Going to court without a lawyer is rarely a good idea. Going to court without a lawyer in a divorce case, where your children, your assets, and your future income are at stake, is the ultimate bad idea. Yet, sometimes, you don't have a choice. You may not have the money to pay a divorce lawyer. Or, your divorce lawyer may have just quit, leaving you to fend for yourself. Or, you may just want to go the DIY divorce route because you think you can manage on your own.
Whatever your reason, if you find yourself in the DIY divorce boat -- whether by necessity or by design -- one of the most difficult tasks you face is knowing what to do when you are going to court alone. Where do you stand? When do you speak? How do you know when its your turn? What should you bring with you? And, most of all, just what should you do?
While there is no substitute for consulting with a good divorce attorney, if you find that you have to go to court alone, here are seven things you need to know to make your trip to divorce court as productive as possible.
DIY Divorce Court Room Survival Tips
1. Be prepared! There is a reason that this is the Girl Scout motto. It works. Make sure you bring all of the court documents and financial documents you need with you to every court appearance. If you don't know what court documents you are going to need, bring them all! The quickest way to aggravate the judge and waste everyone's time is to walk in the door without the paperwork the judge needs to see in order to make a decision.
2. Be organized. You can bring all of the paperwork you want, but if you can't find what you need when the judge asks you for something, its not going to help. Lawyers typically organize separate documents by type (e.g. tax returns, court orders, financial disclosures etc.) and by date (with the most recent documents on top). If you organize things differently, that's ok. The key is to be able to find whatever document you need when you need it.
3. Dress with Respect. Knowing what to wear to court is a little thing that makes a big difference in how well you do. (I know. It shouldn't. It does. Deal with it.) The courtroom is not a baseball field, a factory, or a nightclub. It is not appropriate to wear torn blue jeans, crumpled athletic clothing, dirty T-shirts, or anything overtly sexy and suggestive. Like it or not, you will be judged (if not directly, then at least subconsciously) by what you are wearing. Dressing like a slob, a freak, or a hooker will not help your case.
4. Get to court early. Don't just be on time: be early! Remember, you don't know where you're going or what you're doing. That means you are going to need extra time to figure out where to park, how to get into the building, and where to find the right courtroom. You will probably need to go through security, and there will probably be a line. If you don't allow yourself extra time, and you get to court late, you may find that your case has already been called, and that the judge went forward without you (which is never a good thing).
5. Look, listen, and learn. It doesn't matter that you are doing a "DIY divorce." You will be held to the same standard as any attorney who walks into the courtroom. That means you need to know the courtroom "rules." Since every courtroom in every county and every state is different, the best way to figure out the rules is to watch what other people are doing. If you can, ask someone whether you are supposed to check in before your case is called. Ask someone what to do and where to stand once the clerk calls your name. Do your best to figure out how the courtroom is run before you have to stand before the judge and say anything.
6. Turn your cell phone off BEFORE you get into the courtroom! Start by finding out -- in advance -- whether you can even bring your cell phone into court. Some courthouses prohibit cameras in the courtroom. Since virtually all cell phones these days are equipped with cameras, that means that you won't be allowed to even bring your cell phone into the courthouse. If you are allowed to bring your cell phone inside, turn it off immediately after you walk in the door to the building. If your cell phone rings while you are in the courtroom, and court is in session, not only will it interrupt everyone, and embarrass you, but you run the risk of having the sheriff in the courtroom confiscate it.
7. Don't argue with the judge. You can tell the judge your position. You can give the judge whatever evidence you have to prove your point. You can make whatever arguments you want when it's your turn to talk. But, when the judge talks, listen! Don't argue. Don't talk while the judge is talking and don't argue with what the judge says. It won't help your case and, if you do it too much, it could get you thrown in jail. Just remember, when you are in the courtroom, the judge rules. Period. If you don't want the judge to decide your case, then stay out of the courtroom in the first place. (Which is not a bad idea ... but that's another post for another day!)
Going to court without a lawyer is never your best choice. But if you have to do a DIY divorce, arming yourself with as much knowledge as you can about the court process will at least help you survive, hopefully with as little devastation as possible.
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