Can I handle my Virginia family law case myself?
Under Virginia law, you are free to elect to handle your own family law case in the Virginia courts. Depending on the complexity of your case and the issues involved, though, it may be more or less possible to do so.
Family law cases cover several varieties – juvenile court cases (custody, visitation, child support, protective orders), and circuit court cases (divorces and appeals). We can talk about each in more detail, and how likely it is that you will be able to represent yourself at that stage.
Juvenile Court Cases
Child Custody, Visitation, Child Support, and Spousal Support
In the juvenile court, you can file petitions for custody, visitation, and child support – or any combination of the three. If you and your child’s father are married, you can also file in the juvenile court for spousal support. Obviously, the easiest case to handle on your own are child and spousal support cases, as, for the most part, support is based on a formula. Though there’s no binding formula regarding spousal support in the Virginia courts and there may be more oral argument involved here than in a child support case (which is purely based off of a formula), it’s not particularly complicated.
To learn more about spousal support cases and how they work (and what you should be prepared to argue, if it comes down to it), you’ll want to read this article as well.
Child support alone is the easiest issue if you’re planning on litigating yourself. Adding in custody and visitation, as you can probably imagine, makes the case considerably more difficult. Then, you’re facing making oral arguments based on the best interests of the child, working with a guardian ad litem, introducing evidence, cross examining witnesses, and more. That being said, though, the juvenile court is the most user friendly court system, and if you can represent yourself anywhere, you can do it there.
If you want some pointers for how to prepare and what to do to make sure you’re in the best position possible for your upcoming juvenile court case, consider checking out our custody seminar, Custody Bootcamp for Moms.
So, what if you get a result you don’t like? Though you’ll have to abide by the juvenile court’s ruling in the meantime, you can get an appeal de novo (meaning, brand new!) to the circuit court. None of the information from the lower court will get into the circuit court, so you can be sure that the circuit court judge will be listening to your case with fresh, unprejudiced ears.
Circuit Court Cases
Divorce cases are litigated in the circuit court, and cover a wide range of issues – child support, custody, visitation, spousal support, equitable distribution (the fancy word we use to describe how assets and liabilities are divided), and so on.
Divorce comes in two varieties: contested, and uncontested. In a contested divorce, you and your husband can’t reach an agreement about how your assets and liabilities should be divided, so you’re essentially asking a judge to do it for you. If you’re filing for divorce and you don’t have an agreement yet, your case is contested.
Contested cases have all sorts of procedural steps involved. Each court also has local rules that they follow, so procedure can vary a bit from court to court. You’ll have to do things like file a complaint, set a pendente lite hearing, prepare and serve (and likely answer) discovery, schedule a judicial settlement conference, and set a trial date. Add to that the documents you’ll need to prepare, like proffers, various motions, show causes, final divorce decrees, VS4 forms, confidential addendums, and on and on and on. I listed a couple of possibilities that occur in many cases off the top of my head, but there’s literally an infinite number of possibilities.
If you’re confused about what some or all of those things are (or what’s involved), you’re probably not in a very good position to represent yourself. Can you? Sure. But there’s a lot of risk involved, especially if you miss a deadline or file a document that is later rejected by the court because it doesn’t contain all the required pieces.
Honestly, I’d never recommend handling a contested divorce without a significant amount of divorce-related experience. Besides that, it’s difficult to handle your own case anyway. Being too emotionally involved can cloud your judgment, make the presentation of relevant facts difficult, and make you volatile in front of the judge – all things you desperately want to avoid. After all, to a judge, this is just a day at work, and, really, it’s like a business transaction. Dividing things relatively fairly between the parties, and moving on. A judge won’t understand or appreciate raw emotionality, and, in fact, may judge you harshly for it. Justified anger on your part may not look so justified under the fluorescent glare of the lights in the courtroom – it might make you look petty and mean. It’s a risk, for sure, and, although you are legally entitled to represent yourself, I caution you against it.
Uncontested divorces are one where an agreement has already been signed. This is much, much easier than a contested divorce, since you already have a full and complete agreement that governs the way everything will be handled in your case.
At this point, all that remains is to get the divorce. So, if you haven’t already, you’ll need to file for divorce. You’ll also need to prepare uncontested divorce documents – the final decree of divorce, the party and witness affidavits (if you’re proceeding by affidavit), setting a hearing date (if you’re having a hearing), VS4s, confidential addendums, qualified domestic relations orders (QDROS – documents used to divide tax deferred retirement accounts), and so on. Depending on your case, there can also be name change orders, or orders regarding division of military or civilian retirement – TSP orders, etc.
Is it hard? No, not for me, it isn’t – I do this every day. But for you? Well, to be honest, you might experience some difficulty. The courts are really particular about making sure that each individual piece shows up in the appropriate document (sometimes more than once across different documents), and can reject things that aren’t appropriately drafted. Final Decrees, in particular, are a bit tricky, especially since they require so much specific language. Like, you have to put certain things in verbatim, sometimes in bold font.
Will the clerks help you? Sometimes. They can’t give legal advice, but they can sometimes help with forms, if they’re so inclined. It really depends on the court, though. And don’t ever, ever get snippy with them – then they definitely won’t help you, and clerks seem to have insanely long memories!
Ultimately, though, you may find that it’s pretty hard for you to do on your own. I know, that’s not fair. It should be easier to navigate the court system on your own, without an attorney, especially if your financial situation makes that necessary. I’m not here to comment on what should be, though – just trying to advise you about what you might find if you did actually attempt to get your uncontested divorce on your own. It’s easier than an entire contested divorce, and you don’t really run the risk of causing the same damage to your case (after all, at this point, the terms of the agreement are set forth, and all that remains is for the divorce to be granted, which is purely procedural). Still, it’s tricky, and courts reject documents all the time.
I’ll never forget, during my first year of practice, I was handling an uncontested divorce hearing (this was back before divorce by affidavit was a thing; theses days, hearings are pretty rare) and a pro se person (a person representing herself) was called before my case. She stumbled through a good bit of it, but because her paperwork wasn’t in order, the judge didn’t grant her divorce. She was visibly very frustrated, and left the court in tears. When the judge was speaking to her, he was trying to tell her what he needed to see – but she just didn’t understand. I really felt for her, but, of course, I couldn’t help. For one thing, I was there representing another client, but, for another, I couldn’t go back and edit her paperwork for her once she was already in court. By the time I was done with my case, she was gone.
The system isn’t perfect, and it’s also not that easy to navigate if you’re unfamiliar with it. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but it’s certainly fairly difficult.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can also appeal a case from the juvenile court to the circuit court, and get your case heard again, like it’s brand new. Can you do it alone? Again, probably not. The circuit court is considerably less user friendly than the juvenile court, and, this time, chances are good that you’re getting a final order. You can appeal from the circuit court level, but it’s pretty difficult, time consuming, and expensive.
For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys to discuss your do it yourself options, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.