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Getting Divorced Without a Lawyer-- Part One

Updated on April 27, 2014

Getting Divorced on Your Own

Getting Divorced Without an Attorney?

Pro Se/Self Represented Litigation

Part One

By Ronvere

Educational/Opinion Essay-- Pennsylvania Example

Unhitching without Paying the Piper


Attorneys are expensive. Even family law attorneys usually require thousands of dollars up front for custody and/or divorce cases. A good attorney can be a great idea. Everyone, in any legal article, ALWAYS advises getting an attorney mostly to cover themselves against being sued by attorneys. (If you are getting divorced, I recommend you consult an attorney. This is just an educational article about how people get divorced without attorneys.) Attorneys, in general, are hostile to the idea of people doing legal work themselves, taking money out of attorneys' pockets. Yet, some people find that attorneys are unneeded or unaffordable. Sometimes attorneys are incompetent. How do you know if your attorney was in the bottom of his law class? Or, if she has a drug or alcohol problem? Maybe he is addicted to gambling or porn or sports fantasy leagues or Clash of Clans and stopped paying proper attention to his work long ago? Attorneys are one of the most depressed, substance-abusing professions in the United States. Perhaps to cheer themselves up, most attorneys charge x5 to x10 times more than then average person makes an hour. People lay out a fortune with little information as to whether it is needed or if the attorney will do a good job.

Then again, even if the average Jill getting divorced can find a smart, hard-working attorney, maybe she cannot afford the cost. Or, maybe a person has an idealistic stance against paying a middle man to carry out a routine legal matter, money that should be going in kids' college funds? Regardless, people are breaking down one of the final professional service monopolies and trying to get the court system to work for them without a lawyer. Family law is a ripe area for self-representation. (Despite the monetary injustice of the attorney racket, Judges love attorneys because a) judges are attorneys, b) attorneys are judges' friends, and c) it is a pain to deal directly with the riff raff.)

A Pro Se (translation “for yourself”) party means representing yourself without an attorney. As Pro Se representation has gotten more popular, coming from the hip, cutting-edge West Coast and slowly seeping to the old-fashioned East, fighting entrenched lawyer monopolies for every mile of territory, the Latin “Pro Se” term has been giving way to the more practical “Self-Represented Litigant.” This change is an example of plain English for the common person versus old-school, pointless, legal Latin. Latin could and should be banished from all United States legal proceedings immediately to make the legal proceedings transparent and democratic with zero loss of functionality. But, enough language nonsense, how would one actually do one’s own divorce in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania Example

Getting Divorced

Getting a non-contested divorce done is a matter of filing the right forms in the right order at the right time. It’s relatively simple process but one has to be organized to jump through the hoops.

First, a “non-contested” divorce means that the two spouses divorcing are not going to fight over whether the divorce should be granted. A spouse may fight a divorce being granted for many reasons. Rarely, one spouse still actually wants the marriage to work. More often, one spouse is mad and vindictively does not want to agree to anything the other spouse wants. Most commonly, a spouse might not agree for money reasons; for instance, in PA a spouse who earns less can get spousal support or alimony pendente lite (alimony pending the divorce) from the other spouse up until the time the divorce is granted. So, it is in that spouse's monetary interest to slow things down.

Not fighting over money is generally a good idea in the long run as any serious fight will necessitate hiring attorneys, and then the battle will result in tens of thousands of dollars being drained off the marital estate into attorneys’ pockets. Better, generally, to avoid the escalation and avoid fighting and attorneys. Should not a couple, even a divorcing one, rather send a child (or themselves) or to college than pay for yet another attorney BMW or vacation timeshare? One exception is if the two cannot reach an agreement as equals-- one spouse controls the financial information and is untrustworthy, then it might behoove the other spouse to get an attorney to protect herself/himself.

Second, even if one believes it is going to be a “non-contested” divorce, you would want to initially gather information in case things go badly later. Family law is largely about an information war. What do you know? What does the other person know? What information can you actually show to the court? Even if one firmly believes one’s spouse is a cheat, a person needs proof as evidence.

On the other hand, if a spouse believes the other spouse will cooperate and be reasonable, one would want to take certain protective actions in case the divorce takes and unexpected turn, and becomes a fight. Also, you need to know you are not being cheated for your own piece of mind. There are lots of web sites that give advice about to do when getting divorced; they basically boil down to gaining access to and copying all financial information, and opening one’s own financial accounts and putting money in them to live on-- ideally before one tells the other spouse about the divorce. This preventative action empowers a person about to commence a divorce. The important point is that in any divorce a spouse needs to open every file, get a copy of every account-- know everything, assume nothing.

The Basic Consent Divorce

Now, let us say it is a simple divorce where both sides are going to agree. How would one do such a thing oneself?

  1. Get the Forms. Fill them out. File them. Watch the timelines. Simple.

State law controls divorce. In Pennsylvania, all the main divorce pleadings or forms are published in the “Rules of Court” West publishing book which can be found in each county’s law library. Unfortunately, these published forms are not tear out forms, or even full-size, so while you can retype each form, you cannot simply copy it in a copy machine and use it. But, you can type it on your laptop at a law library, or copy it, take it home, and re-type it full-size. Some counties have divorce packets you can buy and take home. Call and ask the Family Court Administrator. Even easier, get it on a county’s website. Again, just look up the information for the Family Court Administrator and trying asking that office first.

