It’s hard to know just what it is that you don’t know. When you think you know enough to handle your own case in court, you may know just enough to fool yourself, but not the court. The recent divorce case G.T v. A.T. from Suffolk County, New York, provides a striking example of just how bad it can get.
No doubt, certain truths seemed self-evident to the pro se defendant husband, an engineer with a masters degree who has nearly completed his PhD. Why would he need an attorney to dispute his wife’s simple allegation that their marriage was “irretrievably broken?” Why would he need an attorney to get his wife to pay half of the credit card debts? And why should he worry about paying her attorney’s fees?
Why? Because things are not always what they seem. To start with, the husband was apparently unaware that, by law, his former income of $90,000 (nearly double the wife’s income) represented his earning capacity because he openly admitted that he had quit his job without cause and had not sought re-employment. So, even though he was, at the time of the trial, without employment, his income was imputed to his former earnings level.
By itself, this was not such a problem, since there was no issue of maintenance or child support before the trial court. However, having twice the wife’s income (even if it was only imputed or hypothetical income) triggered a statutory presumption that counsel fees would be awarded to the less-monied wife. By law, the Court is also charged with considering the relative merits of the parties positions at trial, and the actions taken by either party to prolong the trial when deciding an attorney’s fees application. Because the husband lacked cross examination skills, pursued inquiries that were irrelevant, argued with the Judge over rulings on evidence, and gave rambling and irrelevant testimony, he set himself up to pay attorney’s fees. For example, the husband persisted in litigating and contesting the no-fault ground for divorce, even though the proof, by plaintiff’s sworn statement, that the marriage is irretrievably broken cannot be overcome by the defendant’s testimony. Not surprisingly, a trial that should have lasted three or four days, lasted twelve (according to the judge). Ironically, not knowing what he was doing may have cost the husband more money than it would have cost him to hire an attorney. The Court ordered the husband to pay all of his wife’s trial fees ($11,000– although it would have been higher had the wife’s attorney not been working on a reduced-fee basis.)
Even something simple like asking the court to split up marital debt backfired. Apparently unaware of the need to prove the amount of his debt as of the date of the commencement of the divorce action, the Husband only presented proof of his current debts. The Court was unable to determine how much (if any) of the husband’s $34,000 in credit card debt existed when the action started, and how much had been accumulated afterwards, and so was “constrained” to make him solely responsible for the total amount of this debt.
Of course, not everyone can afford an attorney when going through a divorce, but being “penny wise” can be “pound foolish,” if you have something to lose, and choose to go it alone in the courtroom.