Most states permit DIY divorces, termed pro se proceedings. The internet is filled with DIY divorce kits, companies selling forms and drafting assistance, and handbooks for those who want to execute their divorce without hiring a lawyer.
But is it wise? To answer in typical lawyer fashion: It depends. If you have no kids, few financial or physical assets, and the separation is mutually agreed to, a pro se case may be just fine to consider.
But when you have children involved, financial assets or debts (i.e., 401Ks, IRAs, property, trusts, joint credit card debt), or there are relationship challenges””such as substance abuse or mental health problems””divorcing DIY-style might increase your risks and costs over the long term.
Here are a few common mistakes:
With all the paperwork and deadlines, it isn’t uncommon for people to make small mistakes in a pro se divorce proceeding that have big repercussions”¦such as forever giving up a right for maintenance or alimony, or””in worst-case scenarios””facing significant challenges to parental rights and custody.
Divorce proceedings””whether you opt to hire legal counsel or do it yourself””require that each step of the process be completed using specific paperwork, in a specific order, filed on precise dates, and with appropriate attention to detail. The paperwork you file for your divorce is not automatically checked for accuracy and fairness. Therefore, it is critical that you fill it out with no mistakes and in a manner that protects your rights. One mistake could cause you to give up invaluable financial rights and could severely limit your right to see your children and be involved in making decisions for them.
Each jurisdiction in Colorado has different procedures that must be followed. The very first step you should take when contemplating a DIY divorce is to know exactly which paperwork your jurisdiction requires. Once you know which forms are needed, read the instructions. All of them. Legal paperwork is confusing, so make sure you understand what information goes in which form, what all the requests mean, when the forms need to be turned in, and to whom.
While there are lots of companies on the internet and in town who will sell you forms and provide assistance filling out those forms for a fee, all the forms that you will need are available free through the state’s judicial website: www.courts.state.co.us. Also, many Colorado jurisdictions offer self-help centers, divorce clinics, or other resources for pro se litigants. Before you spend money on forms or pay someone to help you fill out those forms, contact your county’s court clerk to find out about pro se resources available to you.
Missed Deadlines or Timeline Confusion
Because there are so many different steps to filing forms, attending meetings or hearings, serving your spouse, and representing yourself at your hearing, it can be very confusing knowing exactly what needs to be done and the deadline for doing it. Knowing and understanding all the specific deadlines and requirements is a meticulous process. Add on top of that the stress and emotions involved in the divorce itself, and sometimes things don’t get done as they should. Knowing that you have to turn in this form 40 days after the first form and then call someone about attending a meeting before turning in yet another set of forms”¦it really is a painstaking process.
And while you’re waiting the mandatory time between each step and making sure each “i” is dotted and each “t” crossed, your normal day-to-day life goes on. You still have to show up to work on time each day. Grocery shopping and laundry wait for no one.
But one missed deadline could waive important rights, cause your case to be dismissed, or worse, maybe even invalidate your entire divorce. Even though your life must go on, turning your paperwork in on the right date, serving the papers to your spouse during the right timeframe, and completing each step of the process on time and complete is vital to successfully completing the divorce. Failure can have significant consequences to you, your children and your short- and long-term finances.
Not Knowing What You’re Signing
Unless you have a law degree, understanding legalese can be frustrating. A lot of the terms do not make sense. Because a DIY divorce involves such a large quantity of paperwork, reading each form thoroughly and having a clear understanding of it is essential. Adding your signature to a form that is unclear or that you don’t entirely understand can have severe consequences, particularly if you are dealing with papers addressing co-parenting, parenting time, spousal and child support, custody agreements, and division of assets.
If you are going to DIY, do your homework to decide if it’s the right choice for you. And if you have children or financial assets to protect, talk to a lawyer first””at the very least, they can help you explore all options.
Understand that while all of your district’s forms are available online, the court cannot provide legal advice. If you decide to seek legal advice, there are several options available to you. Many divorce law firms provide ala carte services, pre-divorce case evaluations, or have service agreements that enable them to provide ongoing counsel and guidance to separating couples, if you prefer not to hire an attorney to represent you in court. Some businesses also offer limited legal support as an added benefit to their employees.
Do yourself a big favor ”“ talk to an experienced divorce lawyer first. This is a must-do step.
In the next post of this Divorce Matters blog series, we will address the next three most common mistakes made during a DIY divorce:
- Separation agreement challenges and issues that arise as a result
- Confusion about all the motions, particularly as they pertain to custody or property challenges
- Inadequate parenting plans or failure to consider future challenges