Unfortunately, there are several horror stories about parties appearing pro se (without legal representation) in divorce, child custody, child support, etc. cases. In fact, most of the time people make the mistake thinking that they can take care of the case themselves and then realize after the fact that they completely screwed it all up. They then come to hire an attorney to unscrew those problems, which is most of the time easier said than done. The best advice that can be given is to hire an attorney right at the beginning to ensure that you are fully protected and correctly advised throughout the entire proceeding. You do not want to go through an entire divorce and then realize that you did something very bad and then try to appeal it, also on your own. Because it can almost be guaranteed that if you attempt the second feat, appealing a case, on your own it will most definitely not go in your favor.
This issue was directly addressed in In the Interest of C.M., A Child by the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas. In that case, the mother and father appeared and agreed to the terms of their divorce, including the child custody terms. The Court, on the record, ensured several times that the mother understood what she was agreeing to and that this was in fact the final hearing and final orders to which the mother replied that she did understand. Unfortunately, the mother realized what she had agreed to post-prove up and realized that basically stripped her of parental rights and left her with only supervised visits. Therefore, without representation she thought she would appeal the divorce orders with respect to custody stating that she did not understand and she did not consent to the terms as they were based on “false accusations that were not proven.” However, the Court of Appeals revealed the record of testimony (which is made at all prove ups) and discovered that she did consent to the terms, several times, and even stated she understood several times.
What most people do not understand when they represent themselves is that they do have a right, when facing a consent judgment or agreed order, to withdraw your consent at any time before the judgment is rendered by the court. So, the problem in this case was that mother had failed to do that and was trying to withdraw her consent post-divorce which the Court of Appeals held cannot happen. In fact, the Court stated, “Agreed judgments, once rendered, are contracts between the parties that excuse error and operate to end all controversy between the parties.” Pate v. Pate, 874 S.W.2d 186, 188 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1994, writ denied. Therefore, the Court held that they believed the mother’s appeal “was intended to constitute a withdrawal of her consent to the terms agreed upon at the bench trial” which was improper. In the Interest of C.M., at page 11.
The Court held that while they do treat pro se litigants’ briefs liberally, they do not hold pro se litigants to a lower threshold of standards. Therefore, based upon the fact that the mother did not meet her burden, her appeal was denied. It is possible, had she had an attorney throughout this process, that things might have ended a little more positive in her favor.
If you are facing a family law issue, do not wait until it is too late. Do not become a part of the statistics of pro se litigants who need help after the fact. Schedule a consult today with Guest & Gray, our family law team is ready to help. We look forward to working with you.