So, you’ve decided to represent yourself in your family law case. But, how do you start?
First, keep in mind these important phrases: in pro per, pro se party, in propria person – in the paperwork you’ll be completing, these terms all describe you, the self-represented litigant. Tuck those terms away. (And keep this bookmarked, too: 10 Tips for the Self-Represented in Family Court.)
Every state is a little bit different, but nearly every state allows an individual to represent themselves in their divorce case.
If you are filing for a divorce in California, where I work, at least one of the parties in the divorce must have been a California resident for at least six months and lived in the county where the case will be filed for the last three months. If your spouse is a California resident, but you are a New Yorker, you can still file in a California county provided your spouse has also been there for the requisite time periods.
If your family case involves children that do not live with you primarily, then the court will usually look to see where the child has lived continuously for the six months prior to filing, and that will likely determine where the case should be filed (or in legal talk: “the county with proper jurisdiction”). However, if there are questions about the child’s residence, or if they have moved to another state recently, it would be helpful to seek the advice of a lawyer who is experienced in jurisdictional family issues.
This will take a tiny bit of research. Call or visit the district clerk and review the county’s website to determine how to proceed with your case and find the right forms. Most forms are available online.
After you figure out where to file, typically you will file a Petition to tell the court (and the other party) your claims and requests. You must be truthful and specific in making these requests.
Keep in mind that the old adage ‘if you do not ask you cannot receive’ is no truer than in a court case. Family law cases can cover a variety of issues, so make sure you file the right document(s). There are a lot of choices: dissolution of marriage (divorce), separation, dissolution of domestic partnership, nullity, parentage, custody and visitation, adoption, and various ancillary pleadings. If you have any questions about the type of pleadings your case requires, see if the clerk can point you in the right direction. If you are still confused, it may be time to call a competent, licensed lawyer in your jurisdiction for some guidance.
When filling court forms, remember they are designed to be universally used. Read them carefully because not everything will apply to your individual circumstances. Once you have filled out the forms, you will need to pay the appropriate court costs and filing fees.
If you’re divorcing in California, head over to Hello Divorce to check out our Divorce Navigator. It’s a web app that guides you through the divorce process, start to finish. Anyone who joins as a $99/month DIY Divorce member or above can access the coolest part – a guided questionnaire that helps you complete the 20+ forms required for divorce in California in plain terms. When you’re done, the click of a button populates your responses onto official copies of forms that pertain to your case. Print and file, with a checklist from us on how to do it on your own – or you can access legal help at a flat rate fee to have paperwork filed on your behalf.
Finally, the opposing party (i.e. your ex) will need to receive notice that you have filed a case against them (or served). Make friends with the court clerks because they may be able to give you some helpful information. If you are still wondering through the haze and are ever uncertain about the process, seek out the help of a licensed professional, or head over to Hello Divorce to check out all of our free resources on how to represent yourself in your divorce case.
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