The old adage “the Devil is in the details” illustrates how often times we see a process or procedure as a whole, and over all the whole is good. But mixed somewhere in the whole is one or more small facets that make things significantly more complicated. Nowhere is this more likely and more likely to cause a person to incur significant monetary loss than in the realm of family law.
Citizens of the United States have an absolute right to represent themselves in court, and many people choose this alternative in an effort to save the cost of hiring an attorney. However, before undertaking a legal matter, I recommend people soberly ask themselves “what do attorneys do, and why are attorneys needed?” Put another way, if legal matters were simple enough for anyone to undertake, why are lawyers necessary? Why would a person spend three years in rigorous and expensive law school if law was so easy?
The answer is simple. Law is not easy. Yes, a divorce can be initiated with a simple fill-in-the-blank form, and it can be decreed with a similarly simple form. But the Devil is in the details. The simple forms do not address the details. Those details can become significant problems for parties in the not too distant future.
Here is an example. What if a divorce decree states that the Mother has the exclusive right to determine the primary residence of the child, but the custody portion of the order says BOTH parents decide on educational decisions? If mother moves to another town and takes the child with her, isn’t the child now going to a different school? So in effect Mom decided both the residence AND the school of the child. The first decision is fine under the decree, but the second is a violation of the order because BOTH parties decide educational decisions for the child. Now going before a judge is required to sort the issue out.
Other examples include putting a geographic restriction in place to keep the primary residence of the child within the county or defining time and location of pick-up and delivery of the child for visits, which is a frequently overlooked detail by parties doing their own case. Under some circumstances a spouse may be eligible for spousal support, but wouldn’t be aware of that without an attorney. Likewise sometimes a couple agrees that neither party will pay child support, but the Office of the Attorney General may have another idea, so one party gets surprised months or years down the road with a huge back child support debt. Other examples are numerous.
While everyone has the absolute right to represent himself or herself in court, I advise people to consult with an attorney before undertaking legal action. Often, an attorney can help minimize the cost of legal action in the long run by nipping problems in the bud. Managing the details is what lawyers do.
As always, this essay is not meant to replace competent legal counsel. If you are facing a family law issue, I recommend consulting with a competent lawyer. Because you CAN represent yourself does not mean you SHOULD do so.