When facing divorce, couples have options. They can hire an experienced family law attorney who will protect his or her client's best interests; or the sides can download fill-in-the-blank documents and handle their divorce case pro se, or "for one's own behalf." In this do-it-yourself strategy, the individuals advocate for themselves or on their own behalf before a court, instead of hiring a lawyer.
With the possible exception of uncontested divorces with no assets or children, pro se representation is a risky proposition - no matter how much the sides believe they may save in the process. In fact, pro se representation can open both sides to permanent risk and significant financial loss.
In many cases, one or both sides may believe they have little money to spend on legal representation. Yet, by choosing pro se representation, the result may be that neither side saves money in the process - and may lose out on larger, more fair settlement awards. By hiring a professional, the client gets the protection of expertise and finds greater financial security than by going it alone.
In a recent case of a high net worth couple, the husband and bread winner suggested to his wife - who'd spent 30 years keeping the home and raising the children - that they should handle the divorce without attorneys. His belief - frequent and prevailing among some facing divorce, or those trying to get the upper hand over their spouse - is that the attorneys or accountants are the only winners in such a case.
In actuality, the husband, who earned upward of $1 million a year, likely knew that without legal counsel, he could make his wife an unfair settlement offer that she likely would accept. With legal counsel and financial discovery, a skilled attorney would know from the husband's income or assets what a fair settlement would be.
What's more, a housewife and mother going toe-to-toe against her sophisticated husband would be unfair. Yet mediators who handle pro se cases are not permitted to give legal advice - even if they see one side is taking advantage of the other.
Under Florida law, if a spouse believes he or she doesn't have the assets to hire an attorney - but that his or her spouse does, the attorney can immediately file motion for temporary attorney's fees to be paid by the spouse with assets. The belief is that both sides have the right to litigate on equal footing - especially if one side has access to assets the other does not.
If you are considering pro se representation - and any of the points of this article are news to you - what else might you not know or understand about family law? It's best to meet with an attorney to better understand your legal rights - before you make a decision that could affect your future. For many, pro se representation is like no representation at all.