Do it yourself?

You can handle your own dissolution/divorce:  you do it yourself.  However, self-help can be very frustrating.  People who represent themselves or file paperwork in their own names without the aid of attorneys are known in the Courts as “pro pers.”  Our state legislature thought it would a good idea to make the legal process “consumer friendly” so over the last 20 plus years the Courts have prepared forms which they hope would guide pro pers through the process.  However, the reason so many needed to help themselves was because the legislature made the process more complex to “protect” the same people and that increased the time spent by attorneys.  Where once a simple uncontested divorce could be completed with the filing of a minimum of 6 or 7  pleadings, that same simple uncontested now requires a minimum of 8-11.  And those are the cases where the parties are in complete agreement.  If they have problems with custody or support, then they need at least 2 more pleadings to solve those issues–temporarily.

There are books out there that will help and of course there is the internet.  Up until the recent budget crisis, the Courts had a Family Court Facilitator at all Courts to help people with the paperwork and to give some minimum legal advice.  But even when the Facilitator’s were working full-time, the demands were such that there were long lines waiting for their services.

And it only seems to becoming worse.  But if you want to do it, you can.  The resources are there if you are willing to spend the time.   Just be aware of the following:

1. The clerks who work for the courts cannot and will not give you legal advice and that includes telling you what forms you might need (sometimes if you are very nice they will help but remember you can’t use their advice or information as a shield or a sword.  That means if they give you wrong advice you can’t tell the Judge “but your clerk told me” and the Judge will do what you want).  You are you own attorney and you must follow the same rules.

2. The court does nothing for you without you asking.   That means you have to do more than just file a request for divorce, you must also followup with obtaining and filing all the required documents.   Such things include a Request for Default if your spouse doesn’t file a Response (answer) and then a request for the Judgement of Dissolution.  If  your spouse does file a Response but refuses to talk to you about signing an agreement on all the issues, then you have to file the necessary papers to ask for a settlement conference or a trial.  And of course if you have needs that must be met sooner rather than later, such as child support or orders for custody, then you have to file requests for a hearing–a day in court–so the court can help you.

3.  You will probably hear what is known as a legal term of art:  “appearance” or the need to “appear.”  Although it can mean your presence in a Court room, what it most often means is that  a document needs to be filed with the Court so that you can be part of the proceedings.  The basic process for “appearing”  is the party who files a Petition for a divorce appears first–it is the Petition that is the appearance.  When the other party files their Response or answer–that piece of paper is their appearance.  In a dissolution proceeding, when both  the pleading named  Petition for  Dissolution and the pleading named Response are filed with Court, then both parties have “appeared” and the Court can only make orders with the knowledge of both parties.

4.  Finally, because many believe that the Court’s are there to help them, they sometimes forget that the person in the Black Robe–the Judge–is entitled to be treated with respect.  If you forget that, then be ready to wait even longer to found out what you have done incorrectly or what you need to do next.  They are generally willing to help you, but they don’t represent you–and they are not required to help you or give you legal advice.  And they definitely will exercise the right to ignore you requests for help if you treat them in rude and disrespectful way.  Family Law Judges are also the most overworked judges in the state-so don’t be upset if they seem grouchy sometimes and seem to work fast on you case–there were many more before you and more coming after you.

Again, I would urge you to spend the money–generally $150-$350 for an hour consultation (I charge $175 for hour-long consultations) with a good family law attorney.  They are willing to give you some general advice on the system and what you will need to do to represent yourself.  They will also give you some specific advice on issues which are of importance to you.  It is the best investment you can make before starting.  I cannot begin to count the number of times where I have been asked to take over a case for people who have started their own dissolutions and have had to charge them more to “clean up” problems that they could have avoided if they had paid the lesser amount to have an hour consultation.

Appointments for telephonic consults with Richard are available by calling 707-999-0740