In South Carolina. when you represent yourself in family court without a lawyer you are referred to as a “pro se” (without an attorney) party. Pro se is a Latin term that means “in person” or “on one’s own behalf.” Filing for a divorce in South Carolina is not an easy process, so our family law attorneys wrote this article to explain the process of getting a divorce without hiring a lawyer. Before we explain the process, I don’t recommend that anyone represent themselves in their divorce without a lawyer if:
- You are filing for a divorce on fault-based grounds such as adultery, spousal abuse, or habitual drunkenness;
- You have substantial marital property or marital debt; or
- You have children but you and your spouse can’t agree on custody, visitation, or child support.
What Forms Do You Need to File for a Divorce in South Carolina?
To begin the process, you’ll need to fill out several divorce forms including:
- A Family Court Cover Sheet – The Cover Sheet lets the family court know the types of issues involved such as requests for custody, child support, or alimony.
- A Summons for Divorce – A Summons is a form that informs your spouse that you have started a divorce case and that your spouse has thirty days to respond to the Complaint for Divorce.
- A Complaint for Divorce – A Complaint for Divorce notifies the court and your spouse that you want a divorce, the grounds (reasons) for the divorce, and other relief you are seeking such as alimony, child support, and custody.
- A Financial Declaration Form – A Financial Declaration is basically a statement of your income, expenses, and assets.
Make copies of all of these forms. The clerk of court will keep one set of copies, you’ll need copies for your records, and you will need copies to serve on your spouse. You can find examples of all of these forms on South Carolina’s Judicial Branch website.
Where Do You File Your Divorce Forms?
The next step is to file the papers with the Clerk of Family Court. Under S.C. Code § 20-3-60, you can file in one of four locations:
- In the county where you and your spouse last lived together;
- In the county where your spouse lives;
- In the county where you live if your spouse does not live in South Carolina; or
- In the county where your spouse lives if you do not live in South Carolina.
The Clerk of Family Court will charge you a filing fee. If you can’t afford the filing fee, you can file a Motion and Affidavit to Proceed In Forma Pauperis. In Forma Pauperis is a Latin term that means “in the manner of a pauper.” This motion is a sworn statement that you are financially indigent and asks the court to allow you to proceed with paying filing fees or Sheriff’s Office service of process fees.
How Do You Serve Your Divorce Forms in South Carolina?
After filing your forms with the Clerk of Family Court, you must serve (deliver) a copy of the paperwork described above. Serving papers is also known as “service of process.” Service of process lets your spouse know that you are suing your spouse for a divorce. In South Carolina, the ways to serve your spouse are:
- Delivering the documents yourself if your spouse will sign an “Acceptance of Service” form.
- Any third party, such as a sheriff or a process server, who is 18 years or older can hand-deliver the divorce forms to your spouse.
- By sending the paperwork to your spouse by certified mail, return receipt requested (your spouse has to sign for the mail they received).
After you have served the paperwork on your spouse, you must file, within ten days, an Affidavit of Service or the Acceptance of Service with the clerk of court’s office. The Affidavit of Service or Acceptance of Service lets the family court know that you gave your spouse proper notice of your lawsuit for divorce.
10 Essential Tips for Representing Yourself in a South Carolina Divorce
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, representing yourself in your divorce is far from easy. If you choose to handle your own divorce in South Carolina, then the following ten tips are critical before you divorce without a lawyer:
1) Leave Your Emotions Outside the Courthouse – As Abraham Lincoln said, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Part of the reason for this saying is that when you are emotionally involved with your divorce (and you will be), your judgment may be clouded by your emotions. Judges don’t like a lot of drama in their courtrooms. They expect logic, sound legal reasoning, and professionalism. Also, your emotions can easily get in the way of any meaningful negotiations to settle your divorce.
2) Be Organized – If you’re going to act on your own in family court, you need to be highly organized. For example, any documents such as financial records, court documents, correspondence with your spouse’s attorney, etc., should be placed neatly in a folder or binder and organized in a way that you can easily put your hands on those records (especially when you are standing before a busy judge). Also, when you come to court, you need to have at least 4 copies of anything you intend to submit to the court – one copy for you, one copy for the judge, one copy for opposing counsel, and one copy for any witnesses you intend to question about the document.
3) Be Familiar with Your Case – If you represent yourself, you need to understand your case well enough to explain it to the family court in a concise and sensible way. Judges lose their patience when people ramble, vent, are unprepared, or muddy the issues before the court. Overall, you must know who, what, when, where, and why and present those facts in an orderly manner.
4) Be Familiar with Court Procedures – Although you can easily find all the forms you may need to get your divorce going on the South Carolina Judicial website, having the right forms isn’t enough. You need to familiarize yourself with the South Carolina Family Court Rules and the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure that are also on the Judicial website.
