Did you know that on a scale of life events that cause the most stress divorce ranks just below death?
Divorce is indeed a major life crisis, and the mere thought of it is enough to intimidate most people, especially those who are going pro se. The process can be long and exhausting with endless paperwork and court appearances. However, being prepared can make the difference between a seamless divorce and a drawn-out stress-filled affair.
Below are 10 steps to making sure that handling your divorce pro se is less stressful than it could be.
1. Become Familiar with Divorce Laws
Start the process by learning about the divorce laws for your jurisdiction (state). That is, find the current version of your state’s Rules of Civil Procedure, the codes of family court, and the rules of your local county court and read them. The information can be found on your state court’s website, your local clerk’s office or website, or at your nearest law library. That sounds like a lot, but it becomes manageable. More importantly, it pays off by reducing other obstacles you might face in the divorce process.
2. Things to Know Before You File the Divorce Petition
If you’re filing for divorce, you’re the petitioner and your spouse, is the respondent. As the petitioner, you’ll need to know where and how to file for an Original Petition for Divorce. If your state has no-fault divorce laws, you should consider filing for it, as it will save you from a trial or discovery process.
For each jurisdiction, there is a residency requirement you must meet before filing for divorce. Be sure you meet those. In most states, you need to have been living in the state for at least six to twelve months to be eligible for filing for a divorce. Your county may also have rules regarding residency, so see that either you or your spouse has lived for a considerable time in the county where you want to file.
3. Learn the Amount of the Petition Fee
The petition fee varies from court to court. Find out how much you’ll have to pay before you file. If you can’t afford to pay the petition fee, you’ll have the option of filing an affidavit requesting the court waive the charges. If you want this option, you’ll have to swear out an affidavit and file it with the petition. Once your affidavit is approved by the court, the judge won’t demand you comply with the petition fee.
4. Keep a Check on Your Emotions
Although a divorce is emotional and personal, the court is only interested in legal matters. For instance, if you think that misconduct in your marriage gives you a strong position to ask for a larger portion of marital assets or alimony, make sure you communicate this clearly. Evidence of it is what the judge needs to hear. So, avoid the use of inflammatory language and irrelevant details of the misconduct. Describe just enough to meet the requirements for getting those assets and alimony, and nothing more.
5. Understand the Ins and Outs of the Process
Once you’re sure you meet the residency, requirements, file a petition at the county clerk’s office. That is, deliver the petition for divorce with your own hands along with two extra copies to your local court clerk. The clerk will stamp the documents with the date and send the original petition to the court. The clerk will return one stamped copy to you for your file and send the other to the respondent as part of the petition-signing notification. Be sure you know the process in your jurisdiction. The petitioner is responsible for official service of summons and petition on his or her spouse. Read on.
6. Notify Your Spouse of the Petition for Divorce
The respondent needs to be notified, or served, when you file a petition for divorce. Your court clerk may explain any county-specific rules that you may need to follow. Typically, courts require the petitioner to notify the respondent in any of the following ways:
- Serve your spouse yourself and get them to sign a waiver confirming that they have been served
- Hire a process server to notify the respondent of the petition for divorce with a formal notice prepared by the court clerk
- In case of failure to locate the respondent, you may serve them through posting or publication with the help of your court clerk. This can only be done with a court order.
7. File a Motion for Temporary Orders
If you have children, marital properties, a pending mortgage, or any other financial needs, file a motion for temporary orders. The motion, which would require a hearing, will spell out a schedule for child custody/visitation, payments of mortgages, payment of other bills, and so on. It will essentially take care of all financial issues you’re facing between the date of the filing of the petition and the final court date. Note that if you receive a hearing date from the court, you’ll once again be responsible for making sure to notify the respondent about it.
8. Prepare for Disclosure
At this point, the divorce process enters the discovery phase where you’re required to gather information about the other party. During this phase, you’ll have to request important documents from your spouse, such as bank statements. In addition, you’ll want to send interrogatories to the respondent. All states allow the other party a certain time period for responding to the list of questions. Moreover, if you wish to conduct depositions, this is the right time to set them up.
9. Try Mediation
If you and your spouse fail to agree on a few or all of the divorce issues, consider participating in mediation. A court-appointed, professional mediator may help resolve all the issues, bringing you both on the same page. You may then present that agreement to the judge at your final hearing. Take note, however, that mediation is an alternative to the formal divorce process. Try to negotiate the best possible agreement during this process, but if it doesn’t work for you, feel free to abandon it.
10. File a Motion for the Final Divorce Hearing
Yes. You may have to move the court for a final hearing on the divorce. That is, you’ll ask the court in writing to set a date for the final divorce hearing. As per the rules of some states, you may need to wait a certain period of time before a final final court date is set. Find out if this applies to your state by reading your state-specific divorce laws.
Handling a divorce pro se is challenging, especially if you’re not clear about what to expect during the legal divorce process. The aforementioned tips will help you prepare for and approach the legal procedure in a systematic way, increasing your chances of obtaining the desired outcome and getting what you deserve.