Individuals going through a divorce often wonder if they can represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney. In law, such an individual is referred to as a Pro Se party, Latin for “on one’s own behalf”.
Whatever the reason, be it pride, the rising costs of litigation, or astronomical rates of inflation, Pro Se representation has become an increasingly common occurrence in the realm of family law. While each state provides some set of rules that permit self-representation, Missouri even offers a step-by-step guide to Representing Yourself in a Family Law Case on their Court’s own webpage.
The option is likely tempting for many, especially those reading this. Who wouldn’t want to yell “objection!” across a courtroom adorned with dropped jaws and stunned expressions? Who wouldn’t want to avoid having to pay attorney fees?
So why bother hiring an attorney? Do you even need one? Here are five reasons every spouse should consider hiring an experienced lawyer for their impending divorce:
1. Complex Rules, Filing Motions, and Following Legal Procedure
Missouri dissolution statutes and local court rules can be difficult to understand and set forth specific deadlines that need to be met. Such a procedure is often daunting for those with and without experience in the practice of law and can quickly lead to confusion and mistakes. Many individuals who attempt Pro Se litigation often elect to hire an attorney after such an error.
The divorce legal field requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and practice. Consider the analogy of performing surgery on oneself. While perhaps possible, it’s likely that many would find the risk simply too great. Like an invasive operation, a divorce proceeding will put at risk the most intimate aspects of one’s life, from the custody of their children, their financial assets, including their home and retirement savings. The risk is often just too high to go at it alone.
An experienced divorce attorney will have the training and particularized knowledge to guide you through the complex proceedings to ensure your needs are heard and met.
2. Cognitive Bias in the Legal System
Regardless of whether you are proceeding in a divorce, modification, or custody dispute, if you and your spouse are both representing yourselves, both parties’ odds of a favorable outcome are about the same. On the other hand, a recent study found that there is often a cognitive bias in a judge’s perception of your case that is strongly influenced by whether you are represented by an attorney. This perception is almost always negative.
While many Pro Se litigants are eloquent speakers and strong presenters, the easiest way to counter this pitfall is to simply hire an experienced family law attorney.
3. Division of Property
While some states will divide both “marital property” (property acquired over the course of the marriage) and “separate property”, Missouri follows a “dual property” model. Put simply, this means that when it comes time to divide any assets, those assets you or your spouse acquired before the marriage will be separate. Missouri additionally follows an ‘equitable distribution’ statutory scheme, which means that your property will be divided in the way that seems most fair to the court rather than an even “50/50” split.
In combination with each other, this means that you and your spouse will be required to agree on how to separate any and all assets you’ve jointly acquired and used. If you are unable to, a judge will order such a division, and may do so in a way you find unfavorable. Such a situation is ripe for a divorce that begins amicably but turns sour. This is particularly likely in a scenario where the parties must directly engage with one another without the assistance of counsel.
Attorneys serve as both a buffer and voice of reason to both parties. In a divorce proceeding you know will be contentious, you should always hire a divorce lawyer to protect yourself and your belongings.
4. Document Exchange
Some spouses going through a divorce may enjoy reviewing convoluted financial statements. However, most do not.
Within the first ninety days of filing a divorce action, both parties are required to submit a series of mandatory documents, a set of financial statements, and if applicable a parenting plan to the court. Not only does the drafting of these documents require in depth understanding of tax law, property law, and child-custody law, it requires one to sift through hundreds of pages of financial reports to extract fragments of meaningful information and data.
Even to those who may enjoy this task, a thorough and proper review of these documents requires a significant devotion of time and energy. Between taking care of the kids, work, and even walking the dog, there often isn’t enough time in the day to juggle these obligations on your own.
An experienced divorce attorney will dedicate that time, energy, and knowledge to ensuring you receive the most favorable outcome possible.
5. Evaluating Evidence
Often, evidence in a divorce consists of hundreds of electronic records: e-mails, text messages, social media posts, bank account statements, credit card statements, and even PayPal or Venmo transaction statements. Suffice to say, many of these submissions are less than relevant, but some could serve as the proverbial ‘smoking gun’.
Which pieces of evidence will have the most weight? Which ones help or harm your case? How do you know which exhibits satisfy the rules of evidence? When should you object to a question, and what even is “hearsay”? These answers are complicated, as their rules are often tedious to read, painstakingly convoluted, and confusing to those without ample experience and training.
When one mistake could exclude a crucial piece of evidence from the record, the stakes are much too high to gamble. An experienced divorce attorney will have learned these rules, practiced under them, and will know how to utilize the procedural guidelines to best serve your interests.
Ultimately, legal proceedings are incredibly complex and detail oriented. Even trained lawyers, across every field, make mistakes. A divorce proceeding, however, is uniquely situated apart from many other disputes. Divorces adjudicate upon the most valuable aspects of our lives – our families, homes, finances, children, and even our pets.
While the thought of pro se representation may be tempting, the risk is often just too high. Should you need the advice of an experienced divorce attorney or have questions or concerns about your situation, know that we are here to help and ready to discuss those issues with you.