The physical act of filing for divorce can be daunting. Not only is it the first step in ending your marriage legally, but if you're filing for divorce without an attorney, you may encounter challenges at the court clerk's office. While most people are able to file their divorce paperwork without incident, over the years, DivorceWriter has received valuable feedback, both from our customers and from our own interactions with hundreds of court clerks across the county. Based on that information, we've outlined our top five tips to help you avoid common pitfalls at the court clerk's office.
Non-attorneys sometimes find it difficult to interact with court clerks' offices, primarily because staff members tend to use office-specific lingo that makes sense to them, but little or no sense to a layperson, and routinely refuse to provide basic procedural information. Even new attorneys or seasoned attorneys filing in a new locality may find themselves confused by the legalese and/or procedures used at a courthouse they don't frequent, although court clerk staff members tend to be far more accommodating to lawyers.
The best way to minimize contact with the court clerk is to or file by mail or e-file. As long as you have the exact filing fee in an acceptable payment method and a large enough self-addressed stamped envelope to accommodate the return of your copies to you, you can file for divorce by mail.
It's important to minimize opportunities for court clerk personnel to deliver blows to your confidence. While it happens less now than when DivorceWriter started in 2005, some clerks tell pro se filers that they aren't allowed to file for divorce without an attorney if they have minor children of the marriage or if they're using online divorce papers. However, when DivorceWriter contacts the very same clerk's office, we hear something different. That's because we know how to ask the right questions the right way.
There are only a handful of basic procedural questions that you should ever ask the court clerk including:
Never ask if you can file for divorce without an attorney. That's your right and it remains your right even if you and your spouse have minor children together and even if you use paperwork that you prepared yourself without the assistance of an attorney.
If your court clerk makes his or her e-mail address available online, e-mail your question rather than calling or going in. Of course, the same rules apply with e-mail as with in person or telephone contact--only ask basic procedural questions. Never include a detailed explanation of your circumstances as that will surely be viewed as you asking the court clerk to apply the law to your situation, which is a form of legal advice.
As a pro se litigant, you want the court to respect your right to represent yourself in your divorce case. Being emotional or acting like you're overwhelmed highlights your lack of confidence in your ability to navigate the divorce process without a lawyer. Divorce is often a very emotional time, but no matter what happens, don't ever become rude or emotional with court clerk staff. Appearing professional and confident, even if you don't feel like you're either, is one of the best ways to avoid problems at the court clerk's office.
Whether you have hard copies from filing in person or by mail, or electronic copies from e-filing, keep a file with a copy of each of the documents you have filed, and know when it is time to file additional documents. If you aren't usually an organized person, become one--at least when it comes to your divorce case. Not all attorneys are well-organized, but generally, they have support staff who are. You'll have to be that person for yourself.
The most common snags in pro se divorce are:
Your DivorceWriter filing procedures provide step by step instructions for filing your divorce papers--start to finish. If you're notified that there's a problem with your paperwork, but aren't told what the problem is, review your filing procedures carefully along with your documents.
If there is an error on one or more of your documents or something important has been left out, fixing it is often as simple as filing an amended document. Often, court notices provide clear information on what needs to be changed. More information on how to file an amended document is available here.
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