"Are you an attorney?"
"Well, no. I am filing this by myself."
"We can't give any legal advice, you know. You should get yourself a lawyer."
"I don't really need a lawyer. My husband and I both want this divorce. We've been separated for a year and we have nothing to fight over -- no children, no houses, no support payments. We just want a divorce. So how do I file my bill of complaint?"
"Bring it down here with $32.50."
"But where do I get the form?"
"It's not a form and you get it from your lawyer."
"I don't have a --"
"You can come down here and look at someone else's file to see what one looks like. Some people do that."
The above phone conversation is distilled from many I had with clerks of the Circuit Court of Alexandria in the summer of 1977. Filing for a divorce pro se ("on one's own behalf") is not an everyday matter, but it is possible in most jurisdictions because of that innovative and farsighted legal phenomenon, no-fault divorce.
Once my husband and I met Virginia's no-fault divorce requirements, I decided to initiate the divorce action. Our circumstances were so simple it seemed unreasonable to pay someone else to do what I could do myself. After all, I knew all the facts of the case -- I just needed to know how to get them down on paper to please the court.
When I found out I could look at the court files of other divorce cases, I thought my problems were solved. I told one of the clerks on the phone that I wanted to see an uncontested divorce case based on the grounds of one year's separation. She said I could come in to see whatever I wanted, but I would have to request a file by name.
My heart sank briefly, until she lowered her voice and said, "Schultz."
At the courthouse, I asked for the Schultz file and it was all I had hoped for. I spent hours copying the entire case by hand. (I learned too late that the court would reproduce the file for me for $1 a page.) I recorded the strange legal language and the ceremonious formats of the papers I would type and submit on my own behalf.
Right away I had questions. Mrs. Schultz had not wanted her original name back, and I did. Where did I put that in? What if my husband filed an answer to my complaint, instead of a waiver like Mr. Schultz? Did I have to mention anywhere that my husband was in the Navy?
I called the courthouse. They couldn't tell me; those were legal questions. They suggested, as always, that I get a lawyer.
Instead, I learned that if I called and could not get an answer to a question, I could call back later, get someone else on the phone, and ask again. Eventually, someone would let enough information slip, or at least give me a different part of an incomplete answer.
Sometimes modifying the question or bluffing a little helped. Getting information in this manner could be satisfying, but often it was a nasty game, time-consuming, discouraging to me and unfair to the clerks.
Even if a couple chooses not to hire attorneys, the third party to the marriage, the state, will require one to act on its behalf. In Virginia, each divorce case must be heard before a Commissioner in Chancery, a lawyer appointed by the court to take testimonies and recommend that a divorce be granted or not.
When I called the commissioner assigned to my case, he told me the procedure for the hearing would be simple. He would ask me and my witness some questions based on the information already in my file. (This was the first I had heard about a witness; in all jurisdictions, the complainant must have a witness to corroborate his or her testimony.)
If my husband elected to come, he also would get to answer questions. It sounded easy.
It wasn't. A commissioner, it turns out, has the option of asking the questions himself or having the lawyers of the parties ask the questions. After everyone was sworn in (me, my witness; my husband, and a court reporter), the commissioner called things to order, handed me my file, and smiled.
"Go ahead," he said.
The hearing was postponed for a few minutes while he addressed himself to my ignorance. Whatever little guidebook I was using, he said, had failed me, since I obviously didn't know what I was doing. Clearly annoyed that I was not employing one of his colleagues, he explained: Had I an atorney, he or she wuold ask the questions on my behalf . . .
We began again. It was simple once I knew what to do, just like everything else about the case. The hardest part was trying to stay calm about the little guidebook remark.
When the hearing was over, the commissioner told me he would submit his recommendation to the court as soon as my account was settled. The total charges for the hearing, including services of the court reporter, came to $105, which means I saved at least $150.
After the commissioner's report was in, I filed three copies of my final decree. Twelve days later, one copy was returned by mail, signed by a judge and the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
It had taken only 11 weeks from start to finish and I had hit few snags, but I felt that I had beaten great odds, that I had defied a conspiracy to keep me out of legal territory. Winning was satisfying, and I was proud of myself, but something so simple should never have been so hard.
Pro se divorce may be getting easier; it is at least becoming more commonplace. The forms and procedures vary among the District, Maryland, and Virginia, but most experts recommend that you have:
No-fault grounds. In the District, where no-fault is the only option, and in Maryland, a couple can separate for a specified length of time and then divorce on the grounds of that separation. The same is true in Virginia, the only difference being that the separation need not be voluntary on the part of both people. In all cases, the separation must be without interruption.
No contest. This means simply that both parties agree to the divorce and the grounds.
No complicating factors. This means no children, no property disputes, and no debts, either because you just don't have them or because you already have settled such matters (with or without legal counsel).
Some degree of civility. You and your spouse will have to contact each other for signatures and such.
If you meet the criteria and want to investigate the possibility of pro se divorce, the following publications will be useful, if not indispensable:
"Divorce in the Washington Metropolitan area," published by the Women's Legal Defense Fund, 1424 Sixteenth St. NW. (638-1223).
"How To Get A Divorce," by Sandra Kalenik and Jay S. Bernstein, J.D. Washington Books, $4.95.
Both books provide extensive information to residents of the District, Maryland, and Virginia on grounds, residency requirements, and how to proceed with or without an attorney. In addition, "How To Get A Divorce" features an appendix containing samples of the papers and forms that must be filed in each of the three jurisdictions and gives a step-by-step outline of what to file when.
Possibly your best source of information is your local courthouse. It is strongly recommended that you review several cases of pro se divorce before you begin. Be sure you go to the courthouse in the jurisdiction where you intend to file.
The clerk will provide you with docket books containing a page for every case on file. Each docket sheet will tell you what kind of case it is, whether the parties have lawyers, and all the papers filed to date. When you find a case you want to see, just ask for it by name or docket number. Remember, you can have a copy of any file you want for $1 a page.