Not all counties are as friendly as others about sharing information with the public, but a person can use a different county’s forms and simply re-label the county name on each form. The exception to this is a local cover sheet. But, all the main forms determined by the state such as a divorce complaint, an affidavit of consent, a waiver of notice, are the same. Lancaster County Court is an example of a county with excellent online forms that they share with the public. One can simple go to Lancaster's Court's central website and click on the "self-help" tab and follow the links to divorce.

Forms that need to be filed: 1) Complaint/Notice to Defend. 2) Proof of Service. 3) Consent x2. 4) Waiver x 2 or Notice. 5) Affidavit of Non-Military Service. 6) Praecipe to Transmit. 7) Divorce Decree you want signed.

All of these forms are in the rule and can be found on the self-help website (see above).

Some counties have their own Affidavit of Non-Military Service.

It is a good idea to call and ask the Prothonotary or Civil Clerk what forms they have for a divorce. Ask them if they have any required local divorce sheets like an affidavit of non-military service or a required family cover sheet. Some counties do, some do not. Be polite, but insistent. If they tell you they cannot give legal advice, tell them you are only asking about the local bureaucratic custom and ask to speak to a supervisor.

1. Complaint

Fill out the entire form. Do not leave blanks without explanation.

Make certain you fill in the addresses as they are important for venue and jurisdiction.

Make certain it is clear who has been a PA resident for the last six months.

Make certain you sign and date the affidavit.

1.a. Notice to Defend. Make certain your divorce complaint has a notice to defend form on the front! Look up your local Bar Association and fill in the address and phone number on the notice to defend form. Even better, try calling the local Bar Association and see if they have a special phone number for an attorney request for you to put on the notice.

Paying-- if one were going to file the complaint, you'd go to your County's Website and find the Prothonotary or Civil Clerk and find the filing costs. Look up how much it costs to file a divorce complaint. This amount varies county by county. If it is not clear, call. Also, look for acceptable forms of payment as some counties are old-fashioned and do not accept personal checks, credit cards, or large bills.

Copies-- Ask the Prothonotary/Clerk how many copies you need to file with original forms. If they refuse to tell you (foolishly calling a local office requirement legal advice), then error toward lots. Bring in five copies of everything!

2. Service. You must serve the divorce complaint within 30 days of filing the complaint if the Defendant (other spouse) lives inside Pennsylvania. You have 90 days to serve someone outside the state. It is best to serve them with a Court-stamped copy of the complaint. The biggest thing that people make a mistake on in divorce is service and proof of service. The Court needs to know for certain that the other person had notice. The most foolproof method of service is to hire a process server (or a constable in Pennsylvania) to personally serve the person and file an affidavit of service. This service will cost an extra $50-$100 which is terrible but it is the most foolproof method.j

2a. If the other spouse is on good terms, a Plaintiff can have the Defendant sign an acceptance of service, accepting service of the divorce complaint on X date, and file that. The acceptance of service form is just one sentence and an example is found in Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1930.4.

2b. The next cheapest way to serve a divorce complaint is by certified mail with a return receipt restricted (check that box) to the named recipient. When you get the green card back, you file a Proof of Service wherein you state when you mailed the divorce complaint, that the defendant signed for it, and that you got the green card back. Refer to the green card by its number (tape the card on the back of your Proof of Service.) * A recent rule change also allows you to submit an electronic receipt from the Post Office showing certified mail was signed for if you arranged your receipt in that manner.

2c. You can also have someone who is not a professional process server personally serve a divorce complaint, but, technically, you have to be careful! In Pennsylvania, one party cannot personally serve another party with a divorce complaint under the rules! And, it is not supposed to be a relative or employee of the party! (under the "competent adult" definition). So, it is best to hire a professional server if you are going to have the other party personally served. In Pennsylvania, you can use a private server, hire a constable to serve, or even some Sheriff’s Departments offer service of documents for a fee.

Stories of Warning -- Common Errors

Story 1

Angela gets the Pennsylvania divorce forms off the internet through Lancaster's website. She goes to her local County's website and follows the link to the Prothonotary and tries to get the local family cover sheet online but it is not listed. She calls the local Prothonotary and is told that there is a required local sheet and that she needs to come in to the Courthouse to get the local family cover sheet. Angela does so during her lunch break on Monday.

Angie neatly handwrites all the required information into the divorce complaint form. On the notice to plead for the case, she writes in the name and address of the local bar association. She takes time off lunch to leave early and file the complaint, but when she arrives at the courthouse, she finds that the Prothonotary locks the door to filing at 4:00 p.m. and it is 4:05 p.m.

Angie takes time off to come into work late, and returns to the Prothonotary the next morning. Angie had made two copies of everything. She is told by the Prothonotary that she needs four copies. They refuse to make any copies for her. Angie goes to work to make copies and returns at her lunch break.

Story 2

John does everything correctly according to the state rules only to be told that he violated some local rules. John did not look up the local divorce rules. This county requires that you file a signature verification form that the signature of the other party on the green mail receipt card is the spouse's signature. This County also requires three copies of the divorce decree be filed and SASE envelopes for each party along with a Certification of Addresses at the end of the case certifying these are the correct current addresses of each party. It took a long time for John to find out what mistakes he made, but, two months later, he corrected these minor errors.



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