This morning, I sat in a courtroom waiting to do a prove up hearing with a client. There were six cases in line before us, and all of those cases were pro se divorce prove ups. If a person is pro se, it means he or she is representing himself or herself. When there is a pro se divorce prove up, we know that both parties were pro se. Of the six cases heard before us, the judge rejected five of the orders, and those people did not get divorced today. This particular judge took the time to tab all of the pages with problems and give a good amount of information to the parties. However, in my experience, most judges will not do that. Many judges will simply say they cannot give legal advice but they are not going to approve the order as written. All of the problems I saw today would have been avoided if at least one party had an attorney.
There are an abundance of do-it-yourself divorce forms out there floating around. Although most of them are probably technically accurate, they are very vanilla and cookie cutter. The only time I would ever recommend someone attempt to do their own divorce is if there are no children and no property or debt.
In cases involving children, the pro se forms include cookie cutter standard language regarding custody and child support. Although a couple may be fine with standard possession and guideline child support, there are many other options out there that pro se parties would never know exist. Is a 50/50 schedule preferable in a particular situation? Is there a reason why the parties should have something other than guideline child support? An attorney would be able to help answer those questions and draft a custom order that best fits the parties’ situation. The good news is that at least mistakes related to the children can be fixed because custody and child support can be modified down the road.
With regards to property and debt, if the parties do something wrong in the divorce decree or forget to include an important provision, after thirty days it cannot be changed absent very limited circumstances. For example, Husband and Wife divorce pro se. In the decree, they say Wife will keep the house. They do not know that they should include a provision that the Wife must refinance the mortgage into her own name within a certain amount of time or the house must be sold. So, there is no such provision included. Several years down the road, Husband decides he wants to buy a house of his own. Guess what? He is still listed on the mortgage of the house owned by Ex-Wife, and he cannot qualify for a mortgage for another house. Unfortunately for Husband, there is absolutely nothing he can do to force Wife to refinance or sell the house. He is stuck. Similarly, if Wife does not pay the mortgage or gets behind, Husband’s credit will be negatively affected. The mortgage company could even come after Husband to pursue the debt. He never would have been in that situation if he would have hired an attorney in the original divorce.
Divorces involve extremely complicated issues related to both children and property. It is simply not possible for pro se parties without knowledge of family law to properly deal with those complicated issues. Unless you have no children and no property or debt, it is highly recommended that you hire an attorney to handle your divorce. If you and your spouse are in agreement as to the terms, that is wonderful! However, it is still a good idea to hire an attorney to make sure the paperwork is drafted properly and to make sure you are correctly addressing all important issues.