Can I Represent Myself in My Texas Divorce?
Many people are concerned about the cost of divorce – in addition to the negative financial consequences that often come with divorce – and some consider the option of representing themselves. While your concerns about cost are not unreasonable, representing yourself is very unlikely to be the best choice. In answer to your question about representing yourself, yes, you can do that, but it is important to know what you are up against. Ultimately, your interests are almost certainly better served when you have an experienced divorce attorney on your side.
Keeping Your Legal Costs in Check
Before exploring the option of representing yourself throughout the divorce process, it is important to note that there are better ways to keep your legal costs in check (while ensuring that your parental and financial rights are well protected). The fact is that not every divorce is created equal – in terms of legal needs. If you and your divorcing spouse are both committed to hammering out your differences upfront and to negotiating terms between yourselves, you can keep your legal requirements to a minimum. You are, however, always well advised to consult with a dedicated divorce lawyer before signing off on anything – to help ensure that you understand the full ramifications of the divorce terms you have resolved. Keep the following points in mind as they relate to your legal costs:
The more details you and your divorcing spouse can resolve between yourselves, the less legal guidance you are likely to need.
If you are both committed to resolving your divorce terms outside of court – regardless of how far apart you are at the moment – the fewer legal costs you are likely to accrue.
Having professional legal counsel guiding your negotiations from the outside can cut down on both time and expense in the long run.
Failing to have a savvy divorce attorney represent you throughout the legal process may increase the chance that you will end up in court, and at this point, you abdicate your decision-making power to the judge in your case.
If there are divorce terms that you and your divorcing spouse cannot resolve and you endeavor to represent yourself in court, you are taking on a considerable challenge and should move forward with your eyes wide open.
The Terms of Your Divorce
While no two divorces are exact replicas of one another, the terms that you and your divorcing spouse will need to resolve are the same as they are for every divorcing couple. Because each divorce term will directly affect you and your children’s post-divorce future, it is critical that you allow each the careful attention it deserves.
Child Custody Arrangements
Your child custody arrangements determine who will be making the primary parenting decisions on behalf of your children (legal custody) and how you will be dividing your time with your children. The decisions related to legal custody are concerned with big-picture matters such as the following:
Your kids’ schooling
Your kids’ health care
Your kids’ religious upbringing
Your kids’ extracurriculars
Legal custody can be joint, sole, or divided in any manner that works for you. Physical custody generally plays out in either an even split or in a division in which one of you becomes the primary custodial parent with whom the children live most of the time, and the other has a visitation schedule. Within these two contexts, there is a good deal of room for flexible scheduling, but if the court decides the matter for you, you will likely receive one of its standard parenting schedules. If you have shared children, your parental rights are paramount, and without legal representation, it is difficult to ensure that they will be well protected.
The Division of Marital Property
The division of marital property is a cornerstone of every divorce, and because it has the potential to seriously affect your post-divorce financial status, it is important to remain focused on your financial rights throughout the division process. The fact is that the division of marital property is complicated, to begin with, but all the following make it more so:
Owning a business (either as separate property, marital property, or a combination)
Having high assets
Having complicated financials overall (such as highly entangled separate and marital properties)
Additional factors that can make the just division of your marital property that much more challenging include:
If your divorcing spouse has greater control over and/or knowledge about your marital assets than you do
If your divorcing spouse has greater access to financial documentation than you do and chooses to make it difficult for you to gain access
If your divorcing spouse hides, gives away, spends down, or otherwise disappears marital assets
The important point to make here is that, if you do not know what your marital assets are, it makes seeking a fair division of those assets exceptionally difficult, and without skilled legal counsel on your side, your ability to retain your fair share of marital assets could be jeopardized. It is also important to stay abreast of the tax implications of your division of marital property. In other words, there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of, and we are just getting started.
Child support is calculated according to state guidelines, and the primary factors involved are each parent’s income and the number of overnights each parent has with the children. Even if you and your ex divide overnights evenly, however, the parent with the larger income will likely have the child support payment obligation. The child support calculation is typically straightforward, but if there are extenuating circumstances involved, such as if your child has special needs, the court has the discretion to calculate child support outside of the guideline’s parameters.
