With the spread of online guides and resources, do-it-yourself divorce has never been more accessible. From a legal perspective, the term for representing yourself is pro se. It comes from Latin and means “for oneself.” While not exclusive to divorce, a pro se approach is common in the dissolution of marriage. There are, however, many factors to consider. When is DIY divorce your best option? When is it not? What are some common risks and pitfalls of pro se divorce?
BEST CASE SCENARIO FOR PRO SE DIVORCE
If you’re an experienced divorce attorney, the decision to represent yourself is much easier. Most people, however, haven’t gone to law school, passed the Oregon State bar exam, or practiced law in a professional capacity. So the question remains, when is DIY divorce or representing yourself your best option?
In a general sense, pro se divorce is best suited for simple, straightforward cases. This usually applies to shorter marriages where there are no children and little or no shared property to divide. In these situations, pro se divorce usually works best.
It’s possible to download the forms, fill them out, pay the fees, file the paperwork, and be done on your own. In many cases, representing yourself is the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to proceed. Both parties can walk away and return to their lives with a minimum of fuss and bother.
WORST CASE SCENARIO FOR PRO SE DIVORCE
While pro se divorce works well in simple, straightforward situations, things often get complicated in a hurry. The more moving parts there are to deal with, the more problems arise.
The longer a marriage, the more intertwined lives become. Depending on the length of the marriage, you may be eligible for a portion of your spouse’s retirement benefits. You may even be able to draw Social Security against your ex’s work history.
Things get even more tangled when a divorce involves children. You have child custody, visitation, and parenting plans to contend with. You need to know how Oregon calculates child support, how long it continues, how it impacts taxes, and much more.
Spousal support is another area of concern. Depending on the circumstances, you may be eligible to receive spousal maintenance. On the other hand, you may have to pay. There are multiple types of spousal support in Oregon, and each applies to different, specific criteria.
When there’s little shared property to divvy up, splitting shared material goods is often simple. But high-asset divorce is a different animal entirely. If you jointly own a home, cars, or other high-value property, things get knotted in short order. The same goes for shared debt, whether mortgages, loans, or joint credit card balances.
If your spouse has an attorney, you may want to rethink the pro se divorce approach. Going up against someone with experience puts you at a serious disadvantage. It’s like a beer league softball player stepping into the batter’s box against a major league pitcher. The skill sets simply aren’t on the same level. Having someone with an intimate knowledge of the laws and the process protects your best interests.
BENEFITS OF PRO SE DIVORCE
When it comes to pro se divorce, the biggest draw is obviously the price. Handling matters yourself is often exponentially less expensive. Good divorce lawyers aren’t cheap. When you use a step-by-step guide or online kit, the damage inflicted on your wallet drops sharply. Instead of potentially thousands of dollars in attorney fees, the cost is little more than a few hundred for filing the paperwork.
Ideal cases for a DIY or pro se divorce approach are when both parties are amicable and willing to work together. If you and your spouse have a great deal of animosity and anger, it can be difficult to cooperate and come to an agreement. This strategy allows both sides to work together towards a common end. It often results in less adversity and simpler cases tend to resolve much faster.
RISKS OF PRO SE DIVORCE
Though there are definite benefits to representing yourself, pro se divorce also comes with certain risks. Saving money is fantastic, and if both of you are willing to work together, it’s a viable option.
When there’s friction, however, it doesn’t take much for a situation to get messy. In some cases, dealing with your spouse through intermediaries, like a lawyer, cuts down on conflict. If you can’t see each other without screaming, a third party may help ease tension.
Inexperience may come back to bite you. Divorce is a complicated business. If you don’t know what to look for, you may leave potentially valuable assets on the table or agree to an unfair split when it comes to the division of property. You may wind up saddled with unforeseen tax burdens or even debts. In child custody cases, it’s possible to agree to a less-than-optimal parenting plan because you don’t know any better or that other options exist.
Depending on the circumstances, ending a marriage often involves more than just filling out forms. Court appearances, mediation, evaluations, and other appointments take a great deal of time. You may have to take days off work and rearrange your schedule. Pro se divorce puts all of this pressure on your shoulders.
Every step of the process has potential hazards and pitfalls you may not know to look for. This even goes as far down as filling out forms improperly. You don’t want to reach the end and have a judge throw out your divorce agreement because you made mistakes along the way. Mistakes may wind up costing more time and money in the long run.
And again, if your spouse has an attorney, you may find yourself in a significant hole.
SO, IS PRO SE DIVORCE YOUR BEST OPTION?
There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to go the pro se divorce route or not. In certain situations, representing yourself is the best choice for going to court, in others, not so much. You do also have other options and alternatives to trial that may fit your case and don’t always require a divorce lawyer.
- Mediation: Mediation is one common alternative to court. You can involve a lawyer, though it isn’t required. A voluntary process, both sides sit down with a neutral third party in order to work out a divorce agreement. Instead of issuing a decision, the mediator facilitates discussion and negotiation between spouses. Non-binding and confidential, this experienced third-party can point out areas where issues may arise, offer advice, and suggest possible solutions. In the end, nothing is final until both sides agree.
- Arbitration: While in mediation both sides must reach an agreement, arbitration is more concrete. A neutral third party also facilitates the process, but this person ultimately issues a decision. In this way, arbitration is more of a middle ground between mediation and trial. The process can be either binding or non-binding, and both sides must agree to which before hand. Binding means that, when the arbitrator hands down a decree, it’s final and official. For the non-binding variety, if one party isn’t satisfied, it’s possible to appeal and request a trial de novo. Like mediation, in arbitration, you can enlist an attorney, but it’s not 100% necessary.
Pro se divorce may seem like the best idea, and in many cases, it may fit your needs and be an effective, less expensive, stripped-down approach to ending a marriage. Though there are potential benefits, potential hazards also exist. Before moving forward, it’s important to be aware of both and closely consider the specific needs of your case.
If you have questions about your divorce, feel free to contact Goldberg Jones at our Portland office.