With a steady rise divorce rates in Nassau County and Suffolk County, NY, has come an increase in the number of people who decided to represent themselves in their divorce proceedings on Long Island. This is known in legal parlance as proceeding pro se in their divorce, or, without the representation of legal counsel. Of course, as a divorce lawyer practicing on Long Island, you will expect me to rail against such a trend, but for the purposes of this article I will stick to the published facts and draw no conclusions one way or the other.
There are actually two primary issues that must be addressed in assessing the relatively recent development of increased pro se divorce proceedings.
- Given the complexity of the law and the potential long-lasting negative legal and financial ramifications, why would an individual choose not to hire a divorce attorney?
- Are there statistically relevant data points describing the relative success of pro se divorce litigants successful in relation to individuals who obtain legal counsel in their divorce actions?
Why the Rise in Divorce Rates in New York?
With the adoption of No-Fault Divorce legislation in many states in the 1970s, divorce rates steadily increased in New York over the following decades. No-Fault Divorce laws make it possible for one party to obtain a divorce, even without the consent or cooperation of another and by 2001, all 50 states in the U.S. had added No-Fault Divorce provisions to their divorce laws. The adoption of No-Fault Divorce statutes has ultimately led to an increase in divorce rates not only on Long Island and in New York state, but nationwide.
Studies of Pro Se Divorce Cases in the U.S.
Shorter Marriages, Low-Income, Younger, Well-Educated, Childless, without Real Estate or Personal Property More Likely to Proceed in Pro Se Divorce
In a 1994 publication, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services cited several studies which documented a steady increase in pro se divorce cases from the 1970s through the 1990s. This report noted that those who were turning to self-representation generally had low to moderate incomes. The Standing Committee further identified that pro se litigants tended to be fairly well-educated, and were on average, younger than those who were represented by counsel. Litigants were also more likely to proceed pro se if they regarded their cases as being relatively “simple.” Specifically, those with no minor children, no real estate, or substantial personal property, and who had been married less than 10 years were much more likely to represent themselves in divorce proceedings.
Pitfalls of Divorce Pro Se
Missing Court Forms, Documentation, Marital Counseling, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Tax Ramifications, Maintenance or Spousal Support
Although the Standing Committee report did not evaluate the desirability of proceeding pro se in divorce proceedings, it did note some potential limitations to doing so. In particular, pro se litigants were less likely to fill out necessary court forms and documentation, obtain information regarding marital counseling and alternative dispute resolution services, receive important information pertaining to tax related issues, and were also much less likely to request maintenance in their divorce cases.
Income of Husband & Minor Children Main Factors in Pro Se Divorce
In 2010, Judith G. McMullen and Debra Oswald sought to explore this issue further by conducting a case study on pro se divorce litigants in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. 12 J. L. & Fam. Stud. 57. The data revealed that in 46.4% of the divorce cases studied, both parties had counsel and in 27.7% of the cases, both individuals proceeded pro se. Their research also revealed that the strongest factors indicating whether an individual would proceed pro se were the income of the husband and whether the parties had minor children. The data further demonstrated that in cases where parties chose to retain legal counsel, the husbands involved in the actions earned significantly more money than those involved in the pro se cases. Similarly, the presence of young children within a marriage increased the likelihood by 60 percent that an individual party would hire legal representation in a divorce action, likely because of Child Support and Child Custody issues.
The researchers additionally focused on whether the presence of a divorce attorney improved and expedited the divorce process. The data revealed that divorce proceedings were significantly lengthier in cases where both the husband and wife were represented by counsel, compared to situations when only one party retained counsel. Moreover, the average length of a divorce case was statistically shorter when both parties were pro se than in all other situations. However, it is unclear whether this correlation was based upon the presence of counsel or the complexity of the cases in which the parties chose to retain legal counsel.
Protection of Rights & Assets Main Factors in Hiring Divorce Attorney
In addressing the question as to why people choose to proceed pro se in divorce actions, one notion is that the decision is often based on financial considerations. As previously mentioned, in the case study, the husband’s income was one financial indicator of a party’s choice to retain counsel. Those who hired counsel were older and had been married longer at the time of divorce. In turn, age and length of marriage both suggest higher levels of education, making one more receptive to seeking the advice of an attorney. People who have been married longer might also feel that they have more to lose, so they are willing to pay for the cost of an attorney to protect their rights and assets. The decision of parties to retain counsel when minor children are involved can be traced to a parent’s desire to have custody or otherwise shape the future of their children.
Pro Se Initially More Cost Effective
While it may be more cost-effective to proceed pro se in divorce cases, those considering this approach to litigation should fully understand all of the potential ramifications that go along with representing oneself in a lawsuit. It is important to be informed of all of your rights in any legal proceeding, especially one that will weigh heavily on your and your family’s future.
Free Consultation to See if Pro Se is Right for Your Nassau, Suffolk, Long Island Divorce
If you are considering filing for divorce pro se in Nassau County or Suffolk County court, I would encourage you to seek the advice of an experienced divorce attorney. While you may save money in attorney fees initially, you should fully understand the rights and property you may forfeit long-term, which could be significantly more expensive than an attorney’s fees. The firm of Hornberger Verbitsky, P.C. is pleased to offer a complimentary initial divorce consultation at which we can discuss the viability of representing yourself in your divorce case. If your case is simple and you have no children, property and relatively low income, pro se might be the way to go for you. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out before you file – the initial consultation is free and you may learn something that will help you represent yourself. Call us at 631-923-1910 for your free consultation at our offices convenient to Nassau and Suffolk counties.
For more information about Divorce on Long Island, visit this page: Divorce Lawyers Answer Questions about Long Island Divorce