Working with an Unrepresented Husband in Virginia Divorce

One of the biggest thorns in my side is an unrepresented husband. Only just this morning, I received an email from a husband who consistently refuses to sign an attorney who told me he wanted something drawn up that said his wife wouldn’t violate the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act or pursue judgments while he was on deployment. But did he have such a document prepared? No. I can only assume that he wishes for ME to do it on his behalf – to which I told him, of course, again, that I do not represent him.

Also, I’m not sure where he’s getting his information. It’s not like you need to sign something to agree that you won’t violate the law. The law is the law. You follow it, because you have to. You don’t have to have signed an agreement in advance that says, for example, that you won’t steal things. It’s … against the law. If you break it, there are repercussions.

The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a bit different, of course, than larceny. And, obviously, I’m not a criminal attorney; I’m a family law attorney. I don’t tell you this to make any particular points about the SCRA or larceny in general, but only to illustrate the point that unrepresented people are often unreasonable, uninformed, and generally obnoxious to deal with.  I probably don’t need to add that this guy is not only just misinformed, he’s a genuinely not nice guy.

If your husband refuses to retain an attorney, to you I give a hearty and sympathetic grimace. In some cases, it’s fine – in fact, it can be good. I’ve had a few very recently who’ve signed agreements without attorneys in no time at all. And that can be wonderful, especially if no other issues come up.

More often, though, an unrepresented husband is irrational and unpredictable. The one I’m dealing with now, for example, tells me he doesn’t like the custody and visitation arrangement we proposed. That’s all. No further details. He doesn’t propose something else, or tell me specifically what he doesn’t like. He just says he doesn’t like it. I don’t like to negotiate against myself; in fact, I don’t plan to do it. I plan to poke him further, to ask him well, exactly, what DO you want to see here? Because you’ve given me nothing to go on.

As you can probably imagine, this is both time consuming and expensive. And it’s particularly frustrating to clients when they are the only ones dealing with the expense of legal fees, while their husbands continue to delay and cause problems without having to share in the financial cost and burden of it all. When both parties are lawyered up, there’s much less of this. Certainly, this exchange, at least, could have been avoided.

I don’t tell you this to spread a message of gloom and doom, but only to prepare you for what probably lies in store so that you can begin to mentally prepare. To be sure, there are plenty of frustrations associated with husbands who ARE represented by counsel, so don’t think that you’re alone in dealing with the misery that is your soon-to-be ex husband. A general lesson? If he was a pain to be married to, he’ll be a pain to get divorced from, represented or unrepresented.

I’m here today, though, to talk specifically about the unrepresented husband, and the challenges you may face if you’re up against him – with no attorney.

Isn’t it better if he doesn’t have an attorney? You’ll stomp him into the ground!

Well, yes, and…also, quite emphatically, no.

It’s fairly complicated. Yes, when it comes to court procedures and rules and even silly things like filing pleadings within the appropriate time period and in a format the complies with all the relevant statutes and local rules, to be represented is to have a significant advantage. Obviously.

But, in many cases, the goal is to avoid court entirely and reach an agreement out of court. With an unrepresented husband, that may be more difficult. I find that, without an attorney to talk to him about the law, what a court might do, or what’s reasonable to expect, unrepresented husbands can be irrational to the point of ridiculousness. They demand things that don’t make sense or aren’t supported by law, and they can be very difficult (if not impossible) to convince otherwise. Combine that with the fact that attorneys have to be VERY careful with what they say to unrepresented parties (which means we’re pretty much limited to “I can’t give you legal advice other than to suggest that you consult with and retain your own counsel”) and you can wind up with an untenable situation.

If he won’t come down to earth and negotiate in earnest, you can be left with no choice but to file for divorce in court. In many ways, you’ll have the upper hand still, but you may find that your unrepresented husband wreaks havoc there, too.

Judges are inclined to be lenient towards unrepresented parties, and it’s harder to get things like, for example, your attorney’s fees awarded when they behave inappropriately. I’ve found that there can often be confusion, too, when an unrepresented party files something. With a case I had recently, the husband filed an answer, but never copied my office, so we didn’t know he had filed anything until after the 21 day time limit had expired. We had to ask for leave of court to file a pleading after the 21 day time limit, which was needless and annoying, to say the least.

These kinds of things can create delays and cost a client money, which is frustrating. In extreme cases, it can necessitate extra court appearances, which costs even more money. If there was an attorney on the other side, many of these things wouldn’t happen. In this case, for example, we’d have received a copy of the answer (a better drafted, more comprehensive answer, too) within the deadline, so we could have responded without the need to schedule a court hearing.

Working with an unrepresented husband can be a pain in the butt. It can also take longer, cost more money, and be all around miserable. The most important thing you can do is to have competent representation on your side (hey, it’s time to accept: you can’t do a thing about him, all you can do is take care of you) to help you navigate through the bumpy patches. The goal? Getting to where you need to be : happily divorced.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation to meet with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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