The Dangers of Pro Se Divorce: What Can Go Wrong If You Handle Your Own Case

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by Chris Torrone

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11.03.2021

If you are thinking about filing for a divorce yourself in Washington State, you should know that there are many pitfalls that could make things very difficult for you. You may not know that there are certain laws that apply to divorces in Washington State, and you may not know what you need to do to protect yourself. In this article, we will discuss the dangers of a pro se divorce and what can happen if you don’t hire an attorney.

The legal challenges of pro se divorce

Pro se divorce is often attractive because it is seen as the most cost-effective way to divorce. However, the saying “you get what you pay for” is certainly applicable here. When you work with an established, reputable attorney, you are paying for a legal expert who is well-versed in family and divorce law. They have the legal training to ensure that there are no procedural missteps in the divorce process and they’ll understand how precedents affect your particular case. They will also offer an impartial understanding of how your case can be successfully resolved and help you avoid making irrational or emotional decisions that may negatively affect your case.

Without this legal expertise, your divorce may take longer than you expect, you may have to resubmit following incorrect paperwork or refile because of missed deadlines, and you may make legal mistakes you aren’t aware of that can leave you legally vulnerable. You may inadvertently give up rights you didn’t know you had, or struggle to deal with a legal complication that you are ill-equipped to handle.

For example, depending on how long you have been married, you and your partner may be entitled to part of each other’s retirement benefits, military pension, or other financial compensation related to retirement. How will you manage splitting those retirement assets?

Or if you share a significant amount of debt, then parsing out shared responsibility for that debt can become complicated. Similarly, the equitable division of property comes with its own set of challenges. Co-owning a home, business, or other major marital property requires legal savvy to understand your options for splitting up those assets equitably. Even if you think you have full legal rights to your own separate property, community property laws can create complications for you.

When you have a child or minor children together, it can be challenging to create an equitable custodial arrangement that is in your child’s best interest. Whenever children, or even pets, are involved, emotions can run high and cloud your judgement. How will you and your ex manage disagreements about co-parenting your children? You’ll have to come to some kind of an agreement in order to pursue pro se divorce.

When you represent yourself, you also risk unknowingly showing your bias or demonstrating prejudice before a judge. Because of the emotional attachments and investments that come with divorce, you may quickly lose your ability to see the case objectively. Any of these things can hurt your case if you end up in court and have to represent yourself.

All the above scenarios can complicate things with your ex, and it can be especially tricky to navigate the legal side when you try to handle your divorce without the support of a seasoned family attorney.

man handling his divorce pro se, on his own.

The practical challenges of pro se divorce

If both parties wish to have an uncontested or no-fault divorce, then filing pro se is of course an option. However, both parties still need to agree on certain terms. These terms will be unique to each situation. The circumstances for divorce vary widely, and we touched on some of them in the previous section. But some potential areas that would require both parties’ agreement to have an uncontested, pro se divorce include:

  • Child custody, schedule, related arrangements (sharing or switching holidays, summers, etc.), and expenses (school, health insurance, extra-curricular activities, clothing, etc.)
  • Child support schedule and amount
  • Pet custody, schedule, related arrangements (who makes medical or end-of-life decisions, etc), and expenses
  • Division of shared property (such as homes, cars, etc.) vs. personal property (items brought into the marriage, or purchase with one’s own money)
  • Division of marital assets (again, home, car, business, etc.) and debts (mortgage, school loans, small business loans, credit card debt, etc.)
  •  Spousal entitlement to retirement funds

When a couple chooses to divorce, it is likely because there are very different viewpoints or philosophies toward sharing a life together. Sticky issues that can lead to divorce don’t just go away, and more often than not, they’ll come to a head when trying to negotiate with your ex for an uncontested divorce. Just because you’ve agreed to divorce doesn’t mean you’ll agree on every aspect of disentangling from each other’s lives. If you’ve been married a long time, share finances and bank accounts, or have children, coming to an agreement about these practical aspects of your marriage is going to be challenging. 

Often, pro se divorce is only successful for partners who never shared assets, or were only married a short time and quickly realized that their life desires were incompatible. A truly amicable, successfully filed pro se divorce is a bit of a white whale in the legal field.

Additional circumstances that make pro se divorce a poor choice

If at any time in your relationship you experienced manipulation, coercion, violence, or abuse, get a lawyer. Pro se divorce is never a good option if you have experienced domestic violence. Your ex may try to put on a good show by saying you can process the divorce more easily by doing it yourselves, and then turn around and take everything, including full custody of your child.

It goes without saying, never sign any divorce documents that you haven’t read or don’t fully understand. An abusive ex may try to use violence or otherwise manipulate you into agreeing to divorce terms that harm you or remove parental rights that may be very difficult to get back in the future. It is very common for victims of abuse to come out of a pro se divorce with far less than they are entitled to, compared to those that went through an experienced lawyer. The best way to protect yourself and your children, both legally and from abuse, is to hire a good family law attorney. There are many resources that can provide you with affordable legal assistance.

And if your ex has lawyered up, then you aren’t doing yourself any favors by representing yourself in court. Going up against an experienced, seasoned family law attorney will not work in your favor, and you’ll do yourself a disservice by not working with an experienced family law attorney to protect your interests.

Torrone Law is here to support your needs, both during and after divorce. Our compassionate lawyers will work to ensure that your needs are met and that you can begin your post-divorce life with the assets and legal rights you are entitled to.

For answers to your questions, check out our frequently asked questions below. 

FAQ’s

What is pro se divorce?

The term “pro se” comes from the Latin phrase that means “for oneself.” Simply, pro se divorce is filing for divorce on your own without the support of an attorney.

Why do some people choose pro se divorce?

Pro se divorce can be attractive to a couple who is parting amicably, has a clear-cut prenuptial agreement in place, wishes to avoid attorney fees, or wants to process their divorce quickly without waiting on the court system. If both parties wish to pursue an uncontested divorce, then they may be able to maturely handle a pro se divorce that ensures they both get what they want.

When should I avoid pro se divorce?

Divorce gets complicated very quickly and each divorce is different. If you share children, pets, property, or a business, then you need a legal expert who can protect your interests and ensure that you retain your legal rights. Lawyers have years of training and experience that they can draw from, which means they will have a better understanding than you do about the legal precedents that will apply to your case. Generally, we encourage anyone seeking a divorce to at least do a free consultation with an attorney. There are very few circumstances where pro se divorce results in both parties leaving the marriage amicably with their assets intact.

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