In another case, a husband came to me with a Separation Agreement he had already signed. The Agreement (which his military legal assistance attorney had drafted) gave his wife physical custody of their daughter. Also, his wife waived child support from him in exchange he gave up his interest in his wife’s retirement account (she had a 401(k) plan worth over $250,000). The client figured the deal saved him about $1,200 per month (about $15,000 per year) in child support payments for each of the next ten years until his daughter turned 18.
Just one big flaw. Although the client’s waiver of interest in his wife’s retirement account was enforceable and binding on him, his wife’s promise to waive child support payments was not binding on her. Six months after signing the Agreement, his ex-wife sued him for child support. A court order was entered against the ex-husband who began paying about $1,200 per month through a wage garnishment.
In most states, the custodial parent cannot waive child support because the support belongs to the child. (The custodial parent is merely the trustee of the children’s money). The Husband’s failure to hire a lawyer (even though he went to the Legal Assistance Attorney on base) cost him about $125,000 – far more than he would have paid an experienced Domestic Relations attorney to review his Marital Separation Agreement before he signed it.
There are a myriad of situations in which the “pennywise and pound foolish” scenario plays out to the detriment of people who thought they could do it themselves. Child custody, visitation and support, spousal support, division of assets and debts, use and possession of family homes and household furnishings, health and life insurance coverage, retirement accounts, tax filings, returns and deductions, debts, bills and future considerations (and too many other issues to list here) are all potential mine fields for the inexperienced. Each issue contains sub-issues and pitfalls that you may not be aware of until it’s too late.
Aside from not knowing the law involved, there are two additional problems with representing yourself in a separation or divorce case: (1) it is difficult negotiate a good deal for yourself when you don’t know the value of the thing you are buying or selling. If you don’t know what the court in your county is likely to award you or your spouse, you cannot properly evaluate your claims and defenses; and (2) because you cannot effectively represent yourself in court, you must settle the case for the best offer you can get.
If you think that you can hold your own in a contested case against a competent trial attorney, you are fooling yourself. I have been in court against smart people representing themselves who had compelling evidence to offer. However, most could not figure out how to get the judge to consider their evidence. An attorney can raise objections and offer otherwise inadmissible evidence against a pro se litigant and the non-lawyer is essentially defenseless. Don’t count on the judge giving you a handicap, most judges view a pro se litigant as someone who is likely to waste the court’s time. They rarely give you a break because you didn’t hire a lawyer.