetime pension, for example, the savings realized by going it alone in divorce court can be insignificant.
There is no reason why pro se litigants cannot conduct their own discovery if they first educate themselves about the types of discovery available and the rules for conducting it.
While non-lawyers do not have the right to issue subpoenas on their own, court clerks generally can sign subpoenas on their behalf.
Some requests for discovery do not even require subpoena power, notably when the request is addressed to the adverse party. Just by formally requesting items such as bank and credit card statements, tax returns, and more, pro se parties could potentially do a far better job in representing their own interests. Sadly, though, most are either unaware of the process or unable to maneuver the system in order to collect the information they need. Still others don’t know what to ask for because they are unaware of what assets are divisible in a divorce.
Courts in Connecticut and in most other states are making great strides in providing assistance to pro se litigants through programs that provide do-it-yourselfers with the forms that are required to process a divorce, but rarely does the assistance go beyond that. In fact, court personnel from clerks to judges are generally prohibited from offering legal advice at all. Nevertheless, people who have been provided with a set of necessary documents by a court official are often left with the illusion that they have received the range of legal counsel and assistance that they would have received from a lawyer.
Others feel comfortable trusting their spouse to provide full and adequate financial disclosure and therefore see no need for discovery. Any experienced divorce lawyer will tell you that this is a mistake. This is not necessarily because the other party is dishonest, but because neither spouse may fully understand how to report income and assets. Many honest people also make the mistake of believing they don’t have to disclose occasional income like bonuses or regular overtime simply because those kinds of income are not guaranteed.
If you find yourself forced to act as your own lawyer in a divorce, you should, at a minimum, visit your local law library and spend an afternoon reading the statutes covering divorce, paying special attention to those related to the discovery process.
If you can’t afford to retain a lawyer to provide full representation in your case, you may be able to hire one on an hourly basis for limited purposes such as preparing discovery requests for your signature, or reviewing proposed divorce agreements before a final hearing. When you consider how much it will cost in the long run, to inadvertently forego an extra $50 a week in child support, or $1000 a month in future retirement income, it’s easy to see that working your way through the discovery process is a rewarding task.