To complete court forms correctly, you must learn some basics about legal writing. Legal writing is the style of writing used when you’re writing a document that’s filed or presented at court. This skill will be used through the many stages of your divorce or separation. When you think of legal writing, you may think of a phrase such as:
Please be advised, I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter;
the same being duly executed by me.
This convoluted traditional style of writing, often called legalese, is thankfully no longer necessary in legal writing. In fact, this style of writing is discouraged. This is NOT how you should write.
As you move through your separation or divorce, you will likely need to fill out court forms or write other legal documents. When legal documents are poorly written, the judge has difficulty understanding your situation and your legal arguments might not come across. The easier it is to understand your documents, the more convincing your legal arguments will be. Since you want to convince the judge to decide in your favor, it’s important to take the time to write clearly and well.
Tips for Good Legal Writing
- Use plain language. Lawyers have a reputation for writing in an overtly complex and wordy way, but the trend now is to write more in everyday language. A judge wants to understand your case. The best way to ensure that they do is by writing in plain language.
it is important to add that we own a cabin
during the month of May
adequate number of
for the reason that
in light of the fact that
in the event of
at that point in time
in connection with
despite the fact that
we own a cabin
- Write shorter sentences. Avoid telling your reader too much in one sentence. Shorter sentences are easier to digest. A good rule of thumb is to keep sentences under 20 words.
- Write one idea per paragraph. Complicated information usually needs to be broken up into separate paragraphs to be understood.
- Always keep your reader in mind. Your number one reader is likely the judge. When you’re writing, be serious and professional. Don’t be sarcastic. The judge needs to understand the facts of your case not the detailed story of your relationship break down.
- Be clear. If you can get the meaning across in 8 words instead of 18, do it. A good test is to read the document out loud. If you have to read a sentence more than once to understand it, you should rephrase it.
- Be well organized. Start by getting your ideas organized. Figure out what you want to write before you write it. This will help your writing to have more flow and become easy to comprehend. To organize your document, number each page and number each paragraph.
- Be Specific. Try to give the exact detail. Choose more specific words instead of vague ones.
- Instead of using “recently,” say “last week,” or use the date
- Instead of using “him” or “her,” use names.
- Be accurate. Avoid contradicting yourself. If one statement in the document says the opposite of another statement, the reader won’t know which to believe. The last thing you want is for the judge to question your honesty. If you don’t know if something is true, don’t say that it’s true.
- Be consistent. You want to make it easy for your reader to understand what you are saying. If you use a term or name for something or someone, be sure to consistently use it. For instance, don’t keep switching between first name, last name, and nickname.
- Provide context. Assume the reader knows nothing about your situation. Provide a short description, 1 or 2 lines, which will help the reader, understand the situation.
- Conclusion first. A legal document should not be a mystery novel. The reader should not have to guess the conclusion. Instead, tell the reader your point right at the beginning of your document. You don’t want your reader asking the question, “Why are you telling me this?” The strategy is to say your point and then support it with evidence. Use this strategy for every point you’re making.
- Only what’s relevant. Don’t get distracted when you’re writing. Say exactly what you need to convince the reader. Irrelevant information will do nothing to help your case. You don’t want the relevant facts getting lost in the pile of irrelevant ones.
Keep it short and simple
Type your document. If you have the option to type your document, do so. Handwriting is acceptable but a typed document looks much more professional and is easier to edit.
- Edit your work. As in all professional writing, spelling and grammar is important. Be sure to read through it multiple times before finalizing your draft. If you can, have someone else edit it.
- Legal review. Getting a professional to review your document will help ensure that it is done properly. A lawyer can point out mistakes that are not immediately obvious to people without legal training. Read Chapter 4 to learn more about your options.
Things to Avoid
- Accusations. Only tell the reader the facts (what you know is true). Let the reader reach the conclusion. In other words, don’t tell the reader. Show the reader the facts.
DON’T “He is a horrible parent.”
DO: “Our son failed two of his quizzes last month. His father was not aware of this.”
- Exaggerations. It’s better to keep your statements neutral and truthful. Exaggerating can hurt your credibility.
DON’T: He’s always late and drives like a race car driver!
DO: On March 3, 2015 he dropped the kids off 30 minutes late and drove through the stop sign without slowing.
- Story-telling. The judge needs to understand the facts and this is done best with clear concise sentences. Avoid personal narratives that take a long time to get to the point.
DON’T: It was one of those hot spring days, so I was outside waiting for him to drop the children off. He was late. He’s always been running late. When we went on vacation 5 years ago, we missed our flight because he was late.
DO: On March 3, 2015 he dropped the children off half an hour later than agreed upon.
- Slangs, idioms and acronyms. It makes your writing look unprofessional. The reader also might not understand the terms you use. Tell the reader in plain language.
DON’T: It was raining cats and dogs!
DO: It was raining heavily.