April 13

DIY Divorce : What to Do if You Have to Go to Court Without a Lawyer


divorce blog, divorce court, divorce litigation, divorce process, DIY divorce

DIY Divorce: Empty court room

Going to court without a lawyer is rarely a good idea. Getting divorced without a lawyer, where your children, your assets, and your future income are at stake, is a really bad idea. Yet, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. You may not have the money to pay a divorce lawyer. Or, your divorce lawyer may have just quit, leaving you to fend for yourself. Or, you may just want to go the DIY divorce route because you think you can manage on your own.

Whatever your reason, if you find yourself in the DIY divorce boat – whether by necessity or by design – one of the most difficult tasks you face is knowing what to do when you are going to court alone. Where do you stand? When do you speak? How do you know when its your turn? What should you bring with you? And, most of all, just what should you do?

While there is no substitute for consulting with a good divorce attorney, if you find that you have to get divorced without a lawyer, here are seven things you need to know to make your trip to divorce court as productive as possible.

DIY Divorce Survival Tips

Word "Unprepared" on a chalkboard, with a hand that put an "X" over the "un." You need to prepare for divorce.1. Be prepared! 

There is a reason that this is the Girl Scout motto. It works.

If you are going to court without a lawyer, you have to be as prepared yourself as a lawyer would be. Make sure you bring all of the court documents and financial documents you need with you to every court appearance.

If you don’t know what court documents you are going to need, bring them all! The quickest way to aggravate the judge and waste everyone’s time is to walk in the door without the paperwork the judge needs to see in order to make a decision.

2. Be organized.

You can bring all of the paperwork you want, but if you can’t find what you need when the judge asks you for something, its not going to help.

Lawyers typically organize separate documents by type (e.g. tax returns, court orders, financial disclosures etc.) and by date (with the most recent documents on top). If you organize things differently, that’s okay. The key is to be able to find whatever document you need when you need it.

Confident young man in a suit and tie dressed for court3. Dress with Respect.

Knowing what to wear to court is a little thing that makes a big difference in how well you do. (I know. It shouldn’t. It does. Deal with it.)

The court room is not a baseball field, a factory, or a nightclub. It is not appropriate to wear torn blue jeans, crumpled athletic clothing, dirty T-shirts, or anything overtly sexy and suggestive.

Like it or not, you will be judged (if not directly, then at least subconsciously) by what you are wearing. Dressing like a slob, a freak, or a hooker will not help your case.

4. Get to court early.

Don’t just be on time: be early! When it comes to going to court the best motto is: “Early is on time, and on time is late!”

Remember, you don’t know where you’re going or what you’re doing. You’re going to need extra time to figure out where to park, how to get into the building, and where to find the right court room. You will probably need to go through security, and there will probably be a line.

If you don’t allow yourself extra time, and you get to court late, you may find that your case has already been called, and that the judge went forward without you (which is never a good thing.)

5. Look, listen, and learn.

It doesn’t matter that you are doing a “DIY divorce.” You will be held to the same standard as any attorney who walks into the court room.

That means you need to know the court room “rules.” Since every court room in every county and every state is different, the best way to figure out the rules is to watch what other people are doing.

If you can, ask someone whether you are supposed to check in before your case is called. Ask someone what to do and where to stand once the clerk calls your name. Do your best to figure out how the court room is run before you have to stand before the judge and say anything. (TIP: If you can, go to court a week early and just hang out in the court room for a morning and see how everything works. Doing that will help you level up your knowledge and ease your anxiety when you have to present your own case yourself.)

Close up of a hand holding a cell phone. Turn off your phone in court!6. Turn your cell phone off BEFORE you get into the court room!

Start by finding out – in advance – whether you can even bring your cell phone into court. Some court houses prohibit cameras in the court room. Since virtually all cell phones these days are equipped with cameras, that means that you won’t be allowed to even bring your cell phone into the court house.

If you are allowed to bring your cell phone inside, turn it off immediately after you walk in the door to the building. After you turn it off, put it away! It is considered disrespectful for you to be on your cell phone while court is in session.

