Can’t I just represent myself in my Virginia divorce?
At my firm, we teach a monthly divorce seminar called “What Every Virginia Woman Should Know About Divorce.” We offer it on the Second Saturday of the month in two locations, in Virginia Beach and Newport News, and on the Third Tuesday of the month in Virginia Beach. (For more information about these and our other seminar offerings, check out monthlydivorceseminars.com.)
One of the first questions I get asked at these things is usually this: “Can I get a divorce without hiring an attorney?”
The answer is technically yes. There is nothing in the law that prevents people from representing themselves in divorce cases. In actuality, though, representing yourself in court with no experience with the law, rules of court, or document drafting would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
After all, most attorneys go to school for three years, work as an intern, participate in law clinics where they represent real clients as students, pass a bar exam, and practice under the tutelage of an older attorney for a period of time before then even take on their own clients. Before an attorney steps into a courtroom, even an attorney who looks really young, you can assume that he or she has had years of experience.
Still, women ask me all the time about whether they can represent themselves. They cite a number of different reasons, including a general mistrust of attorneys as well as a desire to save money. I understand, really I do, but I think when you’re trying to make a rational decision about whether you can move forward without an attorney, you have to think through a couple of things first.
What kind of divorce will I have?
First, you have to think about the kind of divorce you’ll have. Virginia divorces go one of two ways: either they play out in court, or the parties reach an agreement and stay out of court. When you’re trying to figure out which kind of divorce you’ll have, think about your husband and your current relationship. Of course, you’re probably not getting along very well right at this particular moment, but you should still ask yourself what your divorce might look like. If you’re alleging fault-based grounds or you think it unlikely that either of you will be able to compromise on most of the key issues, you may find yourself in court. If, on the other hand, you’re able to cooperate and you think that, although there may be a few blow ups, you can put it aside in order to get it done, you may be able to stay out of court and negotiate an agreement.
What difference does it make?
If you’re getting divorced in court, your divorce will be much more complicated. You’ll need to follow specific procedural rules, including dates and times to file certain documents. You’ll need to know how to draft the documents and have enough knowledge of Virginia law to make legal arguments in front of the judge, as well as make objections against the other side (and overcome any objections they make against you). There are also certain steps you have to follow before you can, for example, schedule a trial. These steps vary by jurisdiction, but the judge won’t be too happy to find out you haven’t followed them.
If you’re drafting a separation agreement, there’s a lot more flexibility. Though you’ll want to be familiar with Virginia law, there are fewer requirements. A separation agreement is a legal contract that divides the assets and liabilities of the marriage, but that doesn’t mean it has to look any certain way. We tell our clients all the time that you have to be VERY careful about what you sign, because even if a contract doesn’t look formal, it can be found to be binding. A valid, legally binding separation agreement could be written on a beverage napkin!
What are the disadvantages to trying to do it myself?
Like I said before, if you’ve got a case that’s going to wind up in court, I think it’s definitely better for you to hire an attorney than even attempt to do it yourself.
If you’re drafting a separation agreement, there are still a number of disadvantages. If you don’t know the law, you’ll have a hard time writing an agreement that adequately protects you. If you don’t know, for example, what the court would automatically give to you, how do you know when to stand firm? How do you know what’s a bargaining point? How do you draft certain provisions so that they protect you both now and in the future? It’s definitely not an easy job. The danger is that you could write a terrible agreement for yourself that ends up costing you far more than hiring an attorney would. Be very careful!
Come up with a specific plan to protect yourself
If you’re truly committed to representing yourself in your divorce action, make sure you do some research first. What steps are you going to take to make sure that you prevent yourself from succumbing to common pitfalls? Come up with a solid plan that allows you to represent yourself—and do it well.
If you still want more, or you’re ready to take the next step, consider attending one of our divorce seminars. We teach them on the second Saturday of each month in both Virginia Beach and Newport News, and on the third Tuesday of the month in Virginia Beach. It’s a great way to get information directly from one of our divorce attorneys—because each seminar is taught by one! You can ask your questions and get the information you need to decide what to do next.
For more information, visit our site by clicking here.
If you’re ready to talk to an attorney one-on-one, we can help you with that, too! To schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 785-9761.