There’s nothing stopping you, right this minute, from marching down to the courthouse and filing your complaint for divorce. Or, alternatively, filing petitions for custody, support, and visitation in the juvenile court.
In Virginia, you can represent yourself in the courts in a divorce or custody action. You don’t have to hire an attorney to represent you, or even consult with an attorney before you file your petitions. Of course, there are no specific allowances made for pro se litigants (people who represent themselves) in the courts, so you’ll have to follow the rules, just like everybody else—but the most important thing to know is that you CAN do it yourself.
The question is, though, do you want to? Do you know enough to correctly fill out your paperwork, schedule your hearings (if necessary), and tell the court exactly what you want to receive? Do you even know what you’re entitled to receive?
The legal system really isn’t all that friendly to the people who are trying to use it. Lawyers spend years and years learning how to work within the system—first in law school, and then in practice. Day after day, lawyers work within the framework of the law, learning and adapting to the pressures it exerts. It’s not that lawyers know everything, or that they’ve dealt with every possible legal issue under the sun—but they do have long term exposure to the law, the judges, and their local systems, so that makes it easier for lawyers to understand, predict, and interpret the court’s actions and the future development of the law.
For everyone else, who doesn’t spend day after day in and out of the court system, it’s harder to understand, predict, and interpret the law or the position of the local court. It’s foreign and unnatural and, aside from a random speeding or parking ticket, most of us don’t regularly have run ins with the law. (Thank goodness, right?) Sure, we know that in Virginia anything over 80 miles per hour is reckless driving and that you can’t park in front of a fire hydrant, but there are nuances to the law to which we are completely oblivious, mostly because normally it just doesn’t matter all that much. It’s okay to admit that you don’t know that much about the law—at least, as it relates to divorce and custody. At least if you know that you don’t know very much about it, you can open yourself up to becoming educated on the law.
If you’re interested in handling your case without hiring an attorney, for whatever reason, the reality is that you probably will need to talk to an attorney at some point. If you’re not experienced in dealing with the legal system, the reality is that you will probably need some help. Don’t beat yourself up; there’s no shame in asking for or needing help, particularly when you’re dealing with something that you don’t have any prior experience with.
In this two part article, we’re going to talk about what your options are if you want to handle your divorce on your own, and then, on Wednesday, we’ll follow up with a little more information about what to do in case you want to handle your own custody case. Enjoy!
I want to handle my divorce myself. What should my first steps be?
First of all, good for you! These days, more and more people are looking for a solution to their divorce that doesn’t involve hiring an attorney, shelling out thousands of dollars, and bashing their spouse in court. Luckily for you, there are all sorts of alternatives to the traditional litigated divorce—some of them involve hiring an attorney, and some of them don’t. Whether you choose to hire an attorney or not, though, you should go into the process with as much awareness as possible. That’s why I always recommend, especially for people who are determined to represent themselves in their divorces, that every woman attend one of our monthly divorce seminars.
We call our monthly divorce seminars “Second Saturday” because when we first started teaching them (now, over twenty years ago!) we only taught them on the second Saturday of the month. The real title of the seminar, “What Every Virginia Woman Should Know About Divorce,” is kind of long and wordy, so it just never really caught on. As a title, we felt that “Second Saturday” was both affectionate and euphemistic (so that not just anybody we talked to would know exactly what we were up to, which is good—especially in the case of nosy husbands), so it stuck.
Today, we teach the seminar on the second Saturday of the month in two locations, one in Virginia Beach, and one in Newport News. We also teach the seminar on the third Tuesday of the month, for our but that one is taught in Virginia Beach only. For more information about the locations and times of the seminars, go to www.monthlydivorceseminars.com to register. (We offer a discount for pre-registrations, too!)
The seminar is three hours long, and each one is taught by one of our licensed and experienced divorce and custody attorneys. All of our attorneys, including Sheera Herrell, Caitlin Walters, Lori Michaud, Ashli Pack, and I, teach the seminars on a rotating basis (some more often than others, depending on their schedules). We cover pretty much everything you need to know about divorce law in Virginia, including grounds for divorce, how to file for divorce, discovery, child and spousal support, property division, how retirement accounts are divided, custody, attorney’s fees, and more—not only that, but the attorneys take questions from the audience, so if you’ve got a question (keep it general, though, please, because this isn’t a confidential forum), you’re welcome to ask it.
Again, for more information, or to pre-register, go to www.monthlydivorceseminars.com. The seminar is a great starting point, and an awesome way to get clear, concise, up to date information directly from a Virginia divorce and custody attorney. Don’t miss it!
After you’ve attended the seminar, you’ll be ready to move forward, but you’ll be armed with valuable, divorce-specific information. The information provided at the seminar will help you prepare for what’s coming in the months ahead, and it’ll also help you make the best decision for your unique circumstances in the here and now. So, what’s next?
Well, next you’ll have to start making decisions about your actual divorce. What do you envision? If you’re planning on not hiring an attorney, you really have two options: (1) do it yourself divorce, or (2) mediation.
You want to dot your I’s and cross your t’s, though, right? So you want to know about your other non-attorney option: mediation. After all, not every solution is right for every one, and you have to make sure you do the research to find the solution that works for you.
In a mediated divorce, you and your husband hire a trained mediator (who may or may not be also trained as an attorney) to help the two of you reach an agreement. You share the mediator; you don’t bring someone in on both sides to represent your best interests. It’s not the mediator’s job to inform you of your best interests, either—it is the mediator’s job to help you reach an agreement. The mediator does not advise you of your legal rights, tell you what a judge might award, or provide any kind of insight into what a “fair” or “reasonable” agreement might be.
Mediation can be a great option, though, for people who expect a relatively amicable divorce with very few issues. It’s certainly a way to save money. Still, for people who want to move forward with a mediated divorce, we recommend that they meet, one on one, with an attorney both before and after they meet with the mediator. Beforehand, the attorney can give you an idea of what you could expect to receive legally, so that you can face mediation with a range of acceptable solutions in mind. (That way, you don’t get blindsided, or accept less than you might otherwise have gotten.) Afterwards, the attorney can help you review what the mediator came up with, so that you don’t sign something that is poorly written, vague, ambiguous, or just doesn’t say what you think it does. After all, once you sign it, there’s no going back.
There are lots of good mediators out there. (There are, of course, also a lot of bad ones.) Be sure you read reviews online, and remember that you aren’t bound to stay in mediation if you’re not comfortable with the direction it’s taking. You are free to get up and leave, or to refuse to sign something. The mediator may get frustrated, or pressure you, but you are a free agent, and you’re welcome to get up and leave or end the mediation at any point.
If you don’t want to hire an attorney in your divorce case, you do have options! On Wednesday, we’ll talk about what to do if you want to handle your custody case without an attorney—believe it or not, there are options! We’re here to help, so if you’d like to chat about your “do it yourself” options, please feel free to call our office at (757) 785-9761.