Familiarizing yourself with court procedures isn’t something you should tackle the night before court. Lawyers spend their entire first year of law school studying the rules of procedure and the rest of their careers reading case law interpreting those rules. You have to know the time of and how to: properly format court documents, file your divorce, serve it on your spouse, record service at the clerk’s office, request hearings, answer discovery requests such as interrogatories and requests to produce, conduct depositions, and the list goes on. Additionally, you need to be familiar with how to conduct yourself in court such as not interrupting the other lawyer when it is their turn to speak, not addressing another lawyer directly (always talk to the judge), how to ask proper questions of witnesses (you can’t “lead” your own witnesses), and much more.
5) Be Familiar with the South Carolina Rules of Evidence – Here, things can get more complicated than court procedures. Like the rules of procedure, lawyers spend their entire careers studying the rules of evidence and the latest court opinions interpreting those rules. The rules of evidence deal with issues such as hearsay testimony, the proper authentication and the foundation for introducing documents and evidence, and much more. For example, suppose you want to introduce evidence that you need alimony from your spouse because you’re disabled. The evidence consists of a letter from your doctor stating that you are disabled. Without the doctor’s presence at court to testify that he or she wrote that letter and to testify that they qualify as a medical expert, the court would exclude that letter as being inadmissible on the ground of hearsay. Likewise, you have to know enough about the rules of evidence to object when your spouse’s lawyer tries to slip evidence in that shouldn’t be considered by the court.
6) Be Familiar with South Carolina Family Law – Again, lawyers spend their entire career staying on top of ever-changing laws regarding the issues in family court. Whether you agree with the law or feel that some laws are “unfair,” the family court must apply the law to the facts of your case. Further, understanding the law and possible outcomes of your case will prepare you to negotiate a settlement. If you insist upon things that have no basis in the law, such as you want all of the marital assets because your spouse cheated on you, then you will get nowhere in negotiations and likewise nowhere in court.
7) Prepare Yourself to Speak Before the Court – Some folks are good at public speaking, and many others aren’t. If you have trouble speaking in public, then you won’t find it any easier to speak to a judge who’s sitting high on the bench in a courtroom. Some judges are very friendly and some appear less so. Even for some lawyers, dealing with an irate judge is an intimidating experience. If you have a presentation to make, practice it before you go into court. However, be prepared to be interrupted by the judge with questions or by the other lawyer with objections. In the end, you have to be able to think quickly on your feet, answer the questions the court may have, and do both of these things in a convincing and clear way.
8) Be Prepared for Bad Rulings – Judges are human and, yes, they do make mistakes. That is why we have appeals so that a higher court can correct any of these mistakes. I’ve been in front of many judges who I believe made a bad call in their decision. If you are going to represent yourself, then you need to be prepared for loss. If you get a bad ruling, the worst thing you can do is to start to argue with the judge. In fact, the family court rules state that once a judge has ruled, you may not continue to argue. You may have other avenues to correct the judge’s ruling, such as an appeal, but arguing will get you nowhere but into trouble.
9) Be Patient – There is no such thing as a “quickie” divorce in South Carolina. Whatever the case may be, in family court or not, lawsuits take time. Trying to rush your divorce will likely lead to a bad outcome. For more information, please read my article on how long it takes to get divorced in South Carolina.
10) KNOW WHO YOU ARE UP AGAINST! – By appearing before family court judges for decades, I’ve learned how these judges work including their likes and dislikes, how they expect people to behave in their courtroom, and how they are likely to rule on certain issues. This kind of experience isn’t something a pro se litigant can get from a book or somewhere online. If you know a family court lawyer who is willing to share their experiences with a particular judge, then it wouldn’t hurt for you to ask for their help. What is true for judges is also true for dealing with other lawyers. I’ve learned which lawyers are “problems solvers” and which ones tend to create more problems. I’ve learned which ones are trustworthy and fair and which ones will bend the rules and the procedures as far as they can to “win.” Again, it wouldn’t hurt to ask a family lawyer you may know to share their experience with other lawyers that you may find yourself going up against.
Of course, it sounds self-serving for me to say that you should never represent yourself in family court. After all, I make part of my living by representing people who are divorcing. However, there’s a good reason I say you shouldn’t go it alone in your divorce. Although family law isn’t rocket science, it’s far more complicated than just filling out some forms and showing up to court. If you decide to handle your own divorce, I sincerely wish you success. But, if you are having second thoughts about whether going “pro se” is a good idea, then please contact us to spend time going over your case. We won’t try to talk you out of representing yourself – that’s your business. What we’ll do is answer all the questions you may have and give you solid advice on how your case should be handled.