DIY Divorce: Tools To File Pro Se
Are you considering filing for divorce on your own, without attorney assistance? It is possible to get a do-it-yourself (DIY) divorce, but there are a few guidelines to consider before you forge ahead.
First of all, know your lingo. Filing for a divorce without an attorney means you are filing pro se, and representing yourself in the divorce case. For couples who are filing for a no-fault divorce, have been married fewer than five years, have no children under the age of 21, do not own property together and earn similar salaries, a DIY divorce may be a good fit. If you do not fall into this rather narrow category, consider the following questions before filing pro se:
Are you and your spouse in agreement about how you will divide your assets and handle jointly owned properties?
Have you and your spouse discussed and agreed upon a custody arrangement for your children that gives your children adequate time with both parents?
Have you and your spouse agreed on spousal support?
Do you and your spouse agree that the terms you’ve agreed to are fair and equitable?
Do you have enough time and patience to figure out your state’s divorce laws and sit down with your spouse to hammer out the necessary paperwork?
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Do you fully understand the tax issues surrounding a divorce and how they might affect your future tax status?
Are you completely confident that your spouse is not hiding assets or earnings?
Have you and your spouse worked through the emotional aspects surrounding the breakdown of your marriage?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you may want to reconsider filing for a pro se divorce. (See our related article, Know Risks Of Filing A Pro Se Divorce.) If you are stuck on one or two minor issues, perhaps you can’t come to an agreement on the custody arrangements because you both want more time with your children, you may want to consult a divorce mediator to help you come to a reasonable agreement. For major issues you suspect your spouse is hiding earnings from you, for instance your best bet is to consult an attorney and drop the DIY dream.
“Before you take on the job of representing yourself in your divorce case consider the legal aspects, not only the emotional aspects of the divorce. If you are not able to keep the two separated, it is best to hire a divorce attorney,” advises Cathy Meyer, a certified divorce coach and marriage educator in her recent article about pro se divorce litigation. “Issues such as dividing marital property, deciding child custody, negotiating alimony and determining child support can have long-lasting, negative consequences if not handled properly.”
If, however, you and your spouse agree that a pro se divorce is your preferred option, the first thing you should do is find out how DIY divorce works in your particular state. The journal Family Law Quarterly publishes a consumer-friendly guide to state divorce laws, which lists each state’s laws regarding grounds for divorce and residency requirements. All states allow for pro se divorce litigation, and most provide divorce booklets to walk you through the process, but understanding all of the legalese and intricacies can be a few clicks beyond maddening.
One solution for DIY divorcers who become overwhelmed by the paperwork is to hire a divorce paralegal to fill out your paperwork and to guide you through the filing process. Although paralegals cannot provide any legal advice, they can for much less money than a divorce attorney help you understand the legal guidelines and fill out the mind-numbing amount of paperwork required for a pro se divorce litigation. As one divorce paralegal firm in Tucson, Arizona, states when describing their services, “We cannot provide legal advice and prepare your documents according to your direction. However, we can provide options and inform you of the divorce process and we will proceed at your direction. We will advise you to seek legal advice if at any time you make it clear that you need some legal advice.” To find out more about paralegals, visit The Association of Legal Assistants, which provides a detailed and updated guide to the legal duties and functions that may be performed by a paralegal.
For many couples seeking a pro se divorce, the issue is purely financial; they simply cannot afford to hire divorce attorneys and feel forced to either stay in an unhappy marriage or represent themselves in court. According to a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, this situation is common during times of economic downturn: When times are tough, people who want to divorce but cannot afford the legal fees will often find temporary solutions until their financial situation improves. The same holds true in other countries, too. In Great Britain, for instance, after the government slashed legal aid to more than 200,000 people last April, the number of couple filing for cheap, DIY, online divorces increased by 26 percent.
In 2009, Missouri Lawyers Weekly looked at the type of couples who were using that state’s then-new pro se divorce forms. What they found was that most of the couples had children and had never contacted a divorce lawyer. Most of the pro se litigants in Missouri were female, with a high school education, married fewer than five years, with children, and making fewer than $11,000 per year. Others, however, made more than enough to hire a divorce lawyer. One judge said he had turned away a DIY couple trying to divide millions of dollars worth of property without legal representation.
Regardless of why you are looking into a pro se divorce, there are pitfalls of doing it yourself. Even the Supreme Court of Missouri’s Committee for Access to Family Courts, which created the DIY divorce forms now utilized by that state, has one message for potential pro se litigants: “You can do this alone, but it is much better to hire a divorce lawyer.”
The best advice for people who still want to file a pro se divorce is this: Educate yourself as much as possible before going down this path alone. Look into your state’s divorce laws, check out a couple of good DIY divorce guides (Maureen Mullally’s Do-it-yourself Separation and Divorce, Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce, Micheline McCormack’s DIY Divorce: Divorce on a Shoestring are all good bets), read every line of instructions before you start filling out your paperwork, and get advice from others who have divorced.