Divorce Dilemma: Why Going “Pro Se” is a Costly Mistake

By “Dad X”

After watching two attorneys cost me thousands of dollars in fees and thousands more in what I considered allowing the judge to use a shovel between my bank account and my ex’s new Prada purse, I decided to appear pro se at my self-filed support modification. That was a big mistake! Sure, pro se is an option for some couples. If both parties can peacefully split everything they own down the middle with a few discussions or if they don’t own much, it can be a way to dodge attorney fees. The courts can make it easy for a pro se divorce. For the court, it means it’s all done in one session and will not return ever again. But if you have kids, then pro se should be “no way!”

Lots of books for pro se – forget them!

For me, I thought doing the modification on my own would be as easy as the “Do Your Own Divorce” promised. I was able to file the motion and with the help of some clerks in the court clerk’s office, everything went smoothly right up to the day of the hearing. In past modifications, it seemed to be all about the math of who earned what. You would determine whether or not there were extraordinary expenses for the kids and examine what the final Form 14 tallies came to. The attorneys would always end up going into some chat with the judge and come out with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer. Why couldn’t I do the same and help make sure nothing was left out? It went well at the hearing. My ex’s attorney claimed the numbers wouldn’t change. I pointed out that the kids were no longer attending private school or going through after-school care expenses and the judge looked over his glasses at the attorney and said, “Yes, they will change.” It was fairly simple after that. The judge asked the attorney to fill out the Form 14 with the numbers my ex and I had provided on income and the usual deductions and such. The attorney did so and handed it back to the judge who went over each line.

It’s the judge’s world… and laws

“Hmmmm,” the judge would say when about to make a point. “This will only be $70 a month. This will only be $210 a month.” The judge was adding on certain classes and expenses that would not be needed for more than a year or two. It would be another three years until I could modify again (if allowed by the judge, which he has not for several attempts, including a CSS administrative review). I brought it up but he was ignoring me and filling in the Form 14. When he was done, he told me to “Take it or leave it!” Naturally, I signed. I had gotten my child support cut by one-third. Some attorneys have told me that’s a definite win in court and my ex fired her attorney for losing her money. The problem was, while the judge and attorney were going over the Form 14, which is Missouri’s child support guideline worksheet used to estimate the child support obligation that a court may order, I was left out of the process. I couldn’t question or fight an entry. I was not an attorney and the judge just didn’t want to extend me the same courtesies he would give to a bar-member attorney. The downside was that while I had gotten a reduction, the judge decided that I was not to be given the standard deduction for my custody periods, or any other deduction. I should have had a two-thirds reduction. Chances are an attorney representing me would have been given the chance to argue certain points and awards. It may not have worked, as this judge is apparently known for not allowing support figures under a certain amount, but it probably would have been a little better as an attorney would be able to argue the law and precedence. I’ve represented myself several times since then. All of them, I must truly admit, have been disasters! I was in the right and my motions were all right in line, legally. But I wasn’t an attorney in a system that demands perfection in filings, knowing all court procedures and, if we want to be honest, wants only trained, licensed attorneys to play. Can you blame the system?

Hire a professional!

I don’t like digging out a couple of thousand dollars I really don’t have, but how much have I lost due to not hiring an attorney? Were my attempts to modify support pro se just spinning my wheels and supplying a growing hate by my assigned judge? Is it too late to ever fle under this judge again? Here’s a few points on why pro se is NOT a good idea:

  1. The legal system is like any other. Doing your own plumbing, if you aren’t licensed in your state, will lead to disaster. Why would family court be any different? Let a professional handle the Latin phrases and other gobbilty-gook that is meant to speak to practitioners of the law and confuse everyone else.
  2. Your judge and the opposing counsel will not take you seriously no matter how much you’ve studied. If you didn’t pass the BAR, then you are a charlatan.
  3. You can be a master debater, think quickly on your feet and be able to counter any false claim your ex may make via his/her attorney, but the judge really only wants to listen to attorneys.
  4. An attorney practices law every day. They know the law, the court, the paperwork, the players involved. And you don’t.
  5. You should still be involved and the more you can give your attorney, the more he/she can do to help you.

In the end, legal representation saves you money. What happens in court will affect you for years, sometimes even decades. Even if you just end up saving a few hundred dollars each month, thanks to your attorney, it adds up over time. Otherwise, you might pay for cub scouts and summer camp until your child is 23! There are many great pieces of literature for the layperson about divorce laws. Some are available from your state family court website. You can also find numerous resources here at DadsDivorce.com. Check back on the first of every month for the next column, outlining the mistakes I’ve made and how to best work with your attorney for success and, most of all, a better life for you and your children.