The do-it-yourself (DIY) movement is thriving. What’s not to love about it? The thought of being more self-sufficient, of using the natural resources available to you and not having to ever, ever shop at IKEA on a Saturday again? The allure is strong. It’s what makes otherwise non-crafty people check out books from the library on caning their own chairs and jamming the crop of strawberries they haven’t gotten around to actually planting yet.
Even DIY divorces are in vogue. In the United Kingdom, the number of people who are filing for divorce on a computer or tablet increased by more than 25 percent this year. But there are drawbacks to DIY (chair caning accidents are more common than you might think). And when you’re filing paperwork that will dictate your living, parenting, and financial situation for the next few decades, you need to consider the risks of filing for a pro se divorce one in which you forego legal assistance and represent yourself throughout the litigation process.
“The best advice I can give about do-it-yourself divorce is don’t do it yourself. Divorce is very complicated, both legally and financially. You can easily make mistakes, and often these mistakes are irreversible,” advises Jeff Landers, president of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, a divorce financial strategy firm, in his column for Forbes magazine. “The only scenario I can envision when a do-it-yourself divorce may make any possible sense, might be in a case where the marriage lasted only two or three years and there are no children, little or no assets/debts to be divided, comparable incomes and no alimony.” Even then, Landers recommends that each spouse hire their own attorney to review the documents before filing for a pro se divorce.
What are some of the most common risks of filing for a pro se divorce?
1. You may inadvertently lock yourself into an unfair agreement.
Even if you and your spouse are on amicable terms with one another, and you both agree on issues involving custody, splitting of joint property and spousal support, you may have overlooked critical tax issues, or state laws that would entitle you to a greater share of your spouse’s retirement. A seasoned divorce attorney can draw your attention to things that you and your spouse may have never even considered.
“My ex and I spent hours, days, going over the paperwork from the state, trying to figure out how to file for a divorce without lawyers. We agreed on pretty much everything related to our daughter’s custody, and how to split our assets, but when it came to dividing the property, it got more and more complicated,” says Chris Wade, of Portland, Oregon, who is in the process of divorcing his wife of 15 years. “Eventually, we realized that we needed to consult lawyers. It will be more expensive up front, but I think we’ll come up with something that is fair for both of us in the end.”
Marilyn Stowe, author of the book, Divorce & Splitting Up: Advice From a Top Divorce Lawyer, agrees. “DIY divorce is cheap on paper, but it can prove expensive in the long run if you settle for less than you are worth.”
2. Your case may be rejected or slow down the court proceedings.
Unless you’re an old pro at divorcing and most of us are not filing for a divorce involves a massive amount of paperwork, a speed course in legalese, and at least a basic knowledge of how the court system operates.
Many people who choose to represent themselves in a divorce case think they’ll be able figure out the process as they go. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in most pro se divorces. In fact, a 2009 American Bar Association Coalition for Justice survey found that the vast majority of judges surveyed said pro se litigants are a burden on the courts, using more staff time and slowing down court procedures. This survey also showed that 56 percent of the judges surveyed said the “court is negatively impacted by the lack of fair presentation of relevant facts” in pro se cases.
3. You may settle at the wrong time.
In her list of Ten Classic Divorce Mistakes, author Marilyn Stowe names “settling finances before you are ready” as the eighth mistake. When it comes to settling financial issues in a divorce case, Stowe argues that timing is critical.
“Settle too early, before all the assets have been fully investigated, and you may settle for too little,” Stowe writes in her book, Divorce & Splitting Up: Advice from a Top Divorce Lawyer. “Settle too late and circumstances may have altered irrevocably. An economic recession or upturn can have major effects upon a case your lawyer really can advise you through it all.”
4. You may open up old emotional wounds.
Having the buffer of an impartial attorney or at least a divorce mediator while you hammer out the technical details of the end of your marriage can help you and your spouse avoid falling into the same emotionally damaging patterns that most likely led you to divorce in the first place.
“The fact of the matter is that a healthy divorce, like a healthy marriage, requires effort. Most of us are totally unprepared for the hard work and commitment involved in keeping a divorce respectful,” writes author Lois Gold in her book, The Health Divorce: Keys to Ending Your Marriage While Preserving Your Emotional Well-Being. “Those couples who have remained on reasonable terms with each other worked very hard at it. This doesn’t mean that the ex-spouses weren’t angry at each other or that their marriage lacked passion. They simply wanted to keep their divorce from becoming a war zone.”
Wade says he and his ex were on pretty friendly terms when they started looking at the paperwork online, but after a few weeks of cranking out the terms of their divorce, were bickering at each other and walking away in frustration more often than not. “We really just needed someone to say, ‘Yeah, that’s fair. Now let’s move on to the next point,'” Wade says. “Doing it by ourselves brought up old arguments and hurt feelings, even though we thought we’d moved past that.”
Hiring a divorce mediator may be one solution for people who are forgive the pun married to the idea of a pro se divorce. Landers writes that a mediated divorce may result in a less expensive, expedited, private divorce agreement that is easier on the divorcing partners as well as their children. “The mediator may or may not be a lawyer, but he/she must be extremely well-versed in divorce and family law,” Landers advises. “In addition, it is critical for the mediator to be neutral and not advocate for either party.”
Knowing the risks of filing for a pro se divorce is the first step. If you still feel that a DIY divorce is right for you and your spouse, you may still want to consider hiring an attorney to review the final documents before you file. Even if you spend $300 for a couple hours of a seasoned divorce attorney’s time, it is money well spent to avoid some of the long-lasting pitfalls that often accompany a DIY divorce.