If you plan to represent yourself in the divorce, or go Pro Se, you will have to be organized, know your state laws, get acquainted with your court clerk, and know your state’s rules of behavior for attorneys and judges.
Divorce is an emotional and legal event. If you have an attorney representing you, you are free to focus on the emotional aspect of your divorce. If you are representing yourself, it’s up to you to deal with both the emotional and legal aspects. To be successful as a Pro Se litigant you need to put your emotions on the back burner.
The best way to stay focused and protect your legal rights is organization and preparation.
Knowledge will be your best friend; organization will be your second-best friend. The Pro Se litigant will accumulate a mountain of paperwork through legal research and court filings. Being organized will help you stay focused and will save time and energy.
• Purchase file folders and a filing cabinet to be used before, during, and after the divorce process.
• When doing research on state divorce laws and civil procedure, print out what you find and file it away in it’s own folder. It is reference material and you want it handy.
• Have a separate file for every document you file with the courts. In that file keep the original and a copy that is stamped by the court clerk with the court stamp and dates the document was filed.
• Keep a written log of everyone you speak with, the date you speak with them and the issue discussed. It will be a quick reference that will keep you from having to spend valuable time looking back through files.
Lawyers go to law school for a reason. They don’t want to show up in court and not know what to do. You won’t have three years of law school to help you prepare but you can learn what you will need to know. Thanks to Google, your telephone, and the knowledge of what to ask and look for you can gain enough expertise to take your case before a judge.
• Get to know your local court clerk and what you can expect from him or her during the divorce process. Below is a list of ways your court clerk may be able to assist you.
1. Give you information about court dockets or calendars and discuss what is in your court file.
2. Discuss court rules, court procedures, and administrative practices.
3. Identify and provide court forms you will need during the divorce process.
4. Answer questions about how to complete court forms, but not give advice on how the pro se litigant should respond to questions on forms.
5. Define common legal terms used by the court.
• Learn your state’s divorce laws. You want to know child support guidelines if you have children. Become familiar with how your state determines child custody, visitation, and property distribution.
• Research your state’s Rules of Civil Procedure or Civil Code. Your state’s civil procedure rules are a mission statement. They are rules that the courts must follow to protect the legal rights of anyone involved in a civil action. During a divorce, you are seeking a legal or equitable remedy to the end of your marriage. Your state’s Rules of Civil Procedure or Civil Code protects you during a civil action. If you don’t know those rules you won’t know if someone has stepped on your legal rights.
• Lawyers have a Code of Ethics or Code of Professional Responsibility. Find your state’s Bar Association website and learn how attorneys should conduct themselves ethically and what their professional responsibility is. The opposing attorney has codes of ethics and a code of professional responsibility that he or she has to follow in a relationship the client and with you. As with the rules of civil procedure, you need to know this information to be able to protect your legal rights.
• Every state has Canons of Judicial Ethics. These are the rules, principles, or standards a judge is expected to follow during any legal process. In other words, just as the opposing counsel has ethics to follow so does the judge who is handling your case. The judge’s conduct is governed by rules set by the state. It is up to you to learn what is and what isn’t acceptable conduct from a judge.