Thinking of representing yourself in a Chicago divorce or custody case? Divorce and Custody (or Parentage cases) are some of the areas of law where people often feel that they can adequately represent themselves and that they may not need an attorney. Family Courts will provide “do it yourself” or “uncontested” divorce packets which make it seem simple. You just complete the paperwork, submit it, go to Court and then you will be divorced! Simple enough, right?
In reality, however, it is not so simple. There are many pitfalls when you try to “go at it alone” in a Chicago divorce or custody case. Being aware of those pitfalls may convince you that retaining an attorney is necessary. Knowledge is key to making the decision that is best for you.
Here are some reasons why hiring a divorce attorney is essential to your case:
1. You will be held to the same standard of knowledge as an Attorney.
Litigants who choose to represent themselves “Pro Se” are expected to know all of the same rules, case law, statutes, and procedures that divorce and attorneys do. This is next to impossible unless the Pro Se litigant has attended law school and practices law. Even attorneys who practice a different area of law, though, are unfamiliar with Family Law and Domestic Relations rules, case law, and the like. As such, they will often hire a family law attorney for their divorce, despite the fact that they are licensed attorneys! You will be expected to understand discovery rules, deadlines, how to conduct a trial, the rules of evidence, and much, much more.
Being your own attorney truly becomes a full-time job, especially if you plan to do so thoroughly. However, the daunting task of figuring out how the legal system works, and doing the research required to adequately represent yourself is likely not going to be up to par with the quality an attorney would be able to provide.
2. Your Spouse or Ex may hire an attorney.
Representing yourself in a divorce or custody battle is not easy, especially when your spouse or ex has hired a skilled attorney. Going “pro se” against an attorney comes with its own unique set of problems. First, the attorney cannot give you legal advice or assist you in representing their spouse. Second, the attorney is to assume, per rules, that you know and understand all of the rules, laws, and procedures. To say that a pro se litigant is at a disadvantage when they go up against an attorney is an understatement. The Judge is also required to assume the pro se litigant knows the rules, the law, etc.
3. The “forms” provided by Courts for “do it yourself” or “pro se” divorces are not all-encompassing for every situation.
The “uncontested” or “simplified” divorce forms make it seem like obtaining a pro se divorce is very simple. In some cases, it might be. However, if you or your spouse/ex own any property together, or if you are awarding someone something titled in the other’s name, or if you are changing the beneficiary on a life insurance policy, for example, these documents are inadequate. The language is too simplistic to account for every possible scenario which could arise.
For example, on one of these forms, you could award your spouse the 2010 Nissan Armada. What if the car is titled in your name? How long does the party have to re-finance the vehicle? How do you effectuate all of these things? On one of the simple forms generated by the court for simplistic divorces, these issues are not covered.
The same goes for dividing a retirement account. If the retirement plan requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order or a QILDRO, these forms usually don’t give that information or instructions on how to do that. Many parties are surprised to find they were awarded half their spouse’s pension, and then, when their spouse retires, they don’t receive anything from the retirement account. That is because the simple divorce forms are not all-encompassing and do not deal with the more advanced issues relative to property division like diving a retirement account. In these scenarios, it is best to have an attorney to ensure every element of your divorce is done correctly.
4. Things do not always mean what you think they mean in legal documents.
Legal jargon can be very confusing. Even if you have a document drafted by an attorney for your spouse, you should still retain counsel to review the document with you, at a minimum, even if you are hiring them for full representation. In the legal world, the plain meaning of certain words is different than the legal meaning. So, you may think you understand what you are reading, only to learn later that you actually did not understand what the document meant. Hiring a divorce attorney can help decrease the likelihood that this will happen.
5. Post-Decree Litigation may be much messier when the initial divorce was completed Pro Se.
To build on what was mentioned above, post-decree litigation can be much messier when the parties were self-represented and completed their own forms. For example, let’s say the martial settlement agreement signed by the parties says:
“Spouse 1 claims the minor children on their taxes in Even years.”
Does “even years” refer to the tax year on the form you are filing, which is actually filed in odd years? Or does that mean the actual even tax year in which the documents are filed? This sentence could be subject to more than one interpretation.
Another mistake commonly made is that the holidays will be divided, but with no exchange times or locations, and no details about who is doing the transportation. So, for example, Spouse 2 has Christmas Day in odd years. There is no time or location. Don’t be surprised when Spouse 2 shows up at midnight on December 25th to pick up the children as a result of this – to be clear, we don’t recommend doing this, but it happens!
6. Objective legal advice can be extremely helpful when dealing with a deeply personal scenario.
Finally, the separation of two parents or a married couple is a deeply personal and emotionally driven situation. It can be hard to think rationally, and it can be costly for your time and effort (for example, fighting over personal property of nominal value). Skilled divorce attorneys can shed light on what Judges will likely do in certain scenarios and help you to focus on the big picture and the goals which you have set, and not to get tied up in every single issue. This is generally in the client’s best interest and a more cost-effective approach. It is nearly impossible to counsel yourself objectively and step outside of your own shows when you are in such a difficult situation. Hiring a divorce attorney can help.
If you are thinking about representing yourself in a Chicago divorce or family law dispute, consider seeking advice from an experienced divorce attorney before making a final decision. Your future may depend on it. For a free consultation with the Chicago family law attorneys at Anderson & Boback, schedule a meeting today!