Divorce American-Style – Forget the Lawyers, Just Check the Box

Lawfuel.com – It seems Americans are going about divorce the new way, according to a report from Bloombergs in the San Francisco Chronicle. They’re doing the DIY Divorce route without lawyers at all.

A controversy over divorce procedures in Texas is calling attention to a profound shift in the way Americans in all 50 states exit marriage: They’re going to court on their own, without lawyers.

Few courts keep statistics, but small studies and local estimates suggest that self-divorcers now make up 40 percent to 70 percent of the total, depending on the jurisdiction, with the highest numbers in places with relatively large populations of poor people.

Naturally, this is causing a lot of chaos at family courts, and extra work for clerks who are called upon to help multitudes of legal novices, often in the pangs of marital separation, work through the process.

The Supreme Court of Texas, like courts in dozens of other states and counties, wants to make things easier by providing do-it-yourself petitions, summonses and other forms needed to manage a divorce. Texas family lawyers are fighting back, arguing that the forms may not provide adequate help, that marriages are best dissolved with a lawyer’s advice and assistance.

We have nothing against lawyers. We know and like them. And we do not dispute that they can be extremely helpful in divorce: In situations involving long-married spouses who have children and real property, they’re essential. But judges know that the significant share of marriages are simpler than that. In any case, many people who want divorces can’t afford lawyers’ fees.

Budget cuts in recent years have limited the availability of legal-aid lawyers. They now rarely help people with divorce, except in cases of domestic violence or child abduction.

This is why the Texas court’s solution is sound, and should be taken up by every other jurisdiction that hasn’t already created fill-in-the-blank forms.

Lawyer-free divorce is not ideal, but divorce rarely involves ideal circumstances. Marriages do split apart, however, and our courts have done well to remove unnecessary barriers to legal dissolution. Until 1969, when California got the ball rolling on no-fault divorce, one spouse always had to sue — accusing the other of inflicting some harm such as adultery, abuse or abandonment.

No-fault divorce didn’t raise divorce rates. Those began rising in the 1960s and 1970s — probably as a result of cultural changes and increasing mobility, scholars say — before states widely adopted no-fault laws. Since 1981, national divorce rates have been stable or falling.

There’s no reason to fear easier self-divorce will harm the institution of marriage or contribute to the increase in single parenting. Studies and observations of experiences in the 36 states that already have self-help divorce forms show that the main reason people represent themselves is that they can’t afford high lawyers’ fees.

Couples who do not divorce because they can’t afford it still split up. And they still find new partners. They are, however, prevented from remarrying.

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