Yes, it is possible to file your own divorce and complete the process without the aid of an attorney. However before you commence a do-it-yourself (DIY) divorce, consider these tips.
You're probably a good candidate for a DIY divorce if:
Sure, you want to save the money, but do you have the time to research your state's law, gather the documentation, and follow through with court filings and appearances? At the same time, you will need an even temperament to deal with the roller coaster of emotions that may be in play even if you and your spouse are in complete agreement as to the process.
If only one or two issues are standing between you and your spouse attempting a DIY divorce – say, for example, visitation rights -- don't give up. You and your spouse may achieve consensus and resolution through the use of a divorce mediator, a professional who can bring closure to many controversial divorce issues. Similarly, if emotional issues are creating a wedge, a counselor may be able to facilitate an end to the gridlock.
Divorce mediation is a great way to handle a divorce if you and your spouse can't quite agree on all the important terms. See our section on Divorce Mediation to find out how it works and whether it's a good option for you.
There are serious and long-term tax considerations for some divorces. Before signing off on a DIY divorce filing, you may want to consider consulting an accountant, financial advisor or tax preparer who can alert you to the potential tax issues post-divorce. And don't forget www.irs.gov, where the IRS offers free information about all the tax issues related to divorce.
If your spouse is a cauldron of unresolved anger, such that the spouse is a danger to you or your children, then a DIY divorce is not appropriate. It's also not appropriate if you have a reasonable belief that your spouse is hiding money or transferring joint assets out of your control. See our section on Hiding Money Before a Divorce to learn how it's done and how the assets are found.
Although counties differ, most county clerk's offices provide you with some of the basic information required when filing your own divorce. (Sometimes this is available at your county clerk website so check there first.) The clerk cannot give legal advice and may refer you to a county law library if one is available. State court websites should provide information about where your local court is, which branch you should use, clerk's hours, and sometimes filing fees. (You can find state court sites here or here.)
In some places, there are businesses that prepare the paperwork for uncontested divorces. These folks may be called paralegals but are commonly referred to as legal document preparers, or LDPs. Legal document preparers aren't allowed to give you individualized legal advice. (Only licensed lawyers can do that.) However, they can prepare forms, using the information you supply, and file them with the court. So when you visit a document preparation business, you'll get a questionnaire that asks you for the information the preparer needs to fill out court forms for your county. The LDP will transfer the information onto the forms, and then either you or the LDP can file them with the court. The fee for doing the paperwork for an uncontested divorce varies from about $175 to $700, depending on where you live, whether you have children, and whether you need a separate settlement agreement (which depends on how your state's forms are structured). Because the quality and reliability of such services can vary greatly, do a little checking before settling on one. Find out how much experience the LDP has, check online reviews, see if your state has any restrictions on LDP work, and if possible, get a reference.
Some document preparation services interact with customers only through the Internet, which may be a boon to you if no walk-in service is available close to where you live. You'll answer questions on the website, and the forms will emerge from your computer or be mailed to you a few days later. You'll need to file the forms with the court yourself.
In some cases, the web-based service will arrange for the filing. The cost is usually a few hundred dollars (typically between $200 and $500) and differences in price often relate to the speed with which the documents are prepared. Again, a little research about the service can help, particularly any online reviews. Some sites display a seal for the Better Business Bureau online, which means you can check on a report for that company at www.bbbonline.com. Not having the seal doesn't mean that the product isn't good, but use your judgment and spend some time looking around for what will work best for you. And while getting your documents immediately may seem appealing, check to be sure they're being reviewed before you get them.
There's a reason why lawyers charge high fees. They're often aware of long-term concerns that you may not consider, for example, whether a court will "impute" future income to a spouse who has bright financial future. Lawyers also offer a shield – all correspondence and contact can be directed through the lawyer's office if things get ugly. And lawyers may have a better bead on child custody issues and what the court considers as a parenting plan that has the child's best interests.
If you're not sure that a Do-It-Yourself divorce is the right choice, talk to some divorce attorneys first. Initial consultations are often free, and offer you a chance to explain the circumstances of your case to a professional. You may be able to get some good information quickly to help decide if you need the guidance and protection of a lawyer on your side.
Although same-sex married couples can divorce in every state now that the Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, the evolving status of each state's laws can make a same-sex divorce more complicated. You may want an attorney's advice.
Excerpted in part from Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.