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.
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.