If your cell phone rings while you are in the court room, and court is in session, not only will it interrupt everyone, and embarrass you, but you run the risk of having the sheriff in the court room confiscate it. (One judge in my area used to have a sign on her court room door that read,” Anything that beeps, buzzes or rings in this court room WILL be confiscated!”)

7. Don’t argue with the judge.

When you’re presenting your case, it’s important to tell the judge your position. It is equally important to give the judge whatever evidence you have to prove your point. Finally, you will be allowed to “argue” your position and try to persuade the judge that s/he should rule in your favor.

But “arguing your case” means arguing with your opponent’s position. It does NOT mean arguing with the judge!

When the judge talks, listen! Don’t talk while the judge is talking and don’t argue with what the judge says. It won’t help your case and, if you do it too much, it could get you thrown in jail. (This rule applies regardless of whether you agree with what the judge has to say or not!  Remember, the judge’s job is to make a decision. No matter what that decision is, chances are at least one of the two parties in front of the judge isn’t going to like it!)

Going to Court Without a Lawyer

Going to court without a lawyer is never your best choice. But if you have to do a DIY divorce, arming yourself with as much knowledge as you can about the court process will at least help you survive, hopefully with as little devastation as possible.


Just because you are going to divorce court alone, that doesn’t mean you have to be unprepared. Get your FREE Divorce Checklist to make sure you are not missing anything.

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  • Any advice for going back to court for modification of child support? I don’t have the funds to pay an attorney this time but knew from his income he owes more money from last year and going forward.

      • I’m so sorry but I can’t give you legal advice online, even in Illinois. Because each case and each situation involves so many things, without knowing much, much more about your situation, it is impossible for me to give you legal advice that I could know would be accurate. I don’t want to give you advice that is wrong.

        What I can say is that, in Illinois, the State’s Attorney’s office has a child support enforcement division that may provide you with a lawyer for free. They may be able to help you collect back child support and modify your court order for the future. I would check them out.



  • Hi Karen, if you yourself were going through a divorce in Illinois (Dupage County) what attorney would you hire?

    Also same question for Paralegal?


    • I wish I could answer your question, but the truth is that who I would hire to represent me would depend on what kind of divorce process I wanted to use, and the facts and circumstances of my case. Different lawyers are better at different things. So, without knowing more details, I can’t really answer your question.

      As for the paralegal, I don’t know why you would hire a paralegal. A paralegal can’t practice law or give you legal advice. They can get in trouble for filling out forms for you without having a lawyer oversee their work. If the lawyer you hire works with a paralegal, than that person will probably help with your case, too. But, I’m not sure why in Illinois you would hire a paralegal yourself.


  • Im getting a divorce following a 1 year protective order after being abused by husband. Hes the one w the money i cant afford a attorney im currently a full time student working part time but graduating this winter. How big of a role will his dv play in this case? I didnt ask for this weve been married 16yrs. I want the home kids and retirement im entitled to.

    • What you’re asking are legal questions that I just can’t answer online. What I suggest is that you talk with a good divorce lawyer in your area, and also with any local domestic violence organizations in your area. They should be able to steer you in the right direction.


  • Could the judge be convinced if the one who files for divorce is actually made to do so by the other partner using ruthless manipulative methods over the course of a long period?

  • How bad is it going to look on me if I go to divorce/child custody court on my own with no attorney? I have called every legal aid and charity place I could to get an attorney and none will represent me.

    • I don’t know that it will “look bad.” It’s just that if you don’t have an attorney and your spouse does, you’re more likely to do poorly because you don’t understand the court system and the lawyer does. But, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do!

  • Hi Karen,
    I fired my Illinois (Cook County) attorney. I received my final note from her that I have 21 days to file a substitute. I think I found the right form on the Cook County clerk website, but I have no idea how to electronically file this. I have left a message for help, but my deadline is 11/11/19. I want to go Pro Se for the next 12/19 appearance – what if I show up without filing?
    Hopefully you can offer any guidance,

    • Yikes! Even though you’re in Illinois, I still can’t give you legal advice online. What I can suggest is that you go to the Clerk of the Court’s office and ask for help. I think there is also a pro-se help desk in the courthouse at the Daley Center. Both of those places would be good places for you to check out.

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