Going pro se or representing yourself in a divorce is not for everyone. Family law is a division of the Judicial Branch that is not governed like criminal law. In fact, there is very little information online that clearly explains how and when family law started in the first place and why it is structured the way it is. The American Bar Association, only talks about how family law has changed since the 1930’s; however, there is nothing from an average search on a search engine that talks about family law in the 18th or 19th century. Family law is in fact the Wild West for anyone that has not gone to law school. This is not a family friendly system as the name implies. It is ruthless. It is cunning. It is one of the greatest money-making schemes of America that somehow slipped through the regulatory cracks. Certainly there are attorneys that graduated from law school expecting to make a difference in the lives of broken families; however, the reality and ambiguity of the actual job probably hit half of them in the face like a ton of bricks once they started practicing law for a law firm. Too much ambiguity fosters lying and corruption. If you are going pro se or decide to represent yourself, you need to know what you are up against when your divorce is happening in an attorney’s world.
#1 The more liberal the state the more grey area and the more liberty the attorney has to stretch the truth. You must over prepare for everything when you divorce in a liberal state (if you divorced in a conservative state, please share your experience); because attorneys are not held accountable to the truth. Even with preliminary and final declarations of disclosure which list all your assets, the opposing side’s attorney can play dumb when negotiations are on the table.
#2 Know at least some laws that support your proposal in settlement. Know the laws of your state. According to, The No-Fault Divorce Toolkit by Daniel Sitarz published in 2009, the following applies to property distribution (please validate all information before making decisions, laws change everyday and below is a summary for each no-fault state).
What really matters is how each state defines the factors for property division.
You will notice identifying distribution as community, equitable or title is not the same across the United States, community distribution in one state is different than community distribution in another state. What really matters is how each state defines the factors for property division.
Alabama – “equitable” state – the judge can decide what happens to property and it does not have to be split 50/50.
Alaska – “equitable” state – the judge can decide more than just property
Arizona – “community” state and separate property is retained by the owner of the property
Arkansas – “equitable” state – if the judge sees one spouse has been unfair, the judge can divide things unequally
California – “community” state – if one spouse does not declare all property the judge has liberty to divide property unequally; there’s provision for the spouse that sacrificed for the spouse that received education allowing hire earnings; and each spouse is responsible for their own debt. Additionally, separate property must be in writing, if not it is quasi-community property or community property. Code; Sections 2502, 2581, 2601, 2602, 2620, 2621, 2623, 2625 and 2641
Colorado – “equitable” state and separate property is retained by the owner of the property
Connecticut – “equitable” state and takes everything into account when dividing property
Delaware – “equitable” state with separate property defined and there are custodial provisions
District of Columbia (WA DC) – “equitable” state and all separate property retained
Florida – “equitable” state and separate property is called non-marital property, any property acquired before marriage, lots of factors go into equally dividing property and there are guidelines for setoffs and credits
Georgia – “equitable” state and no rules regarding separate property or other considerations
Hawaii – “equitable” state and no rules for separate property and some factors
Idaho – “community” state and defines separate property and marital misconduct is a factor in dividing property
Illinois – “equitable” state and separate property before marriage is retained and other factors are considered
Indiana – “equitable” state and all property is divided justly (no specific rules) and marital misconduct is not considered
Iowa – “equitable” state and all property is divided – even property owned before marriage and lots of factors are considered
Kansas – “equitable” state and all property is divided – even property owned before marriage and other factors considered
Kentucky – “equitable” state and any property acquired before marriage is separate property and some other factors considered
Louisiana – “community” state and separate property before marriage and gifts/inheritance during marriage remain separate and other factors considered. The spouse filing for divorce gets a material possessions advantage.
Maine – “equitable” state and separate property is defined with some factors also considered
Maryland – “equitable” state and spouse retains separate property before and during marriage and some other factors considered
Massachusetts – “equitable” state and all property is divided and some other factors considered
Michigan – “equitable” state and all property is divided with some factors
Minnesota – “equitable” state and the best provision for separate property includes 4 factors; all other property is divided without fault and some factors are considered
Mississippi – “title” state with no other property division rules; however leans equitable in court
Missouri – “equitable” state and separate property remains separate and there are exceptions to marital property after marriage and other factors
Montana – “equitable” state and all property is divided and other factors considered
Nebraska – “equitable” state and separate property retained and some factors considered
Nevada – “community” state and all separate property retained and no factors listed
New Hampshire – “equitable” state and divides all property with lots of factors
New Jersey – “equitable” state and separate property is retained and there are lots of factors
New Mexico – “community” state and separate property retained if acquired before marriage, all other separate property requires written agreement and no factors
North Carolina – “equitable” state and includes 4 factors for separate property like Minnesota and lots of other factors
North Dakota – “equitable” state all property is divided and no factors
Ohio – “equitable” state and separate property retained, plus any money from lawsuit/personal injury
Oklahoma – “equitable” state and separate property is anything owned before marriage and/or gifts/inheritances and a few other factors considered
Oregon – “equitable” state and all property is divided and some factors considered
Pennsylvania – “equitable” state and separate property retained and lots of factors considered
Rhode Island – “equitable” state and separate property retained except earnings from separate property during marriage and lots of factors considered
South Carolina – “equitable” state and separate property retained and lots of factors considered
South Dakota – “equitable” state and everything is considered equitably (no specific rules for separate property) and some factors considered
Tennessee – “equitable” state and separate property retained (4 factors like MN & NC), marital home is seen as better for parent with physical custody and lots of factors considered
Texas – “community” state and separate property is retained (3 factors) and community property is everything else including property acquired during marriage and few other factors
Utah – “equitable” state and all property is divided equitably and no factors
Vermont – “equitable” state and all property is divided equitably and factors defined
Virgina – “equitable” state and factors listed for separate property and other factors listed
Washington – “community” state and factors listed for separate property
Wisconsin – “community” state and gifts/inheritance considered separate property with factors and marital misconduct counts
Wyoming – “equitable” state and all property divided and some factors considered
#3 Sometimes the court will provide a mediator if the opposing side orders a Marital Settlement Conference (MSC). This mediator can be a practicing attorney or a retired attorney, either way they are there to convince you what the other side is saying should be done. They are not there to mediate. You cannot contact them after the mediation. They do not take notes. They are strictly there to speed up the decision and they typically side with the opposing attorney’s view point.
#4 After every hearing, be sure to go to the clerk and request the minutes for the hearing. The opposing side is not obligated to be courteous in any way.
#5 If you see something on the court minutes that does not represent what happened or you understand it differently. File a motion with the court to correct the issue and do not wait.
It is not easy going pro se. Judges and attorneys alike engage in mudslinging, belittling and intimidation to put the pressure on and indirectly convince you the only way to proceed is with an attorney by your side. Let the antics roll off your back and keep your eye on the goal. Defend your rights. If you have questions ask the court facilitators or setup consults with attorneys. Whatever you do, do not attempt to represent yourself without putting forth the effort it requires, you will get run over. Remember these 5 things before settlement: over prepare, know the laws that support your position, do not depend on the court mediator, always retain your own court minutes after a hearing and file a motion with the court to correct any issues from the hearing.