Is Representing Yourself During Divorce a Good Idea?


Divorce can be an expensive and time-consuming journey. It’s hard to navigate, but it can be even harder if you’re trying to do it on your own. So what do you do when you’re in a financial bind but need to go to court? Sandra Fava from Fox Rothschild LLP joined T.H. and Jessica on the Divorce etc… podcast to discuss the pros and cons of defending yourself in court. If you’re considering self-representation, here are some things you need to know beforehand. 

Should I Even Try?

Defending yourself can be emotionally draining as well as time-consuming. There are even cases of some people still trying to defend themselves more than a decade after the initial separation. So is it generally a good idea to try to defend yourself? This is a weighted question for sure. It really depends on what kind of divorce you’re going through. If it’s very amicable, has no secrets, and everything is pretty much agreed upon, then yeah, sure, it’s certainly a possibility. Anything that’s more complicated than that is tricky and depends on a multitude of factors. There are some organizations and nonprofits that can help you with basic pleadings or just understanding the process at little to no cost, and some even have grants you can apply for. Sandra herself volunteers at Partners for Women in New Jersey, where attorneys hold free consultations for those in this position. 

Will I Be Judged Unfairly?

If you’ve seen the documentary Divorce Corp, you’re probably unsettled by the scale of bribery that goes on behind the scenes, in addition to the bias of judges who see you coming into court with no legal background. Though Sandra herself says she has not seen this type of behavior or bribery in her career, there are some cases where judges will see self-representation as a red flag and recommend you hire a professional. Sandra says if you’re representing yourself and the judge has said to you more than once that you should really think about getting a lawyer, that’s a sign you should consult with an attorney. “That is the most the judge can do to basically jump up and down and say, hey, you need help here.” The judges aren’t necessarily blaming you for it, but they can’t give you answers to your questions because they’re supposed to be neutral and impartial. 

And there may also sometimes be a bias that those who are self-represented, especially in a difficult case, may have a mental health issue going on because that’s the first thing the other side will typically throw at you. So you, as a self-represented person, may say something wrong or slip up in court, and the other side will capitalize on your mistake and say, see, this is what I’m saying, they’re crazy! But if you respond by jumping up and down and trying to convince them you’re not crazy, then you’ll end up actually looking like a crazy person. Sandra says it can be a really tough situation. So unless you have a really simple divorce case, self-representation can lead to an array of added issues in negotiations.

But How Can I Successfully Defend Myself?

The easiest way to prepare to represent yourself is to know where the paperwork exists and how to navigate your state’s court website. Sandra explains that one thing that often happens is you’ll end up receiving the wrong paperwork from a state employee who’s already frustrated and may not understand you if you’re having a hard time explaining what you’re looking for. And on that note, make sure you have other documents regarding your tax returns and other financial information ready for court. “You can’t take shortcuts when you’re representing yourself and use the self-representation excuse as the reason for the shortcut,” Sandra says. There is an expectation that if you’re here, and you’re going to do this on your own, you’ve at least read up, done your homework, you’ve been thorough, and you’re proof-reading things.”

The most important motions you should probably understand are the motions that are either seeking to establish a parenting schedule while the case is going on and/or some sort of financial support while the case is going on. And while these are the most important motions, they’re also some of the most difficult, because by establishing the motion, you’re also committing to applying this motion to the entire duration of the divorce or until the next major event occurs. Sandra tells us that it’s all about doing your homework and setting yourself up for success.

Can I Self-Represent With a Lawyer’s Help?

Even if you decide to represent yourself for some reason, there are some attorneys who will work with you for an hourly rate or a small retainer. They can help you double-check your information, make sure you’ve got everything you need, and point out things you have to fix. There’s a range they can do within a budget. 

However, when working with a self-represented person, these attorneys will often try to limit their communications with the individuals to writing. Sandra says part of that reason is because attorneys never know if they are being recorded on the phone, so there are limitations and reservations to what attorneys will do for you as a self-represented litigant. 

I Don’t Want to Self-Represent, But I Really Don’t Have the Money

We’re not telling you to figure it out, get a loan, or dig up some money from somewhere, but there are options out there if you are in a tough financial situation but don’t want to represent yourself. It can help to talk to others and find an attorney that others have used and been happy with, even to just get some basic information. Then once you’ve checked that off your list, you can look into acquiring a minimal amount of money designated to having someone review a final document, which is a valuable use of any limited funds and will benefit you in the long run. 

In the end, a divorce is a business transaction. You can’t let your emotions get the best of you and you can’t go through it alone. Sandra’s also done a lot with T.H. and Jessica through the Believe, Inspire, Grow community, and through her work there, she always asks, do you have a support system? Someone in your family, any friends, someone who you can talk to? Do you have a therapist or an online support group that’s going to help you through this? Having any sort of support, even when you’re not representing yourself, can make all the difference in helping you work through the emotions and see your situation in a clear light. But if you do choose to represent yourself in your divorce, just make sure you are fully prepared in every way.

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