Representing Yourself in Virginia Divorce and Custody Cases
In the beginning of their divorce and/or custody case especially, a lot of people try to manage things without hiring an attorney. This probably happens even more often in custody cases than in divorce cases (even in cases where a divorce will be coming sooner or later, but not necessarily) because juvenile court procedures – where you might go to file custody, visitation, and child support petitions – are a little bit easier, typically, for pro se litigants to navigate than circuit court procedures (where divorce actions are handled) are.
In a lot of ways, it’s smart to try to handle things yourself. Sometimes, neither party hires an attorney at all, so it’s less of a disadvantage (though, admittedly, still a disadvantage) than in a case where one party hires an attorney and the other doesn’t. Additionally, it bears mentioning that, at the juvenile court level, you get an ‘appeal of right’ to the circuit court, meaning that – no matter the result and no matter the reason – you get a “free” appeal (I don’t mean free from cost, but free in the sense that you don’t have to qualify in any way) and, essentially, a complete do-over of your trial. So, if it doesn’t go your way in the lower court, you can hire an attorney (or not) and try again.
It’s not a perfect plan, of course. He could hire an attorney, and facing up to him when he’s represented by counsel would be difficult. Besides that, if you lose, you’ll still find that you have to follow the lower court’s ruling until the higher court has a chance to hear the case. It’s not like you can just pause things until you have a final ruling. You can’t. And, anyway, there are procedural rules you’ll have to follow, or risk a thorough lashing in court by the judge, opposing counsel, and/or any Guardian ad litem involved in your case.
In some ways, juvenile cases are more friendly for pro se litigants. But that’s not always the case. You can’t count on the judge or the clerk or the bailiff or opposing counsel or the Guardian ad litem cutting you any slack at all just because you didn’t hire an attorney. Maybe you’ll get some – but maybe not, so you’ll need to be prepared to follow all the rules, adhere to all the time limits, and make as good of a showing in court on the day as possible. It’s a tall order!
A friend of mine is getting a divorce now, which is actually why I’m writing this article. (I know, that’s a common theme with me, though, I promise, they’re lots of different people!) Her soon-to-be ex basically had all the money; she was working super part time when they separated, and then had some mental health struggles that prevented her from working. He continued to work, earning nearly $200,000 per year, but, of course, contributed nothing to the home, paid no child support, and no spousal support.
I told her to get an attorney. I told her to be aggressive, to go to court and have a pendente lite hearing, to get these things established so that she’d have the ability to continue on with the case. She wasn’t in a place to hear it or follow through. It happens.
She did, though, file petitions in the juvenile court, for the reasons I discussed above. She thought she might be able to do that on her own, without an attorney. But the same issues that affected her job and ultimately prevented her from hiring an attorney got the better of her at the juvenile court level, too.
At the initial appearance, a Guardian ad litem was appointed. A trial date was set. Her husband had an attorney. She told me, when we spoke, that she felt the judge addressed her husband and his attorney, but never her. She felt like it was a ‘boy’s club’ vibe, and that she was excluded from the conversation. She felt that she was being judged.
I wasn’t there, so I really can’t comment, except to say that it’s difficult to attempt to represent yourself. And judges – like all human beings – are making snap decisions based on what they’re seeing in their courtrooms. And if you’re finding that your financial support has been withdrawn, that your marriage is crumbling around you, that your children are struggling to navigate a new normal, and you have to try to manage a divorce and/or custody case on your own without assistance of counsel, you might look a little bit crazy. You might feel a little bit crazy – crazy overwhelmed, crazy hurt, crazy angry, crazy sad, whatever.
Your feelings are real and valid and important. Your mental health matters. You should do everything you can to make sure that, mentally, you’re in as strong a position as possible because, let me tell you, these cases are not for the faint of heart. But the actual litigation part of this is not where you’re going to find treatment or help or support. Quite the opposite, actually, especially if you’re trying to navigate the entire process without an attorney.
Of course, my friend didn’t tell me any of this until months later. She actually didn’t call me until she’d missed a bunch of deadlines, failed to respond to the Guardian ad litem’s questionnaire, and she had been served with divorce paperwork.
Reader, don’t let that be you. When I talked to my friend, she told me how overwhelmed she felt. How she couldn’t deal with it all on her own. How she felt scared to talk to an attorney; worried that she wouldn’t know what to say. That she had a hard time even just getting out of bed in the morning. That the GAL told her that it didn’t matter that having those babies had given her stretch marks because dads had rights, too. That she just couldn’t face it. That the judge was mean, that her husband’s attorney was mean, that the GAL was mean, and that, after decades in an abusive relationship, she couldn’t even.
Reader, if this is you – if any of this resonates with you at all, it’s even more important that you hire an attorney. I know it’s a stretch financially. I know it’s scary. I know that imagining having this conversation with a stranger – probably a pretty put-together stranger, too – is overwhelming and intimidating. I know you feel like you’re at your worst. But, frankly, that’s when you need help the most.
There’s a lot at stake in a divorce or custody case. There’s money, of course, but there’s also your children. And if you’re not in a position to be able to advocate for yourself and for them, then you need to ask for help.
Don’t let it get this bad before you reach out for help. Don’t be so embarrassed that you don’t ask questions. Read our book. Attend our seminar. Talk to your doctor, or even a therapist, if you’re struggling with your mental health. Take a walk. Do all the things, but make sure that you do what it takes to put yourself in a position to be as strong as possible.
For more information, or to schedule a confidential consultation (yes, it really will be okay!) with one of our attorneys, give us a call at 757-425-5200.