Family law matters make up a substantial amount of the Courts’ caseload. Additionally, the number of parties who elect to represent themselves (pro se) rather than rely on the assistance of legal counsel is substantially increasing. One of the reasons to explain both of these situations is that family matters tend to escape finality. Divorces are final, but enforcement of property settlement agreements survive the decree. Custody and support are modifiable for changes in circumstances until the child reaches 18 in custody matters and 18 or emancipation in support matters. The parties often cannot afford legal expenses for years and years so choose to go it alone. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has made it easier for parties to proceed on their own by providing internet access to legal forms necessary to file to proceed in court. This gives parties the sense that litigating family matters is as easy as filling in the blanks so why not proceed on your own.
Why not? Abraham Lincoln said it all: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client”.
Breaking up is harder than people realize. While the legal forms are easy to fill in the blanks, understanding one’s rights, how to protect them and how to secure them involves expertise and experience. Divorces are filed and finalized by pro se litigants then litigants seek legal advice as to how to obtain their interests in the marital home, spouse’s retirement benefits, alimony, or help with joint debts. But once the divorce is final, retirement benefits and alimony are lost forever and property rights and debts become civil actions not subject to the Divorce Code.
Custody matters are even harder to pursue as a pro se litigant. Emotions are often out of control and cloud a parent’s judgment. The ability to present your case in the most positive light while addressing the 17 statutory factors that the courts must take into consideration in resolving custody disputes, is difficult at best if not impossible. The consequence is that the court makes a decision based on missing information or worse yet, misinformation. The best interests of the child may not have been served and the decision is often difficult to live with for a party and child.
In the support arena, parties often believe by using the internet sites that have Pennsylvania Support Guideline calculators, that the amount of support is a simple mathematical calculation. However, numerous factors are considered in these calculations and the guidelines are only a presumptive amount. This means there are defenses to lowering or increasing the amount. It takes knowledge and experience to know when and how to apply these defenses.
Breaking up will always be hard, but parties should not do it alone. If you cannot afford an attorney at the very least, prioritize getting legal advice as to how to make it easier and more beneficial. You cannot afford to be a fool when the stakes are high and the consequences great.