Pro Tips for the Pro Se Litigant

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Many people going through divorce decide to represent themselves as a means of saving money on attorney fees. The pro se method can be successful if the split is completely amicable and there are no disagreements, but it is still wise to hire skilled experts to assist with the more specialized matters of your case when the situations are applicable. Besides, even if you hired an attorney to represent you throughout the process, many of these consultants would still come into play — and pay.

An attorney

I know this seems to go against the point of representing yourself, but hiring an attorney simply to review agreements before you file them in court can save you a ton of time and money in the long run. If agreements are filed that are too vague on certain items, it can require litigation to clear up the ambiguity or modify the agreement. This can be much more expensive than just hiring an attorney to ensure the agreement is right in the first place.

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Hiring an attorney, even to a minor capacity, is still recommended for people wanting to represent themselves during their divorce.

It may be possible to find a lawyer that will review documents at a flat rate, but many law firms will still treat this process as a normal case and require a retainer. However, so long as the case does not become contested and all you need is a review of the agreement, it shouldn’t take more than a few hours and is well worth the money to ensure everything is squared away before mistakes are filed.

Some couples also believe that it is possible to use a single attorney during an amicable split to try and save money; however, you must realize that the attorney is actually representing only one party. It is a conflict of interest for an attorney to represent both sides, and though it may start out okay, eventually the party not represented will come to realize their interests are not being taken into account. Having your own counsel to look after what is best for you, even in a small capacity, will often save a lot of possible contention.

The tax professional

Tax law, like divorce law, is a specialized area of practice. It is also an evolving area of law, and you will want the most accurate, current information available.

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Having a tax consultant review your decree can help locate additional expenses that may not show up until much further down the road.

The most important thing for you to do is plan ahead. Have your tax professional review the final draft of your decree before you sign it, and ask for a thorough assessment from a tax perspective. It is better to pay for these services now than to find out 10 years later that you failed to report a $50,000 of gain. The court will not listen to you complain that you did not anticipate the tax consequences.

As the Michigan Court of Appeals said of an ex-husband making that argument, “His claim regarding unexpected income taxes is, of course, without merit. He either knew, or should have known, of the income tax consequences of his actions. . . .” Couzens v Couzens, 140 Mich App 423; 364 NW2d 340 (1985).

The appraiser

The small fee and a few hours of intrusion in your home could mean thousands of dollars in your pocket by appraising your house and personal property. Do not assume that a bad economy means your home has no equity — people are often surprised by the evaluations.

Every item of personal property has a value. On their own, the value may be small ($5 for all of the plants, $20 for the yard tools), but combined, they add up. A fully furnished, three bedroom, two bathroom home with a family computer, a washer and dryer set and a tool shed would have, even at garage sale prices, between $5,000 and $10,000 worth of personal property.

Half is presumably yours, possibly thousands of dollars you would have otherwise left with your ex. You can usually retain a local auctioneer or estate salesman to appraise that property in one afternoon for a few hundred dollars.

The plan administrator

Pension division is one of the most heated areas of contention in a divorce, right behind child custody. Invest in a good pension valuation now, and contact your plan administrator for sample orders and required language to divide that pension, so that you know how much and what you are working with.

Ideally, your judge will sign the order to divide your pension right along with your divorce decree; otherwise, trying to prepare that tedious order after your divorce will have extend the process unnecessarily.

There are also several companies that specialize in preparing court orders to divide retirement funds, and are available whether you take the pro se route or hire an attorney.

Other pro se tips

Determining which of these specialists are necessary will depend on the details of your case. However, pro se representation works best when there are no disputed issues and can be a risky choice if the other side hires an attorney during litigation.

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It is generally best to be represented by professional counsel, but there are many experts and services that can reduce the stress of representing yourself in a divorce.

It is very difficult to be successful when facing an experienced family law practitioner in the courtroom alone. You are facing them on their home turf, and most pro se litigants will not know the rules of evidence, what the judge is expecting, what the judge will respond positively to or how to effectively cross-examine testimony. This puts you at a severe disadvantage.

If you cannot afford an attorney, contact the courthouse and inquire into free or low-cost programs. Many jurisdictions have programs that are run by the local bar, such as monthly ask-a-lawyer sessions or referral services to legal aid and law school clinics. If you go these services and work with an attorney, they are held to the same ethical standards as retained attorneys, and you should expect the same quality of service.

Representing yourself offers many challenges, and if this is the route you choose to take, the most important thing you can do is research. Of course, you always have the option to hire an attorney if things start to get out of hand.

Family law is complex to newcomers — if you’ve never turned a wrench, would you trust yourself to swap the transmission in your car, or would you seek an experienced mechanic?

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