If you are going through a divorce, you are free to represent yourself—there is no requirement that you hire a lawyer. The overwhelming reason people choose to represent themselves (also called "representation pro se") is to save money in attorneys' fees. In certain circumstances, this might be a prudent move—or it might be an example of the expression "penny wise, pound foolish."
Before you decide to file your divorce pro se, you'll want to learn more about when acting as your own attorney makes sense, and when it doesn't.
What Is a Pro Se Divorce?
A "pro se divorce" (also sometimes called a "pro per divorce") is a divorce in which one or both spouses choose to represent themselves in court. Most spouses who appear pro se in court do so in order to save money: No matter how you slice it, divorce can be expensive—especially when you hire an attorney to represent you.
When you act as your own attorney, the court will expect you to know and follow state and local divorce laws and procedures. For example, you will need to research the laws on how to file your divorce and serve it on your spouse. Fortunately, most state courts provide divorce forms and instructions on their websites, making it easier for non-attorneys to find and follow the court's procedures and laws.
Although judges sometimes give pro se parties a bit of slack, you shouldn't expect any special treatment if you decide to represent yourself in your divorce. Your court might have a self-help department or forms that can help you navigate the court system, but be aware that the forms and rules for divorce are going to be the same for pro se and represented parties. In other words, there are no "pro se divorce" forms or specific pro se divorce procedures.
When Does Pro Se Divorce Make Sense?
A pro se divorce makes the most sense in divorces that don't involve a lot of issues to be decided and when the spouses are willing to work together.
A pro se party in a divorce is most likely to succeed when the spouses have settled all their issues—such as property division, spousal support, and child custody—before filing for divorce. That's because when spouses agree on the terms of their divorce, they can file an "uncontested" divorce. An uncontested divorce is often faster and less complicated, because there's nothing for the spouses to argue about in court.
Settling the issues in your divorce without help can involve some work—you and your spouse will have to be willing to communicate and compromise. Many spouses who think they can negotiate the terms of their divorce choose to use alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods like mediation or collaborative divorce. If ADR is successful, the spouses write up a marital settlement agreement to present to the court. As long as the marital settlement agreement seems fair and doesn't violate any law, the judge will incorporate it into the final divorce decree.
Simplified (or "Summary") Divorce
Another (less common) scenario that lends itself to pro se divorce is when neither spouse objects to the divorce, they have no marital property or debts left to divide, there are no dependent children, and neither spouse is seeking alimony (spousal support) from the other. (Most divorces that meet these criteria are from very short-term marriages.)
In some states, spouses whose marriages meet these criteria might be able to get a "simplified," "summary," or "streamlined" divorce. If you qualify for a simplified divorce, doing it pro se might be a good option: Similar to an uncontested divorce, there's nothing to fight about, so the divorce forms and instructions available from the court should be enough to see you through to the end. (If your marriage meets these criteria but your state doesn't have a simplified procedure, you can still file an uncontested divorce.)
When Might Pro Se Divorce Not Be a Good Option?
Not all divorce cases are well-suited for representing yourself. A pro se divorce isn't a good option when:
- The spouses can't agree on a key issue. Any case that's contested is often best left to the professionals. For example, if you want sole custody of your children, and you can't figure out the rules of evidence, the judge might not allow you to present the evidence that's necessary to show why it's not in the best interests of the children for your spouse to have custody. So if something you're fighting for in your divorce is too important to lose, you should strongly consider hiring a lawyer to help you present your best case.
- It's a fault-based divorce. Some states allow spouses to file "fault-based" divorces in which one or both spouses can allege that the other engaged in behavior that caused the end of the marriage. To get a fault-based divorce, you must provide the court with evidence of your spouse's bad acts. Fault-based divorces can get very contentious and involve filing a lot of motions (requests) for decisions from the judge, making it difficult for pro se parties to win.
- Your spouse has a lawyer. Lack of knowledge of the law and procedure could deal a blow to the results you were hoping for when the case began, especially if you're up against a seasoned divorce lawyer. When only one spouse has a lawyer, you're not playing on a level field.
- The situation might change quickly. There's no way to tell the future, but if you think that a serious issue might arise mid-divorce—for example, your spouse stops paying you temporary alimony—it would help to have a lawyer. When surprises come up in a divorce, you need to move quickly, and a lawyer will know how to handle the situation. (Note that even if you start out pro se, you can always hire a lawyer if you discover you no longer want to represent yourself.)
- You are experiencing or fear domestic violence. If you are in fear for your safety or your child's safety, you should seek advice from a lawyer. You might need to take certain actions—such as getting a protective order—to ensure your safety. A lawyer will know the best ways to secure your safety so that you can focus on the divorce.
- You don't have a lot of spare time. To successfully navigate your divorce case, you'll have to be familiar with your state's divorce laws and procedural rules. Although judges strive for results that are fundamentally fair in a divorce, they have to abide by certain court rules. So if you miss a crucial deadline, for no reason other than you weren't aware of the law, it could be fatal to some aspect of your case. Unless you have a lot of spare time to learn the laws and fill out paperwork—and to correct any mistakes you make along the way—it's worth the investment of hiring a lawyer to help out.
Are There Any Alternatives to Pro Se Divorce?
If you don't think you can afford the cost of having a lawyer represent you for the entire divorce case, there are other options you might pursue.
- Use an online divorce service. Couples who agree on most of the issues in their divorce might consider using an online divorce service. These companies typically charge between $150 and $900, depending on which of their services you purchase. At a minimum, they provide all the state-specific divorce forms you'll need, along with step-by-step instructions. Some online divorce services offer a professional review of your documents to ensure you've filled them out correctly. Once you complete the documents, they're ready for filing—you can print your paperwork and file it yourself, or the company might file it for you for for an extra fee. Some online divorce services guarantee that you'll get your money back if the court doesn't accept your paperwork.
- Hire a lawyer on an as-needed basis. It's not always necessary to hire an attorney to represent you from start to finish in a divorce case—you might be able to work with a lawyer on an as-needed basis to save money. For example, if you've filled out the divorce forms you found on your court's website, you might consider making an appointment with an attorney to go over the paperwork and explain the divorce process to you before you file. Hiring an attorney to assist you in a limited way is far less expensive than having full representation for the duration of your divorce, and paying for an hour or two of a lawyer's time can help you avoid costly mistakes.
- Try mediation. In divorce mediation, a trained third party called a mediator helps the couple work out an agreement about the issues in their divorce. It's not necessary to have a lawyer to mediate—in fact, many mediators discourage attorneys from attending mediation in order to foster more collaboration between the spouses. If the mediation is successful, the couple can file an uncontested divorce. As mentioned above, it's a lot easier to represent yourself in an uncontested divorce than in one that still has issues you need to work out.
- Try collaborative divorce. A collaborative divorce might be an option for spouses who want to have their own lawyers but don't want to participate in full-blown, in-court litigation. In a collaborative divorce, each spouse and their lawyers agree to use their best efforts to settle outside of court. If negotiations fail and the couple has to head to court, both spouses must find new attorneys (or represent themselves). The idea of having to start from scratch with new attorneys usually provides enough incentive for the couple to work towards settlement.
- Contact legal aid. Your state's legal aid service might be able to provide you with free information, step-by-step instructions, and court forms, if you qualify for assistance. Some legal aid organizations provide attorneys to assist clients throughout their divorces, especially in cases where there's an extreme need—for example, when there's spousal or child abuse. Alternatively, your local legal aid organization or county bar association might be able to set you up with an attorney who's willing to handle your case pro bono (for free) or for a reduced fee.