Do-it-yourself divorce kits abound on the Internet, but if you’re divorcing an abusive spouse, representing yourself might not be your best option. If your spouse hires an attorney, you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t have a good working knowledge of court procedures and the laws in your state. If you have children, you might risk losing custody if your spouse plays dirty. If you need spousal support for a while, until you can get on your feet, an attorney can usually get that for you. Most states offer low-cost or even free options for representation.
Legal aid services exist in virtually every state. If you have no income at all, legal aid will usually handle your divorce free of charge. If you earn more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, there might be some charge, but it will be significantly less than hiring a solo practitioner or a law firm. Sometimes, when domestic violence is an issue, legal aid will represent you for free regardless of your income.
If you have family money, but your spouse has control of the purse strings and won’t give you any, the laws in most states allow you to access that money anyway. If you speak with an attorney, he can advise you as to what assets you can legally take and liquidate. However, this is risky because if your spouse finds out what you've done while you’re still living with him, he might become violent and hurt you. If you’ve already left the marital home, visit banks where you may have joint accounts. Half that money is legally yours. If you have proper identification, the bank must allow you to withdraw it. You can even take all of it, but when the court finalizes your divorce, the judge might hold you responsible for returning half to your spouse. If you’ve spent it on legal fees, a judge might give him another asset of equal value.
Pro Bono Attorneys
The American Bar Association urges attorneys to commit some portion of their hours to pro bono work, or free representation, every year. If you contact the domestic violence shelter in your area, staff there might be able to put you in contact with a lawyer who would be willing to take your case free of charge. Short of that, some attorneys will at least wait for payment until you’re divorced. At that point, you’ll receive your portion of marital assets that you can liquidate to compensate him.
If you absolutely must handle your divorce yourself, there will be court filing fees for your petition and for other necessary paperwork. However, most states offer fee waivers for these costs if you have little or no money. You can usually get forms for the documents you’ll need from the clerk at your county courthouse, both for your divorce and for an affidavit of indigency to apply for a fee waiver.
When you're at the courthouse collecting the documents you'll need, ask the clerk about pro se classes, educational programs and paralegal associations in your area. Some counties offer pro se instruction free of charge. The programs will teach you the fundamentals of divorce and domestic violence laws, so you can better represent yourself. Paralegals can't represent you in court or legally advise you what to do, but they can guide you through your state's family law rules and procedures and review your documents for completeness -- sometimes for little or no charge -- depending on your financial resources.
- Divorce Guide: Divorcing an Abusive Spouse
- MassLegalHelp: Basic Information About Divorce and Separation
- IllinoisDivorce.com: Frequently Asked Questions
- The Modern Woman’s Divorce Guide: Finding Free Legal Advice
- WomensLaw.org: Finding a Lawyer
- Divorcenet.com: How Joint Accounts are Distributed in Divorce
- Lorenzana Law Firm: Representing Yourself Pro Se (PDF)
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