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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pro Se Divorce in New York Rife with Risk

It's understandable that a person facing a division of property and years of domestic support obligations would want to limit their expenses.

However, attempting to cut down on legal expenses by cutting out your Manhattan divorce attorney entirely is almost always a very bad idea. For one thing, your attorney is the person who will argue to have your support obligations minimized and your property retention maximized. Even in cases of an uncontested divorce, it's important to have a legal advocate looking out for your best interests.

Plus, for someone with little to no experience in the New York divorce courts, the process can be intimidating and confusing, and judges tend to have little patience for those who are trying to navigate it on the fly.

In the words of the Suffolk County family law judge overseeing the case of G.T. v. A.T., herein highlights the difficulties when one party attempts to represent themselves. Although it's true that the court may give some leeway to those who represent themselves, it is rarely to their advantage.

The judge determined that in this case, the husband presented minimal evidence, was fueled by his own agenda, lacked reason and direction and his evidence often lacked any substantive value in the case. The judge described the husband as "rambling" and lacking clarity, and it was determined the court essentially wasted several days while the man cross-examined his soon-to-be-ex-wife.

Mind you: This was not an uneducated or unintelligent man. He was an engineer who previously earned an annual salary of $90,000 and has most of the college credits necessary for his doctorate degree. 

However, as a result of his faulty attempt to represent himself, his ex incurred over $10,000 in additional legal bills, which the court determined the husband would have to pay.

The judge noted that just because a person chooses to represent themselves does not mean he or she will be allowed to unnecessarily drive up plaintiff's legal fees.

According to court records, the 50-year-old wife filed for divorce in late 2011. The pair had been married since 1987. They had two children, one aged 21 and another 16.

While the wife had lost her job, she returned to school and again became employed. Her husband, meanwhile, had left his job and refused to get another, even at her request, saying he believed it beneath him to work for anyone. Instead, he managed several real estate properties. This was despite the fact that these joint properties were intended to be an adjunct to their full-time work.

Her husband's refusal to find work, she said, was a big part of the reason for the initial separation. She felt that the "empire" he was trying to build was unwise and put the family on shaky financial ground.

The pair worked out a custody plan regarding their teen prior to going to court, so the majority of the argument between the two involved debt. The husband constantly refinanced these real estate holdings, putting  the pair deeper into debt.

This was the one issue both parties couldn't seem to settle. They had numerous outstanding credit cards, legal fees and mortgages.

Throughout the proceedings, the husband accused the judge of disrespect, called on him to recuse himself, threatened to file a complaint with the judicial commission when the judge did not acquiesce and begged his wife to reconcile with him. None of these efforts were effective.

During a four-day cross-examination of his wife, the judge said that the husband refused to follow the court's direction, often testified improperly and disregarded the judge's rulings regarding pursuit of certain subject matter. He yelled at his wife while cross-examining her and was described by the judge as "hostile."

He reportedly "bombarded" his wife's counsel with demands for "emergency meetings," as well as scores of emails, phone calls and letters. This also resulted in driving the wife's legal fees up. 

While the courts usually award attorney fees to the less moneyed party, in this case, the judge determined that the defendant was voluntarily unemployed. Because of this and the unnecessary delays caused by the husband's self-representation, he was ordered to pay attorneys' fees.

So while he may have saved money initially, his inexperience in the courtroom cost him in the long run.

If you are contemplating a divorce in Manhattan, call our offices at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

G.T. v. A.T., Feb. 10, 2014, Supreme Court, Suffolk County

More Blog Entries:

New York Divorce: Contested Versus Uncontested, Feb. 20, 2014, Manhattan Divorce Lawyer Blog


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