How to Handle Divorce Court When You Don’t Have a Lawyer: 7 Tips for DIY Divorce

Most people think that when you are getting divorced you need a divorce lawyer. Divorce lawyers know the law, understand the court system, and can help you get the outcome you want in your case. Having a divorce lawyer represent you, or, at the very least, consult with you, is always the best practice. But, not everyone wants, or can afford, a divorce lawyer. The truth is that every year in this country, hundreds of thousands of people go through divorce court without a lawyer. That may not be the best idea, but it’s a fact.

So, what do you do if you are one of those people who, for whatever reason, either doesn’t have a divorce lawyer or is “in between” divorce lawyers? (…which is a polite way of saying that you and your lawyer parted company and you now have to go to divorce court without a lawyer.)

If you have to go to divorce court without a lawyer, don’t panic! It may not be the most pleasant experience of your life, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster, either. Here are a few rules to guide you through the process so that you can get the judge to listen to what you’re saying, and either rule in your favor, or, at the very least, not rule against you.

1. Know What You Want. I know that seems pretty basic, but you would be amazed at the number of people who go before the judge without even knowing what they are asking for. For example, let’s say your spouse didn’t pick the children up from day care on time, in violation of a clear court order, and you had to leave work in a panic to get them when the irate day care provider called you. So you filed a motion to hold your spouse in contempt of court. And let’s say that the judge agrees with you and holds your spouse in contempt of court. What happens then? What do you want the judge to do? She can’t go back in time and make your spouse get the kids on time. Do you want her to order your spouse to pay you for the time you missed from work? Do you want her to change the pick up schedule? What do you want the judge to do?

2. Know Why You Want It, and Why You are Legally Entitled to It. You can want anything, but in order to persuade a judge to give you what you want, there has to be some legal basis for the judge to give you what you want. Knowing the legal basis for your request may require some digging on your part. You may have to research the law, or pay a lawyer for an hour long consultation so that you can educate yourself about the law. Or, maybe your issue is simple. For example, maybe you are the custodial parent and you want your spouse to pay child support. That kind of issue may not require a lot of research. But, if you have a more complicated issue, know that, if you want to persuade a judge to rule in your favor, you will need to give the judge a sound legal basis for doing so.

3. Follow the Rules. Every court is run by rules. There are rules about giving your spouse notice of a court hearing, rules about how and when the court hearing is conducted, and rules about what kind of evidence you need, and can give, to a judge to support your case. Even if you are representing yourself, you still have to know and follow the same rules as any lawyer in the court. (Which is why you really need to hire a lawyer if you have even a mildly complicated case.) You can find a lot of court rules on the internet, in a law library, or you can talk to a lawyer about them. No matter how you do it, though, before you go into court, it would be well worth your time to figure out and understand the rules that will govern your case.

4. Talk to the Judge, Not Your Spouse. Do not argue with your spouse while you are standing in front of the judge! A judge is not a referee. A judge is there to decide your case, not break up a fight. The best way to avoid getting into a fight is not to talk directly to your spouse at all. Address your comments to the judge. Answer questions from the judge. If your spouse says something you disagree with, when it is your turn, tell the judge that you disagree and why you disagree. But don’t get sucked into arguing with your spouse in front of the judge.

5. Dress Appropriately. Remember, you are going to court, not cleaning your basement. The judge will not be impressed if you walk into court looking like you’re trying to pick up a date at a nightclub, or like you just got out of bed and slept in your clothes. (Read this for more tips on What Not to Wear in Court.)

6. Be Polite. The judge is not the only important person in the court room. The judge’s clerk and the Bailiff or Sheriff in the court room are also important. They can help you a lot, especially when you talk to them politely and treat them with respect. They can’t give you legal advice, but they can help you understand court room procedure, and even give you a heads up about what to do (or not to do) in the court room.

7. Be Prepared. Court rooms are busy places. If you go there without bringing the documents the judge needs to see in order to decide your case, he will either deny your request, or continue your case – which means you will have to come back to court again to do whatever it is that you were trying to do in the first place. Also, if you have piles of documents, but you can’t find the one document that you need, don’t expect the judge to wait for twenty minutes while you shuffle through your files. Organize your documents before you go to court so that once you are there you can easily find what you need.

Going to divorce court without a lawyer will rarely be a great idea. But, if you have to (or choose to) do that, follow these guidelines and you may be successful in court nonetheless.

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Karen Covy is an experienced Chicago divorce attorney, mediator, educator, and collaborative lawyer.  She is the author of: When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially, and Legally.  Karen can be reached at (312)236-1670 or You can view her website at


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