In my time as a family law attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, there are some situations that I see regularly. One of those situations is potential clients coming in to discuss options in correcting problems with their divorce decree. In every single case, the person was pro se, meaning he or she tried to represent him or herself during the divorce proceedings. Now he or she is facing problems that are much harder to fix because the problematic decree has been final for months, and there is no legal justification to change it. Rest assured, realizing months later that you are not satisfied with your divorce decree is not a legal ground for a modification of the decree, and the court will likely have no sympathy for you.
When both parties are pro se, usually one of the parties will locate generic divorce forms, and those will be the documents the couple files. It is true that a lot of the language used in a typical divorce decree is fairly standard, but that does not mean that any form you find on Google will have what you need on it. For example, geographic restriction clauses typically preclude one parent from moving out of the county with the children thereby depriving the other parent of access to the kids. But a geographic restriction clause is not something that many pro se people consider if that provision is not already included in the generic internet divorce form. Failure to include a geographic restriction clause in a divorce decree is not something that can be easily or inexpensively corrected down the road. However, any minimally competent divorce attorney would make sure provisions like this are included in the divorce decree.
It is also possible for one party in a divorce to be represented by counsel, and the other party the pro se. In this case, the party that retains the attorney will typically be in charge of drafting the original petition as well as the final decree. It should be noted, that one attorney cannot represent both parties in a divorce in Texas, so the documents prepared by the attorney will represent the best interest of his client, not necessarily both parties. Nevertheless, the attorney is bound by ethical considerations and regulations, so the attorney will make sure that all the bases get covered, and both parties can usually be assured that the basic needs of the parties – those involving real estate, separate property, financial assets, and the children of the marriage — will be thoroughly and competently addressed.
Of course, competent legal counsel is not inexpensive. But as with any major purchase, there is more to consider than just the financial cost. The value of the services rendered should be considered as well. What is the value of not having to re-litigate your divorce decree? What is the value of knowing your ex-spouse is not about to move out of state with your children, and there’s nothing you can do to stop her? What is the value of having consistent visitation with your children because a set time, place, and schedule for visitation is clearly defined in the divorce decree?
Sure, the law allows people to represent themselves in many, many situations. But that does not mean that people do a good job of representing their own interests. The law is complicated even if a downloaded form seems relatively simple. As always, this essay is not meant to replace actual legal advice, but rather to educate about the potential pitfalls of a pro se divorce.