- In legal terms, a "do-it-yourself" divorce is called a "pro se" divorce. The "petitioner"--the spouse who initiates the divorce by filing a petition for dissolution of marriage--may represent himself, as can the "respondent"--the spouse who is responding to the petition. Also, one spouse may be unrepresented while the other spouse may be represented by an attorney. In some cases, a spouse who has hired a divorce attorney chooses to discontinue the lawyer-client relationship with the attorney and represent herself for the remainder of the case. In all pro se divorce cases, the unrepresented party is just as responsible for conforming to the rules and orders of the family court as are divorce attorneys.
- The primary benefit of filing for divorce pro se is the cost. Many divorce attorneys bill clients $250 per hour or more, depending on the size of the attorney's firm, geographic location and level of expertise. Given this hourly rate and other legal fees, such as filing fees and service of process fees, most divorces end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. In addition to minimizing this cost, filing pro se gives the party greater control of her case and allows her to more quickly obtain an order finalizing the divorce than would be possible if a busy divorce attorney were handling the case.
- The types of documents and forms necessary to file in a pro se divorce vary depending on the circumstances of the petitioner, as well as the family court. In all cases, the petitioner must first file a petition for the dissolution of marriage to begin the process. In an undisputed divorce, the respondent usually files an entry of appearance and a waiver in which he waives service and submits to the jurisdiction of the court; otherwise the respondent will file a response. Both parties must provide some type of financial disclosure to one another, with a portion of it to be filed with the court, in which they separately list and value all sources of income, expenses and outstanding debt. The petitioner will also file interrogatories, a property settlement agreement signed by both parties and an order finalizing the divorce that the judge will sign at the conclusion of the case. In cases where the respondent's current whereabouts are completely unknown, the petitioner may need to file an affidavit for a warning order attorney, which will enable the court to properly enter an order finalizing the divorce. Petitioners should keep in mind, however, that this will prevent the court from entering any financial-related orders, such as child support or maintenance.
- Petitioners seeking to file pro se can obtain the necessary instructions, forms and other guidance through a number of public and private sources. Some family courts have begun to offer special packets made specifically for parties in a pro se divorce that provide the required pleadings, documents and instructions on filing, as well as information on the overall process. Local legal aid societies may also offer these packets to low-income parties and may regularly conduct pro se divorce clinics designed to assist petitioners in completing the forms. There are also several private organizations that sell do-it-yourself divorce packets and customize these packets based on the petitioner's state. Private legal document companies typically offer these divorce packets at prices under $100.
- Because deciding to file for divorce pro se is a major decision, petitioners should consider the advantages and disadvantages, beyond cost, of filing pro se. Pro se divorce is best for simple, uncontested divorces, especially in brief marriages where there are no children and where there is little or no marital property. This is because the division of marital property and child custody are the greatest points of contention between many divorcing spouses, requiring the expertise of divorce attorneys to properly resolve. In cases where there is a lot of marital property, there are young children or domestic violence orders have been issued, the petitioner will benefit most from hiring an attorney. Besides the complexity and potential cost of the divorce, petitioners should also consider their psychological and emotional ability to handle the case alone. Divorcing spouses may be too emotionally exhausted to deal with the legal aspects of divorce and may not be able to adequately separate their emotions from the business-like nature of filing for divorce.