10605 Judicial Drive, Suite A-4 | Fairfax, Virginia 22030
Pro Se Parties in High-Stakes Divorce
For many families times are tight, especially when it comes to considering the impacts of a divorce. More and more I seem to see pro se, or self-representing clients in Northern Virginia divorce cases where the stakes are too high to go it alone.
I should begin by saying that it is not impossible, or even universally ill-advised, for a party to proceed on a divorce without an attorney. I’ve seen lots of people that were perfectly capable of understanding and navigating a system that can easily overwhelm and frustrate the average citizen.
This is especially true in simple, uncontested cases where the parties have agreed on the terms of their separation and divorce. That said in over a decade I have seen countless cases where pro se parties have gotten in way over their heads in complex, high-stakes divorce cases that required the knowledge of an experienced divorce attorney. I have seen even more cases where people come to me after the fact to try to undo some horrible mistake they never knew they were making in a Court Order that is now not easy to change.
Recently a client came in at the tail end of a divorce. Trial was scheduled for a week after our initial meeting, and he had already buried himself, procedurally speaking. He had blundered the discovery process, the phase where information is exchanged between the parties, and had been sanctioned by the Court for not properly following the rules.
The discovery rules require that all information that has been asked for by the opposing party be provided or objected to by deadlines in advance of the trial date. If those deadlines are not met, sanctions are often imposed by the Court. In this case, these sanctions included being prohibited from presenting any evidence at trial, including any evidence in defense of the opposition’s claims or in support of the client’s own claims.
Immediately we knew that, looking at the paperwork the individual brought with him, the only hope for a favorable outcome would be to push for immediate settlement or simply non-suit the whole thing and undergo the cost and frustration of starting again.
While we usually wouldn’t take a case like this one, the client had a history with the firm and we were able to bring the matter to a very favorable resolution in a matter of days. It turned out that the opposing party did not want to go through the expense of litigating the case, and cooler heads prevailed. If, however, we had not been able to reach a settlement agreement, this client would have been up a creek without a paddle to say the least.
The parties in that case were arguing over substantial assets and support payments. It was very fortunate that both parties had been exhausted by the process at that point, and that they could agree to close the case for the benefit of their children.
In a more recent case, our office had the pleasure of dealing with a pro se opposing party that had gone through a number of attorneys, but did not feel that the service provided was worth the expense. That individual decided to handle their own case at a critical point in the proceedings where settlement discussions were at their most fragile. The disorganization of the pro se opposing party muddied the waters and became an immediate problem.
As is often the case, the divorcing parties were incapable of any level of trust. They constantly believe that the other is playing games, delaying proceedings, and hiding assets to destroy them. This lack of trust is only compounded when the opposing party is not receiving legal counsel, because their lack of understanding of the rules and procedures makes it difficult to get anything done.
For instance, the pro se litigant spent unnecessary time worrying about whether any settlement negotiations would be recorded. Although we assured him they would not be, he did not believe us and was constantly wary that we were using settlement negotiations to bamboozle him.
Had he been working with a skilled attorney, he would have been made aware of the fact that any information obtained through settlement negotiations is inadmissible in court, and that regardless of our intentions we could not use that kind of information against him. Instead, valuable time and good faith was lost because of a lack of knowledge and understanding in a case that involved multiple young children and millions of dollars in assets.
If you plan on proceeding in a divorce without counsel, beware! There are so many pitfalls that I can’t even begin to warn of the greatest danger. Without knowing how divorces are managed, even from county to county, a person can get into serious trouble before they even know it. From improper responses and missing deadlines, to just missing opportunities to bring the parties together, it is often best to at least speak to an experienced divorce attorney to understand your options.
The higher the stakes, the more necessary that you get expert advice to understand the implications of every decision you make. It isn’t as simple as stepping before the Court, telling them your story, and expecting them to decide in your favor. There are complex procedures and formulas surrounding support, equitable distribution of property, and custody issues to name a few.
If you fail to provide your information in the proper form, or within the proper timeframe, you may be barred from presenting that information in Court. Then there are the rules of evidence, the rules of the specific court the case is heard in, and local norms and outcomes that should be considered before embarking on a divorce case that has the potential to go to trial.
It can’t be stressed enough how important it is for parties to understand where they truly stand before they start making decisions that might preclude later settlement of the case. The bottom line – the parties can be better equipped to save time, money, and hopefully salvage some sort of positive relationship if they receive proper counsel at the outset of the their decision to end the marriage.
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Pikrallidas & Associates is located in Fairfax, VI and serves clients in and around Fairfax, West Mclean, Oakton, Merrifield, Vienna, Annandale, Dunn Loring, Clifton, Fairfax Station, Mount Vernon, Falls Church, Reston, Chantilly, Mc Lean, Greenway, Centreville, Springfield, Herndon, Fairfax County, Fairfax City County, Falls Church City County and Manassas Park City County.
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