Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Pro Se Divorce?

In a divorce, a lawyer gives advice, acting as counsel, and files forms required by the jurisdiction as part of the divorce process. The attorney and client relationship is a privileged relationship, which means it is protected from disclosure.

Lawyers bill by the hour. Their services become more expensive the more time they put in. Contested actions become much more expensive because very often they entail what is called discovery, the process by which the plaintiff requests financial information from the defendant. Discovery runs up the cost of litigation very fast because it is time-consuming. On the other hand, if a lawyer is not required to do it, as is the case in summary or default uncontested actions, the service of the lawyer is limited and less expensive. Legal strategies entail research, but when no legal strategy needs to be fashioned, the role of a lawyer is still further reduced.

In general, divorce lawyers see themselves as professional advocates -- craftsmen using the law to help expedite the most favorable result for their clients. Few welcome the role of psychologist, but a family law lawyer who can assess the state of mind and heart of a divorce client can save him or her money and thus leave the client with more for a fresh start. The lawyer can do this by advising against ill-considered actions. For example, many lawyers now advise against using fault grounds even when they exist because no-fault makes it easier to accomplish the same result. An angry woman whose faithless husband left her for a younger woman may seek the vindication of divorce on grounds of adultery, but her lawyer may well advise against it because it does not work to her advantage.

Uncontested divorces are step-by-step processes driven by affidavits and forms. Filing protocols must be observed, but since no issues remain unresolved, the filing is a by-the-numbers routine. Lawyers, of course, can do this, but so can laypeople.

Judges generally approve any settlements couples achieve as long as they are "fair and reasonable" and structured in writing.

Many pro se filers do the filing part of the divorce, but nevertheless ask an attorney to review the paperwork.

A lawyer may also do some of the divorce "clean up" after the couple are parted. The spouses are not finished because a number of housekeeping details must be undertaken after a judge signs the final decree.

A party who divorces pro se should be particularly attentive to these tasks (A client may find some of these have already been done by his or her attorney as part of the divorce). These include reading the decree for mistakes, obtaining certified copies of the divorce order, making new deed for real estate, transferring the titles of cars, and updating insurance coverage, amending beneficiary designations and W-4 withholding and pension plans, rewriting wills and trusts, confirming the separation of bank and credit accounts, and following through on name changes.

Some of these are easy to do, some may be done by the time the divorce decree is signed by the judge, and some lawyers do these things as part of the divorce. Some of these details may not apply in all situations, and some may have happened before the judge signs the order or as part of what is called "the divorce process," but all divorced people should make sure they are attended to one way or another.

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