There is no requirement in Indiana that you have an attorney for domestic cases; although it is not generally recommended that you proceed without one. The reason for this is because a pro se litigant is held to the same standard as an attorney—and you will not know the rules, such as the Indiana Rules of Evidence.
In fact, when lawyers have legal problems, they usually hire a lawyer to represent them because of the complexity of the law. The issues in domestic cases can be—and usually are–complex and Indiana family law is difficult to navigate without an attorney. This blog discusses when you really need a lawyer.
On the rare occasion that a couple truly agrees on every issue in a domestic case, right down to the last detail, then a lawyer might not really be necessary. You will need to make sure that the proper pleadings and documents are completed and filed with the court correctly. However, if any court dates are set, you will be expected to know and follow all rules and procedures just as an attorney would be required to do.1 In this case, you may be able to get free legal assistance through a variety of programs to help you with an agreement on all terms.
In most domestic cases, there are several issues which require the application and interpretation of different statutes and oftentimes more than one hearing. Attempting to represent yourself in these cases can not only be stressful but may result in serious errors and oversights causing unintended adverse consequences that cannot later be corrected—or easily corrected. The Indiana Supreme Court caselaw suggests that you do not attempt to represent yourself and encourages all litigants to at least speak with an attorney before deciding to do so.
The courts recognize that not everyone can afford an attorney and sometimes provide forms for certain domestic issues to those who do not wish to hire one. If you decide to use these forms and proceed without a lawyer, keep in mind that the court staff cannot help you with your case and the judge will not afford you any special accommodation or leniency because you are representing yourself.2
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you really need a lawyer:
- Do you have children for whom custody, parenting time, and/or support need to be determined—and is contested in any way?
- Do you have any property that will need to be divided? (This includes, but is not limited to retirement accounts, pensions, stocks, bonds, real estate, business assets, and personal property.)
- Has there been any domestic violence in your household?
- Is one of the parties intending to relocate?
In any one of these situations, you may believe that you have an agreement or that you are so clearly in the right, the judge will have to agree with you. This is a mistake that has the potential to cost you more than just money in the end. You may be wrong and lose. Thus, if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions you really need legal counsel to guide you through the complex divorce process.
Even if you have an agreement on all issues, you must ask yourself, have you thought of everything? If there is anything left out, or any ambiguity in an agreement it can lead to future problems and possibly litigation—sometimes matters cannot be fixed later, such as a property division. Some examples of this include:
- Not listing and dividing all liabilities, including retirement accounts and pensions.
- Agreeing to shared custody, but not spelling out the days each party will have the children.
- Not addressing “legal custody” in your agreement.
- Failing to provide for a specific time a party leaving the shared residence may retrieve their personal property.
Not only can missing information or ambiguous clauses be an issue with preparing your own agreement, but you may be giving up rights of which you are unaware. If you are not sure what is considered marital assets or how the court divides them, do not understand the complexities of child custody awards, or are unfamiliar with child support calculations, you should not sign any agreement without consulting a family law attorney.
This blog was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. Our attorneys practice throughout the state. This blog is for general educational purposes. It is not intended to be relied upon for any legal advice in matters or issues. The blog is not legal advice. This is an advertisement.