Managing Your Own Divorce
A do-it-yourself divorce saves you the expense of lawyers’ or mediators’ fees. Doing your own divorce is not just a matter of filling out paperwork (although this will be one of your responsibilities,) but also includes the process of negotiating the terms of your separation and coming to an agreement about how you will divide property.
A do-it-yourself-divorce is only appropriate in some cases. However even if you don’t end up using the do-it-yourself divorce package for the actual divorece by filling it out you will have still done much of the decision makeing and research without spending much money. If you fit the following criteria this may be the right approach for you.
* You have been married less than five years.
If you were married longer than five years, one spouse may be entitled to support or to a portion of the ex’s retirement funds.
* You have no children.
If there are children involved, you will need professional legal assistance to sort out the details of custody and support.
* You have few assets and few debts.
If you have a lot of assets, you will need help dividing your property. Likewise, if you have many debts, you will need assistance determining who is responsible for what. Even if you agree about how you want to divide the debts and assets, there may be tax implications for transferring the funds. You should consult a professional for advice on these matters.
* You and your spouse can communicate civilly and honestly.
Divorce is a process of problem solving and negotiation. If you and your spouse cannot communicate honestly and respectfully, you will probably be unable to work through the details of your separation and to come to an agreement. If one spouse tends to dominate or intimidate the other, you will likewise not be able to reach a fair agreement. And, if you have any reason to think that your spouse is not being fully honest with you, you should not opt for a do-it-yourself divorce. Instead, seek professional counsel.
* You are both employed and you can both support yourselves.
If one spouse is unemployed or otherwise not financially independent, he or she may be entitled to support. Consult a lawyer.
How to Do-It-Yourself
Below is a brief summary of the process of filing for divorce. This process varies from state to state, so be aware that in your state, it may be somewhat different.
In a do-it-yourself divorce, you are responsible for filing your own paperwork. You can obtain the necessary packet of forms by going to a bookstore or office supply store, or by using an on-line service like LegalZoom.com. These services allow you to order or download the necessary papers, for a fee. Or, you may be able to get the necessary paperwork for free from your county court. You should file for divorce in the county in which you reside.
After you’ve obtained the necessary paperwork, the next step in pursuing your divorce is to file papers with your local court. (In Arizona, this would be the Superior Court.) These papers would typically include a petition for divorce. This petition will generally ask you for information about you, your spouse, your children, and your financial assets. Your petition will need to be notarized, and in addition to the petition, you will have a number of other forms to fill out. These forms vary from state to state.
Once you’ve filed your petition and paid a filing fee (in many states, about $200,) the court will issue a summons informing your spouse that you have filed for divorce. (Alternately, in some states, you may be responsible for sending paperwork to your spouse, which your spouse will then sign, notarize, and return.) If the court sends a summons to your spouse, he or she will have an opportunity to answer. If your spouse does not respond, the case will be completed by default. If your spouse files a response, then you can proceed to negotiate a settlement agreement. (And if you cannot agree on a settlement, then you will need to try your case in court. At this point you would need legal counsel.)
Where to Get Help
If you are doing your own divorce but want to get some degree of help from a professional, you can consult a paralegal, seek help from court facilitators, or consult an attorney.
A paralegal, or legal document assistant, can help you to prepare the necessary legal forms. You should seek references before you hire a paralegal, and remember that paralegals are not licensed to practice law and may not be able to give you advice.
Your county court may have a facilitator available to give you free advice, particularly on support issues.
Finally, you may find a lawyer willing to meet with you from time to time at an hourly rate, although many attorneys prefer that you pay to retain them for the duration of your divorce proceedings. Hourly rates can range from $150 to $400 an hour. Some State Bar Associations have a low cost one time referral service available. (add on-line referrals)
Deciding whether to have a do-it-yourself divorce is not necessarily an all-or-nothing choice. Rather, you have a range of choices available, from doing everything on your own, to consulting a lawyer once or twice, to using a mediator to help you and your spouse arrive at an agreement that fits your needs.
If your divorce becomes more complex than you anticipated, if you feel uncomfortable or unsure about the process, or if you fear you may not be getting what you are entitled to, you should consult a lawyer. Even one consultation may be enough to answer your questions and ensure that your do-it-yourself agreement is fair and legally sound.