Do-It-Yourself Divorce, Divorcing Without a Lawyer

Many couples approaching divorce are able to work out a settlement without the need for lawyers. Despite their best intentions , sometimes they require legal assistance to complete their divorces. But in other cases, the couple may be able to complete a divorce case without incurring the expense of a lawyer.

Should You Handle Your Own Divorce

In simple terms, you may be welinl-positioned to handle your own divorce if:

  • You are Comfortable With Legal Documents: You can figure out how to complete legal forms, properly serve them and file them with the court.

  • You are Comfortable With the Courts: You are not worried about being able to represent yourself in court, to pose procedural questions to the court clerk, and to address any problems or issues that arise during the course of litigation

  • You are in Complete Agreement With Your Spouse: You and your spouse agree about all details that must be resolved in the divorce, including the division of assets and debts and, when applicable, spousal maintenance, child custody and child support.

  • You Trust Your Spouse: You believe that your spouse is being truthful about all aspects of the divorce, including the full disclosure of assets.

  • You Agree With the Settlement: You believe that the settlement you have reached with your spouse is truly fair, and you're not agreeing to get less than you deserve to avoid conflict or to end the divorce more quickly.

Do-It-Yourself Child Custody Cases

If you look at the form packages and instructions available from court websites or public service organizations, they are usually limited to divorce cases that do not involve children. There are good reasons for that omission:

  • Custody Cases are More Complex: From start to finish, a custody case is more complicated than a divorce in which there are no custody issues.

  • Your Custody Agreement May Not Be Complete: Even if you and your spouse believe that you are in agreement about every aspect of your child custody case, you may discover that issues exist of which you were unaware, or that the plan you created isn't working out as you anticipated. An experienced family lawyer can review your custody plan to find its weaknesses and to help ensure that, if implemented, it will be consistent with your understanding and goals.

  • Total Child Support May be Different Than You Expect: You and your spouse may have agreed on an amount of child support consistent with your state's child support formula, but that is not the end of the child support story. Child support orders may require contributions to child care expenses, uninsured medical and dental expenses, health insurance costs, extracurricular activities, school tuition, tutoring services, summer camps or day camps, and similar expenses, in addition to the base child support obligation.

  • Your Agreement May Not Be Acceptable to the Court: Although courts will generally follow the wishes of the parties in custody cases, there are situations in which a judge will find that a proposed custody agreement is not in the best interest of the children. Also, if child support does not follow the state guidelines, a court may find the deviation to be impermissible.

That said, if you choose to forge ahead you will be able to find resources for completing a do-it-yourself custody case.

When a DIY Divorce May Not Be Appropriate

Although the idea of saving money while getting a divorce may be appealing, sometimes one or both parties will need the assistance or protection that comes from having legal representation. Examples of cases in which hiring a divorce lawyer is a good idea include:

  • Domestic Violence Cases: When a relationship involves domestic violence, it is rare that the parties will have the ability to fairly negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. The battered spouse will normally be at too significant a disadvantage,

  • Power Imbalances: Even in the absence of domestic violence, some relationships have a one-sided power dynamic that can make it difficult for the other spouse to negotiate and to assert his or her rights.

  • Mental Illness or Disability: If one spouse is impaired by mental illness or disability, whether of a long-term or short-term nature, that spouse may not be capable of negotiating a fair outcome for a divorce case.

  • Concerns About Hidden Assets: If one spouse is concerned that the other spouse may be concealing assets or income, it is best to involve a lawyer who can attempt to investigate the facts.

  • Complex Assets: The more complicated the parties' assets, the greater the need for professional counsel. Tax considerations may justify consulting a tax professional. Division of retirement assets may require the preparation of a special type of court order that must be prepared and submitted to the plan administrator.

It will also rarely be appropriate to try to represent yourself if your spouse is represented by a lawyer. It is very difficult for a layperson to be effective in court when the other party has professional legal representation.

Where to Find Divorce Documents

You will find a variety of sources, some free and some commercial, that may assist you with self-representation during divorce:

Free Resources

  • Court Resources: Although the availability of forms and instructions, and the quality of those materials, can vary by state, documents for a divorce case can often be obtained from a family court, or from the court's website. Most do-it-yourself materials offered by courts are for divorce cases that do not involve children.

  • Legal Aid Websites: As with courts, some legal aid programs provide forms and instructions for do-it-yourself divorce, and most provide at least a summary of the process of a divorce or custody case.

  • Law Libraries: Although intended for practitioners, practice guides for divorce and custody cases typically contain state-specific instructions and forms. Your county law library may have a practitioner's guide, and you may also be able to obtain a day pass to a law school library that will have a variety of state resources.

  • Unofficial Free Sources: You may be able to find websites that offer free forms for divorce and custody cases. Just be aware that unofficial forms may not be in proper form or may be out-of-date, and thus may complicate your effort to represent yourself.

Commercial Resources

  • Do-It-Yourself Books: Although books may seem "old school" in this Internet age, a "how to handle your own divorce" book specific to your state will typically include all of the forms you need to complete a divorce, along with a significant level of instruction, for a low cost. The

  • Form Vendors: You will find a large array of websites that offer divorce forms and instructions. Some are providing forms that you complete yourself, while others use online questionnaires and complete the forms for you. There may be a convenience factor in using this type of service, but a state-specific do-it-yourself book will typically offer equivalent same or better forms for considerably less money.

  • Paralegal Services (Document Preparers): In some states you may be able to find a paralegal service that will help you identify and complete required forms and documents for your divorce case. Paralegal services may not provide legal advice.

  • Unbundled Legal Services: In some jurisdictions you may be able to find a law firm that will provide limited services for a divorce case, including the preparation of the required documents and provision of instruction on how to file your case and handle court proceedings.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.