10 Tips for Self Representation During Divorce

Let's Untie the Knot | Tips for Self Representation During Divorce

Sometimes people decide that they want to go to divorce court without an attorney’s representation.  (these people are appearing “pro-se”).  The following tips offer guidance for a pro-se party:

  1.  Make sure all of your submissions are complete, neat and timely:

The main way that you tell a judge your side of the story is by preparing and filing written documents.  Make sure that your all of your forms comply with the court’s rules regarding written submissions.  Always make sure that your documents are neat, complete and legible.  If your filings do not convincingly convey your side of the story, you have missed an important opportunity to be heard.  In addition, there will probably be deadlines for many of the documents that you need to file in your case.  Make sure you know every deadline and that you submit your documents on time.

  1.  Understand the divorce process and the applicable laws:

It is essential to understand fully what will happen at every stage of your case.  Court hearings and court procedures can be confusing for pro-se litigants.  Up-to-date knowledge of the inner workings of court proceedings is vital if you want to successfully navigate the divorce court system.  Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.  If you choose to represent yourself, you are still required to know and follow the same laws and court rules as an attorney.

  1.  Come to court prepared and if you don’t understand something, ask questions:

You should be prepared to address the court the moment you arrive.   You should have your notes to present your argument and have any papers that you want to show to the judge readily available.  Prepare statements about each element of your case and have supporting evidence to present along with your arguments.  If you are seeking sole physical custody of your children, be prepared to show why it is in the children’s best interests to live with you.  Similarly, if you are seeking spousal support, have facts and numbers to support your argument.

Judges sometimes forget that laypeople don’t understand legal jargon.  While it is your job to learn as much of the law as possible, if a judge uses a term you don’t know, ask for clarification.  It is your responsibility to make sure to leave the courtroom understanding what happened and what the next steps are.

  1.  Get comfortable speaking in court:

Many people aren’t comfortable speaking in front of an audience, let alone in front of the judge who will determine so many aspects of their future life.  When you decide to represent yourself in court, you need to make sure that you are comfortable speaking on your own behalf.  Practice presenting your case at home or in front of friends.  Bring an outline of what you want to say.  Take whatever measures you need to so that you feel that you are presenting your strongest case to the judge.

  1.  Dress with respect:

Knowing what to wear to court is a little thing that makes a big difference.  The courtroom is not a baseball field nor is it a ballroom.  Like it or not you will be judged (if not directly, at least subconsciously) by what you are wearing.  Err on the side of being conservative.  In addition, you will probably have to go through security and there will most likely be a line.  Make sure to allow yourself extra time so that you are not rushing to court.  You want to start your day calm and ready for any surprises that may come your way.

  1.  Turn your cellphone off before you go into the courtroom:

 In our age of modern technology, we are practically glued to our cell phones.  Start by finding out whether you can even bring your phone into the courtroom.  Some courthouses prohibit cameras in the courtroom.  (Since virtually all cell phones have cameras that means you wouldn’t even be allowed to bring your phone into the room).  If you are allowed to bring your cell phone inside, turn it off immediately after you walk in the door.  If your phone rings while you are in court, you may irritate the judge (which is never a good thing).

  1.  Do not argue with the judge—EVER:

You can explain your position to the judge.  You can give the judge whatever evidence you have to prove your point.  You can present all of your arguments when it is your turn to talk.  But when the judge talks, just listen.  Don’t argue.  Don’t offer excuses.  Just listen.  Always remember, when you are in the courtroom, the judge rules. Period.

  1. Assert yourself:

If you find that you are up against a lawyer who won’t stop rattling off obscure legal citations or won’t let you get a word in edgewise, you will have to stand up for yourself.  Explain to the judge that you are representing yourself without a lawyer because you couldn’t afford the expense and that you are relying on the judge to apply the correct law and reach the right conclusions.  Many judges will make an extra effort to make the proceedings understandable to a pro-se litigant.

  1.  Answer the question –and only the question:

Resist the urge to give a lengthy, detailed account of what happened in your marriage.  In general, less is better so be sure you are answering just what the question is asking.  If the question is asking about a certain expense, discuss only that expense and give details only for the date range specified.  Listen to every word so that you answer only the question asked and do not volunteer unnecessary information.  Rambling on can sometimes end up helping the other side.

  1. Stay Calm:

The divorce process can be a very emotional one.  You need to be mindful to keep all of your emotions—ranging from fear to anger—in check.  If your spouse is represented by an attorney, he or she may try to play on your emotions and distract you from your objectives.  To stay calm under pressure, make sure that you prepare for the event ahead of time. Bring a written list of your goals with you, ranging from financial considerations to child custody to alimony, so that you are not distracted by the other party’s litigation strategies. Stay focused on what you want for your post-divorce life.  If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by emotion, take a deep breath before answering any question.  It is perfectly acceptable to pause and collect yourself so that you can give a well thought out answer.   Stay calm and confident.

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