Do-It-Yourself Divorce Papers
By Beverly Bird
Divorce is hard enough without adding the complication of finding the perfect attorney. An excellent litigator might have no compassion for your personal concerns. The lawyer who is willing to hold your hand through tough moments might be a flop in the courtroom. Add to that the high cost of legal fees, and you might think you’re better off just writing your own documents and representing yourself. There are many pros and cons, however.
For approximately $40, you can purchase and download a packet of divorce papers from the Internet. You might end up buying something that doesn’t conform to the laws in your state, however. Many states offer their own forms for download for free. You can also stop by your county courthouse and pick up what you need at no charge. The law doesn’t usually permit court personnel to give you advice, but you’ll be sure that what you receive meets your state’s requirements.
Both Internet-purchased divorce papers and those available at your courthouse are usually forms that only require you to check boxes and fill in the blanks. They usually include at least a petition and a summons. The summons tells your spouse how much time she has to respond to your papers, and you're required to serve both that and your petition on your spouse after you file. If yours is an uncontested divorce, most states will also require you to submit a marital or property settlement agreement, detailing the terms of your settlement. These are usually more complicated to complete on your own because you should include minute details, even some that might not occur to you.
In addition to being very cost-friendly, do-it-yourself papers have the added advantage of leaving attorneys out of the process in uncontested matters. Aggressive attorneys can sometimes stir the pot, causing hard feelings where none existed before. Some attorneys are not willing to simply create or review your documents; you must retain them to handle your entire divorce. If you and your spouse have only been married a short period of time, have little or no jointly-owned property, no children and you both agree to part ways, there is not much to fight about. It might not make sense to spend the additional money to hire an attorney.
If your divorce is not uncontested and you and your spouse are struggling with issues such as custody and considerable property or debts, you will probably be at a disadvantage if you do your papers yourself. Unless you have some legal background in the state where you’re filing, you may not understand the impact of certain “small” factors, such as the date you separated. In many states, this date marks the cut-off point for joint debts. You might make a misstep because you don’t fully understand the significance of the information you’re entering.
If you prepare and file your own divorce papers, you’re not necessarily stuck with this decision. Although not all attorneys are willing to do so, some will jump into a case mid-stream, after you’ve filed your own papers. If you end up in court on your own, most judges will expect you to understand the law and court procedures. If this occurs, and you still prefer to handle things yourself, try to attend other divorce and custody hearings so you know what to expect. Research your state’s laws, including case law. Case law is comprised of decisions judges have made in the past regarding situations such as yours, and it usually includes recitals of the judge’s reasoning.
- The Judicial Branch of the State of Connecticut: Do It Yourself Divorce Guide (PDF)
- CADivorceOnline.com: California Divorce Forms and Marital Settlement Agreements
- DivorceLawInfo.com: Welcome to the Divorce Law Information Center
- Carolyn A. Zenk, Attorney at Law: Ways to Divorce in New York State
- The Massachusetts Family Law Group: Do I Really Need an Attorney?
- Dr. Reena Sommer & Associates: Clients Representing Themselves – Going Pro Se
- Wife.org: Can You Do Your Own Divorce?
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.