I am starting a blog about common family law questions I get and this is the first post! I will be starting with the two most common questions I get: Do I need an attorney? and How much will this cost?

Today I’m going to cover whether you need an attorney and my next post will address the costs. If you have any topics you would like to see addressed, please send them to me by e-mail or through the contact form.

To start, you are not required to have an attorney, you are allowed to represent yourself, which is referred to as being pro se. In the legal profession we never like to use an English word when we can throw in a Latin one. Pro se means “for himself” in Latin and today simply means that a party is representing him or herself.

It is important to note that pro se parties are held to the same standards that attorneys are held to. They are expected to know the law, rules of court, etc. In an effort to make the courts more accessible, many judges will relax the standards slightly for pro se parties and will explain the basic process, but judges are not permitted to give parties legal advice. Only an attorney can give legal advice.

There are some cases where self-representation may be appropriate. A short-term marriage with no kids and few assets or debts where the parties agree on who should get what, may not require an attorney. Court forms can be found, for free, here.

Most counties also have in-person self-help centers where staff can help you fill out forms. These staff members are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice, but are helpful for those parties who are representing themselves.

In cases that are more complicated – children are involved, there are significant assets and/or debts, the parties are not in agreement, the marriage was long-term, etc. – an attorney is very helpful in guiding you through the process and helping to protect your rights.

Something else to keep in mind is that many of things you might agree to in a divorce are either very difficult or impossible to change after you’ve agreed to them in court. So you may be stuck with a deal you agreed to without the benefit of legal counsel.

A follow up question I frequently get is whether someone needs an attorney if the other party has an attorney. Everything I said up above is still true, but it’s also important to think about the potential imbalance of power. Are you likely to feel intimidated and unsure of yourself when dealing with the other attorney? Or would you be able to negotiate with him or her confidently?

There are options besides having an attorney represent you for the entire proceeding and having no attorney at all. If you have reached an agreement with the other party, but want to make sure it’s fair, you may be able to hire an attorney to review the agreement for an hour or two. That attorney would only be working with the information you give him or her and can’t guarantee anything, but she or he could point out any red flags, possible problem areas or give you peace of mind that everything looks okay at face value.

Some attorneys might also be available to help for only specific tasks – such as drafting a document, attending mediation, and so on. Either of these options might help you strike a happy medium between paying an attorney for full representation and having no legal advice at all.

So, to sum up, you are not required to have an attorney, but in many cases it is highly advisable. Important, sometimes irrevocable, decisions are made in family court and knowing your legal rights and responsibilities is critical. Self-representation can be done but it is a difficult process and is much riskier than having an attorney. Of course, I am an attorney, so feel free to take everything I say with a grain of salt.

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