In some cases, a person may believe he can handle a divorce on his own without hiring an attorney. This may happen for any of a number of reasons:
- He thought that there weren’t many assets or debts to divide, so it should be simple;
- There were no children, so he thought it wasn’t worth hiring a lawyer;
- He expected the divorce to be uncontested;
- He thought he could handle the process by himself; and/or
- He didn’t think he had the money to pay for an attorney.
Whatever the reason, those who try to handle a divorce on their own may end up changing their minds at some point down the road. So what happens if person who files pro se changes his mind and realizes that he now needs to hire an attorney? Is it too late for him to change his mind? At what point can he make the switch and hire a divorce lawyer?
The good news is that, until the case is over, you can always hire an attorney to represent you during a divorce. Pro se litigants are allowed to hire counsel at anytime during the divorce process, whether at the beginning, in the middle, or just before the end. However, while it’s great news that you still have the right to hire a lawyer, there are some considerations that must be taken into consideration:
- It may cost you more hiring an attorney during the process than if you had done so at the beginning. When you hire an attorney after the action has been filed, he must spend time getting up to speed on your case, which includes quickly reviewing everything that has been filed, collecting any additional information that he determines is necessary to protect your interests, and preparing for the next stage in your case – all at the same time. Had the attorney been involved in your from the beginning, he could have done this work incrementally rather than all at once, and perhaps even been able to shorten the process altogether by negotiating an agreement with the other side on some or all of the issues.
- Another factor to consider when hiring an attorney after your divorce is already underway is that your attorney may not have the same opportunity to engage in discovery as he would if he had been hired from the beginning. One of the first things that experienced family law attorneys do is develop a discovery plan for each particular case. Had the attorney been around when the case began, he could have requested information or conducted depositions to uncover details that may prove crucial to your case. By not hiring an attorney early on, you may already have limited or even waived his opportunity to do so.
- If you cannot reach an agreement, do you know how to go through a mediation? What if the other party hires an attorney before trial, do you know how to present your case, how to introduce evidence, when to object and how to do so properly, etc.? Keep in mind, the Family Court judge cannot give you any advice during trial, and you will be held to the same standard as your spouse’s attorney. Trust me, when a pro se litigant attempts to represent himself in a trial, it rarely ends well (for him).
- Finally, and perhaps most obviously, family law is much more complicated than you might expect, and you may not have a good grasp of what to look for and what to look out for in your case. For instance, what happens with retirement accounts – are they marital, and if so, how are they divided? What about the marital home, can the Court force it to be sold or the mortgage to be refinanced? What happens if the other side refuses to comply with the Court’s Order. What about visitation – is agreeing to “reasonable visitation” ever a good idea or can it be a recipe for disaster?
Keep in mind that these are only a few of the many issues that need to be analyzed in every case, because after your Divorce Decree is issued, you may be stuck with a bad result forever. It’s for these reasons, along with many others, that representing yourself pro se in a South Carolina divorce can be a very risky proposition.