Should You Represent Yourself in Your Divorce?
In recent years I have noticed an ever increasing number of pro se litigants (people who represent themselves) at the family law courthouse. I mentioned this to a judge who estimated that 50% of her docket was comprised of pro se cases.
For several years now the basement of the Family Law Center has been occupied by a staff member of the Houston Volunteer Lawyers whose basic job is to assist the pro se litigants with the numerous document errors that are caught by the judges during what are supposed to be quick, easy uncontested prove up hearings.
It is my understanding that most of these people are using divorce form websites. They pay approximately $200 or so for the fill-in-the-blank divorce forms that are supposed to be acceptable in their jurisdiction.
Among the many problems of a divorce form website is the obvious difficulty in creating documents that are effective and current in all 50 states, not to mention addressing the various peculiarities of individual counties and individual judges. The fact that judges can and usually do find numerous errors in the documents during a very brief scanning at the prove up hearing is evidence of just how bad a job these form websites do.
My basic view on representing yourself is this: if you have no assets, no liabilities, no children, and you are just unable to financially afford a lawyer, then go ahead take a stab at representing yourself. However, for most people their divorce case will be the most significant financial and legal event of their life and it needs to be handled correctly. If it is not handled correctly the hidden error is likely to reveal itself at some later date.
Here is an example. Early in my career I was visited by a lady who had been divorced several years prior. Her ex-husband was now retired from the military and receiving his pension. During the divorce neither party had been represented by an attorney and the husband had handled the paperwork. She admitted to me that at the time she would have signed any document he asked her to and given him anything he wanted. She just wanted out of the marriage, an attitude shared by many going through divorce who later regret it.
Now she wondered if she had any right to a portion of his pension, since they had been married for about 15 of his 20 years of military service. I expected to find in the Decree the standard boilerplate language awarding all of retirement assets to the party in whose name it was held.
To my amazement the Decree was silent on the issue of retirement benefits division. It simply did not address that asset. You can guess the rest of the story. I filed a petition to divide undivided property and within a relatively short time she was receiving nearly $1000 a month out of husband’s pension.
In this case the end result was a just one and I was happy to help her achieve it. But you can bet her ex-husband felt otherwise. He could have easily avoided the result by not being so cheap and hiring a lawyer. Even the most mediocre of family law attorneys would not have made that mistake. Over the course of his life that error could end up costing him $100,000, $200,000, or more.
While this might seem like a dramatic example of a pro se error, I can give you many, many more just from the ones I have personally seen. The errors involve child support, visitation, conservatorship, alimony, property division, etc., you name it.
The bottom line is that your divorce case is far too significant and important to just hope you get it right. You need to be certain that it is handled correctly and you can only do this by hiring a quality divorce lawyer.
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