Alimony may or may not play a role in your divorce, but if you are entitled to this spousal maintenance, you do not want to cheat yourself out of it due to your inexperience. Alimony refers to payments that are meant to help balance a divorce-related financial discrepancy between spouses. For example, if you experience a financial downturn with divorce and your ex has the financial resources to help offset it, the court may order alimony to help you obtain greater financial independence (often through education or experience that increases your employability).
Failing to skillfully protect your rights and obtain just terms in any one of these categories can leave you at a real disadvantage.
Those Cases that Are Best Suited to Representing Yourself
There are certain cases that are better suited to representing yourself than others. If your divorce involves children, the stakes – your parental rights – are generally too high not to consult with an experienced divorce attorney. If, however, you and your divorcing spouse have no minor children, it takes this important matter out of the equation. If your finances are also fairly simple, if your assets are on the lower end, and if there are no lingering questions regarding whether something is marital or separate property, you are also better positioned to proceed without legal counsel. Further, if you and your divorcing spouse are in complete agreement on every term that applies to your divorce, it is another check mark in the good to go column. This being said, however, an amicable divorce that is chugging along – with all systems go – can quickly go awry. With divorce comes a lot of stress, and emotions tend to run high – which can translate to interpersonal fireworks (and all the legal antics that often come with this). A practiced divorce attorney, however, can help manage these effects and can help ensure that your case remains on course.
Is Your Case Headed to Court?
If you and your divorcing spouse have divorce terms that remain unresolved and you have exhausted your negotiation options, you will need to turn to the court for its intervention. Most divorcing couples prefer to keep the power to make important decisions regarding their futures between themselves, and interestingly, a trusted divorce attorney may be able to help you do just that. Hiring an attorney is not tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet and pushing forward toward a fiery battle in court – in fact, quite the opposite. Your dedicated divorce attorney has the experience and the legal insight to help you explore all your negotiation options to the fullest, including alternative dispute resolution (ADR) opportunities, such as mediation. In the end, having an attorney on your side can not only give you a leg up when it comes to protecting your rights but may also help you keep your divorce out of court.
Balancing Everything that Comes Your Way
Protecting your financial and parental rights throughout the divorce process is a serious endeavor that requires a considerable amount of time, attention to detail, legal knowledge, follow-through, and timeliness. There are deadlines that must be met, court dates (for any legal motions and/or for your divorce hearing) that must be prepared for and attended, financial documents that must be gathered and collated, and much more. You will, in effect, be taking on an additional job – on top of your current job, your role as a parent, your life, and the stress of slogging through a divorce. You should think carefully about whether or not you are up to the task of also taking on the role of representing yourself and doing the job justice in the process.
If Your Case Does Go to Court
If you have made it this far on your own, and your divorce case is headed to court, there are some points to keep in mind regarding representing yourself.
Going to court can be nerve-wracking even for seasoned professionals, and if you are headed in on your maiden voyage, being well prepared is the first order of business. Your documents should be carefully organized and labeled, and you should know how to access each and every one at a moment’s notice. Additionally, you should be well versed with the information in those documents (which are there to back you up). Once you know your case backward and forwards, you are moving in the right direction.
Dress the Part
Part of respecting the court is dressing to reflect that respect, and the best practice toward this end is dressing conservatively. You cannot go wrong in a well-fitting dark suit that is in good repair (whether you are a man or a woman). You are there to defend your financial and parental rights – not to draw attention to yourself.
Practice Your Delivery
When you turn to the court to resolve those lingering divorce terms, your emotions are bound to run high, but it is important to maintain your composure to the best of your ability. Practicing your delivery ahead of time is a great place to start.
When it is your turn to present your side of the matter at hand, stay focused on all the work that went into building your case and make sure that you share what you have to say as clearly and directly as possible. When the judge asks you a question, answer only the question at hand and carefully avoid drifting off-topic.
Every court has its own rules that must be followed. While the judge in your case is likely to allow you some leeway in the matter, it is to your advantage to know the court’s rules and to follow them.
An Experienced Killeen Divorce Attorney Can Help
Even if you thought you were prepared to represent yourself throughout the divorce process, it is important to recognize that you have the right to change your mind at any time, and Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas – is on your side and here to help. Your case is too important to leave to chance, so please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 today.