Last week, a reporter on the local North Texas NBC Channel 5 TV station had a glowing story about do-it-yourself divorces. The reporter talked to a lot of people and showed how and where people can get forms to do an "uncontested divorce".
Disclaimer: I don't do low cost divorces, so the story doesn't directly affect me. It will not take away any business. I work primarily on cases where the parties don't agree on some major issues, but still want to have a civilized or "friendly" divorce. I do many Collaborative divorces where people need to come to agreements and don't want to engage in ugly litigation.
The main way the TV story could affect me is having to repair damage people will do to themselves in doing their own divorce, and in some cases I will have to explain to the client that the damage can't be repaired. I would prefer for people to get it done right the first time.
Here are the problems with the report:
1. Do-it-yourself really only works well if there are literally no kids, no assets and a very short marriage. The Texas Supreme Court created a form for a very limited purpose, but people are already misusing it. Many people try to use the forms even though they have assets and issues that aren't intended to be covered by the forms. The form doesn't define or explain some terms and that creates confusion for the users. Some people end up guessing and making wrong assumptions. Sometimes problems can be fixed, but sometimes they can't be. If you discover a problem, contact an attorney right away. Timing is important.
2. If there are kids, you need very clear and specific language on the powers, rights and duties of each parent, and on visitation, child support and insurance. You also have to make sure all the proper children are covered. With blended families and children born out of wedlock, it becomes a little complicated. If the proper language isn't used, the orders won't be enforceable. People will become very frustrated and angry. Then the Texas Attorney General or a private attorney will have to come in and correct order. Visitation or child support that was missed because of an improperly drawn order may not be able to be recovered.
3. If there are assets, you must identify all of it and divide it properly. That includes retirement benefits of many kinds, employment benefits, QDROs, real estate ownership and documents, investments, bank accounts, debts, tax issues and separate property, among other things. Many people don't understand what some of those things are and they may miss out on dividing them. Some property may be hidden by the other side and included in the divorce. Once a divorce decree is final, you may not be able to change or undo it, so you have to get it right the first time.
4. Uncontested divorces are really rare. Uncontested means that everything has been agreed upon. We get calls all the time from people wanting to do an uncontested divorce. After asking just a few questions, it becomes clear that both parties have agreed to get a divorce, but don't agree on much else. There's always at least one or two difficult issues remaining. That requires negotiation or litigation.
5. The results of do-it-yourself divorces: people have to spend money getting repairs. Many times, judges look over the paperwork and refuse to sign an obviously improperly drawn Decree. That wastes time in court, not to mention the wasted time off from work by the person trying to get the divorce granted. There is no public agency that will prepare or correct or supervise the production of divorce papers for do-it-yourself filers. If you try to prepare your own, you will probably end up hiring an attorney to fix your work.
Solutions: Contact Legal Aid of North West Texas for help. Depending on your circumstances, they may take the case for you or they may refer you to an attorney who can help. There are also some legal clinics occasionally that have special events to help people who want to handle their own divorces. Also, if you want to find low-cost attorneys, consider hiring a young attorney just out of law school. Those attorneys can do a good job for you and won't charge as much as more experienced attorneys. Do some research on line and check with friends or other attorneys for recommendations.
Not Solutions: Don't waste your time calling around and asking attorneys to answer questions on the phone for free. Likewise, don't expect to get a free consultation with an attorney to find out how to do things. Attorneys have to make a living, just as everyone else does. They cannot give away their time and expertise to everyone who calls. Most attorneys do some pro bono (free) work, but only under limited circumstances. For example, I accept referrals for pro bono cases only from 2 or 3 agencies. I don't do it for people contacting me directly. Looking for something free will be frustrating and a time waster for you. Instead, follow the suggestions in "Solutions" above.