Do-It-Yourself Divorce: Top Ten Tips

If a DIY divorce is right for you, here are some tips to get you started.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Yes, it is possible to file your own divorce and complete the process without the aid of an attorney—but only if you do your research. First, find out if you're a good candidate to handle your own divorce. Then read on to learn the top ten tips for making your DIY divorce as smooth as possible.

Is a DIY Divorce Right for You?

You're probably a good candidate for a DIY divorce if:

  • you and your spouse agree on all (or almost all) issues in your divorce, such as division of property, child custody, and spousal support (alimony)
  • you have complete information about (or access to) your family's financial records
  • you have the time to research your state's laws, gather information you need, and fill out all the court forms (or you're in a position to get help with the paperwork)
  • you feel comfortable speaking on your own behalf in court
  • you have a good support system and people who can help you in a pinch
  • there hasn't been any domestic violence (or threat of violence) in your relationship, and
  • you feel like you're in a relatively stable mental state, and can deal with a potential roller coaster of emotions.

Tip Number 1: Consider Mediation to Save Money

If you and your spouse can reach a resolution on all of the issues in your divorce, you might be able to save a lot of money by filing an uncontested divorce. Divorce mediation might help you work out your differences and avoid having to fight things out in court—which will make DIY'ing your divorce much easier.

In mediation, a professional mediator helps the spouses frame their discussions so as to avoid conflict when possible. A mediator can also propose solutions or help you and your spouse identify solutions to your disputes.

Explore whether divorce mediation might be right for you, and learn how to propose it to your spouse.

Tip Number 2: Avoid DIY If There Is Abuse or Deception

If at any point you believe that your spouse is a danger to you or your children, then a DIY divorce is not appropriate. In situations involving domestic violence (or the risk of domestic violence), it's a good idea to hire a lawyer who can handle communications with your spouse and help you get a temporary restraining order if necessary.

You should also consider not continuing to handle your divorce on your own if you discover (or have a reasonable suspicion) that your spouse is hiding money or transferring joint assets out of your control. A lawyer can help you find hidden assets and take steps to make sure you get all the financial information you need.

Tip Number 3: Get Organized

Every divorce—even if it's uncontested—involves a lot of paperwork and, potentially, court hearing dates. Depending on your court's practices, you'll be getting notices electronically and by hard copy. So it's a good idea to start a filing system to keep track of everything. It's also a good idea to create a separate calendar to keep track of any filing deadlines and court dates.

Tip Number 4: Start With Your County Clerk

Although court practices differ, most county clerk's offices will provide you with some of the basic information required when filing your own divorce. Often, this information is available on your county clerk's website, so check there first.

Keep in mind that although the clerks can provide general information, they may not give legal advice—so don't be surprised if the clerk directs you to a self-help desk, legal aid, or a local law library.

Your state judiciary's website might also provide fillable forms, informational packets, or other resources (such as an FAQ) that can help you learn more about the divorce process in your state. State court websites should provide information about where your local court is, which branch you should use, clerk's hours, and sometimes filing fees. Directories of state court websites are available on the "State & Local" government resource directory and the National Center for State Courts' website.

Tip Number 5: Learn About the Tax Consequences of Divorce

The decisions you make during your divorce could have serious, long-term tax effects. For example, paying alimony might affect your tax liability. Before signing off on a DIY divorce filing, you might want to talk with an accountant, financial advisor, or tax preparer who can alert you to potential post-divorce tax issues. The IRS's website is also an excellent source of information—search for "divorce" or check out the Managing Your Taxes After a Life Event page.

Tip Number 6: Get Help With the Paperwork

DIY'ing your divorce doesn't mean you have to do everything on your own. Depending on where you live, you might be able to get assistance filling out your divorce paperwork from:

  • Online divorce services. Various online divorce services will, for a fee, walk you through the steps in your divorce, such as preparing the divorce papers and drafting a divorce settlement agreement. For an additional fee, the service might file the paperwork for you or provide detailed instructions on how to file on your own. Look for a service that guarantees that your documents will be accepted by the court.
  • Court help desks/on-call attorneys. A few courts have self-help centers where you can drop in for assistance with filling out forms. Check with the court clerk to see if a service such as this is offered where you live.
  • Legal document preparers. Legal document preparers (also sometimes called paralegals) aren't allowed to give you individualized legal advice. (Only licensed lawyers can do that.) However, they can prepare the forms using the information you supply. Some LDPs will also file the paperwork on your behalf with the court.

Using any of these services usually costs far less than hiring a lawyer. Before you agree to pay for a service, though, be sure that you know exactly what services will be provided at what price. Also, check online ratings of any online divorce services or LDPs you're considering.

Tip Number 7: Evaluate Your Personal Financial Situation

Start preparing to be on your own financially before the divorce is over. Some of the important steps you should take:

  • Run a credit report on yourself—it can help jog your memory about any accounts you might have forgotten. It can also alert you to areas you can work on to improve your credit score.
  • Cancel any jointly held credit cards, and take out a credit card in your name alone to start building personal credit.
  • Take some time to create a budget, and consider how you might handle any large or unexpected expenses that could arise.

Tip Number 8: Nurture Your Support System

Share the news of your divorce with close people you know you can depend on. Going through a divorce is a lot for a person to handle on their own—and it's even more difficult if you have children to care for. Line up potential babysitters to cover for you when you have to attend court. Ask a friend or family member to review important documents to make sure they make sense before you submit them. Your friends and family can provide the moral support you need, and they might even have some words of wisdom or advice to share.

Tip Number 9: Stay Healthy Mentally and Physically

The responsibility of representing yourself in your own divorce can be overwhelming. Take some time off every now and then. Prioritize sleep and exercise, and talk to a counselor if you need someone neutral to vent to.

Tip Number 10: Get Help From a Lawyer on an As-Needed Basis

Hiring a lawyer to fully represent you in a divorce can be expensive. However, there are many lawyers who will be willing to provide you with hourly assistance on an as-needed basis. Perhaps you just need some help with filling out your financial disclosures or reviewing your settlement agreement to make sure you haven't overlooked something important. Contact one or more local family law attorneys and ask if they'd be willing to schedule a one- or two-hour consultation.

You can hire an attorney to fully represent you at any point during the divorce if you find that the DIY route isn't working. If you do hire an attorney, it's worth asking if it might be possible to request that your spouse contribute to the costs of the attorneys' fees. When one spouse has more financial resources than the other, judges are often willing to order that the more solvent spouse pay for or split the attorneys' fees incurred by the other spouse. A few states even require this under some circumstances.