Making the decision to file for divorce is never easy. Commonly, after making this difficult choice, many begin to wonder whether they should hire an attorney, or if they can represent themselves in court. The good news is that with proper planning and preparation, representing yourself in court is a completely viable option that could save you time, money, and stress in the long run.
When Can You Represent Yourself?
Scenarios where spouses have agreed on material aspects such as dividing property, child custody or placement, alimony, and child support beforehand, are ideal for representing yourself in court. Because all important issues in these uncontested cases are already agreed upon, the court’s job will then simply be to review and verify the documents, ensuring they are an accurate reflection of the agreement between the spouses. However, in contested cases where items are in dispute, it is best to hire an attorney unless you have legal background.
A few good reasons to represent yourself in your divorce include:
- You and your spouse mutually agree on the divorce
- You and your spouse do not have any substantial marital assets such as real estate
- You and your spouse do not have any children together
- You are worried about being able to afford an attorney
- You haven’t found an attorney that you want to represent you
By being proactive and planning ahead, you will be more than capable of representing yourself in court.
Attending Free Classes
First and foremost, you will want to make sure you understand the laws and rules of your state and how they apply to your case. Some states offer free classes for individuals who are representing themselves in court, so it is worthwhile to check and see what type of classes your state offers.
The simplest way to do so is:
- Go to your county’s Clerk of Court Office website.
- Select the portion of the website dedicated to family court
- Locate the divorce section of the website.
- Browse for information regarding classes.
Alternatively, you can call your local Clerk of Court Office and ask them directly. If classes are not available, they may have relevant fact sheets or other information that may be useful to you as well.
Will There be a Trial?
Often when there are unresolved disputes between spouses, the case will go to trial.
However, if there are no disputes, your case will most likely be resolved at a hearing. Therefore, if you know that you and your spouse have aspects that have not been agreed upon, you should be prepared for a trial.
If you believe you will be going to trial:
- Make sure that you come prepared with all of the pertinent documents and/or evidence necessary.
- If your spouse has documents and evidence, this information will be dispensed to you through the “discovery” process before trial, in order for you to review the information prior to the proceeding.
- Further, if you plan on calling any witnesses during the trial, be sure you have disclosed this information to the court and your spouse beforehand.
- If you are unsure how to notify the court or your spouse of this information or witnesses, call your local Clerk of Court Office for more guidance. Please note that generally witnesses are allowed at a trial but not at a hearing.
IMPORTANT NOTE! A court may require you to provide information within a specified amount of time and/or in a specific manner. Make sure to follow these requirements to reduce the risk of not having certain documents or evidence being admissible during a proceeding.
Familiarizing Yourself with the Court Process
Going to court can be intimidating simply because it is an unfamiliar territory. To calm your nerves, try and go to a public court hearing before your court date to observe the process. Another way to prepare is to read over your divorce paperwork, as the information within the paperwork will be what you will discuss in court. If you have any questions about the trial or hearing, call the Clerk of Court Office for more guidance.
Before the Hearing/Trial:
- Once you learn about the date of the hearing or trial, make arrangements to ensure that you are free on that day. For example, take time off work, hire a babysitter for your children if necessary, and reschedule all of your other tasks.
- If there are going to be any witnesses, inform them about the court date so that they can make the abovementioned arrangements as well. Also, make sure they know what they are going to be saying in court during the hearing/trial.
- Review the laws of your state and see which one might be applicable in your case. Although you are representing yourself, you will be expected to be aware of and do specific things you attorney would.
- Learn the basic terms such as plaintiff, defendant, discovery, pro se, and others to better understand what will be going on during the proceedings.
- Find out more about the court staff, such as clerks and bailiffs among others, and their responsibilities. You need to understand what role they will play in your case if any.
- Check the court rules, statutes, and local rules (if any). They may include helpful tips on what information you need to disclose before the hearing or trial, what the court can and cannot do for you, etc.
- Find out more information about court hearings like yours and read other people’s experiences to calm yourself a little.
How to Act in Court?
- Come 10-15 minutes earlier or, at the very least, be on time. If you are late to court, your case may be dismissed. If you need to reschedule, do so in advance by contacting the Clerk of Court Office.
- Make sure you bring copies of all of your divorce paperwork with you.
- When talking to the Judge, be sure to address them as “Your Honor” – no exceptions! Options such as Sir/Miss, Mam, and others are not acceptable.
- Stand up when the Judge enters or leaves the courtroom.
- Dress appropriately and conservatively, as you would for a job interview.
- Do not interrupt the Judge (or attorney if your spouse is not representing themselves). You will have the chance to tell your side of the story when it is your turn to speak.
- Usually, you will have to ask for permission to speak if you are not addressed directly.
- When you are speaking, make sure to speak clearly and loud enough to be heard in the court room.
- When you testify, do not distort facts. Be as clear and concise as you can. If you do not remember something, simply say so. If it makes you more comfortable to have a list of things you’d like to say, bring it with you.
- If you have questions, make sure you ask. Do not pretend that you understand something that you are confused about.
- Be attentive and respectful to everyone in the courtroom and courthouse.
- Try your best to leave your emotions outside of the courtroom. If you feel you need a moment to collect yourself, simply tell the Judge you need to do so. Bring tissues if you feel as though you may need them.
- Even if the outcome of the hearing is not to your liking, thank the court staff and remain civil.
Overall, the Judge will see that you are representing yourself and often will try to aid you in the process, so just follow the cues from the Judge to mitigate any procedural issues.