DOING YOUR OWN DIVORCE IN TEXAS
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Can you do your own divorce, without having to spend hundreds of dollars for the services of a lawyer?  You might be surprised at how many people are doing just that.

The Judicial Council of California's Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants found that an astounding 67% of family law cases initially involved people representing themselves.  In the larger cities, the number jumped to 72%.

Here's an even more interesting number, though:  at the END of their cases, 80 percent of people who were divorcing were representing themselves.  In other words, there was a significant number of people who started their cases with a lawyer and then went on to successfully represent themselves.

Why?  The study we've been citing suggests that it may be that people began their cases with the belief that they could hire a lawyer, and then realized they couldn't afford it.  Sounds reasonable.  Yet, here is a quote from the American Bar Associations' Technology 2000 project:

"Many people who would benefit by hiring a lawyer and could afford to hire one avoid doing so.  Key reasons: 
-Fear of high fees.
-Dislike of hourly rates.
-Fear of prolonging disputes.
-Inconvenience."

In other words, financial concerns rate very high in peoples' decisions to represent themselves, but that doesn't imply that only the poverty stricken are self-representing.  Even people who can afford it are trying to avoid the, "lawyer experience."

So, if 80% of the people seeking divorce in California are representing themselves, does that mean that you can represent yourself in Texas?  Does California have a much simpler system than Texas?  The answer is a resounding, "No, it does not."  In Texas, for instance, there are only three main documents to a divorce with no children:  the Petition, the Waiver or Citation, and the Final Decree.  In California, there are a whopping 16 different forms that have to be filled out for a case with no children.

California has also invented a nightmare called the, "Financial Disclosure."  That means that both parties to the divorce are required to exchange page after page of financial information, listing every debt, every bank account, who's living with them and whether they're paying rent, how much the rent, electric, gas bills, car payments are, whether they have any investment opportunities, etc, etc. etc.  And that's in a non-contested, friendly divorce.  In Texas, you briefly list who gets what and who pays what, and it takes a couple of paragraphs.

Even more important, Texas has a two month waiting period for a divorce, whereas Californias' is six months.  Anyone who's ever worked in a law office knows that the longer people have to wait for their divorce to be finalized, the more likely they are to get into a fight.  Which may be why so many lawyers take so long to finish their cases.

Let's get down to brass tacks, though.  Suppose you've actually decided to file for a divorce and represent yourself.  What are your first steps?

Well, if you're sitting here reading this, you've already started the first step, and that's gathering information.  There are a number of good books on the subject of Texas divorce, so you might go to your library, book store, or Amazon.com and start reading about it.  There are also many sites on the web that offer information about the issues and process in a Texas divorce, and you can pick up a fair amount of information for free if you're persistent.

There's a second, very large element to getting started, though, and that's the legal forms themselves. Unfortunately, the books that are out there don't provide very good forms.  Part of the problem is that they're hard-copy forms.  You can't alter them to fit your situation, you can only retype them and hope you get it right.  Another part of the problem is that they tend to be, "check box," forms.  In other words, you read through them and check boxes in front of the paragraphs that apply to your case.  Unfortunately, Texas doesn't HAVE check box forms and most judges won't accept them.

So, you've spent 30 to 35 dollars for a book on Texas divorce and - while you may have gotten good, useful knowledge - you still can't file for a divorce.  You need divorce documents that the court clerk will accept.  Where do you get them?

If you've done a web search on Texas divorce, you know the hundreds of sites that pop up offering to sell you Texas divorce forms, divorce kits, and divorce packages.  They range in price from a couple of hundred dollars to ten or fifteen dollars.  How do you evaluate which forms to buy?  Here are a couple of tips:

- Avoid forms that are not, "state specific."  There are many, many companies out there selling generic forms that they claim will work in all 50 states.  There's no such critter.  California and Florida both have check box forms, but they're totally different check box forms.  Florida forms won't work in California and vice verse.  And sure as hell neither of them work in Texas.

- Check to see if they have instructions for filling them out which are included in the package.  The author of this article was working in a Texas family law firm when a company from Illinois began advertising, "Complete Texas Divorce Kits for only $99.00."  We began to see a stream of people coming into the office with 10 pound boxes of hundreds of forms, most of which didn't apply to Texas and none of which had any instructions for completing them.

- Consider the probable quality of the instructions.  There are several of the premium sites that claim to sell state-specific forms for all 50 states, with complete instructions.  Now, given the fact that lawyers and paralegals spend years learning how to fill out the forms for just one state, what do you think the odds are that those instructions for all 50 states will be very good?  If you see a site that's selling thousands of forms for all of the states, be very cautious about buying.

- Are the forms, "electronic," in nature?  In other words, can you open them on your own word processor and alter them to fit your case.  One of the dirty little secrets out there is that Judges absolutely HATE hand-written forms, and they'll throw them out in a second.  If the forms just have blanks for you to write in your own name and address, they're no good in Texas.

- Are the forms compatible with your system and your abilities?  If you've got Microsoft Word on your computer and the forms are in Adobe PDF, that doesn't do you much good.  Of course, you can download Adobe reader for free, but you can't change the forms to fit your situation, and many people find the PDF format very difficult to work with.

- Is there support on the site?  Keep in mind that people selling legal forms can't give you legal advice.  It's against the law.  They CAN help you if you encounter technical issues about the documents, though.  If you have trouble with a download, or you're having trouble formatting a document, you should be able to send the company an email and get an immediate response.

- Finally, are the forms affordable?  After all, your average Texas divorce with no kids only has three forms.  With kids, it's six forms.  Of course, the company needs to make money to stay in business, but they're not selling you an antique table - they're selling you a few forms.  If they want you to pay a huge amount of your hard earned cash for that, perhaps you should reconsider.

There's no doubt that as time goes by, it will be easier and easier for people to do their own divorces in Texas.  As the internet continues to develop, there will be more and more resources and information available to the average person.  It may be that today you'll have to do a little extra reading and use two or three different sites or books to do your own divorce.  But it's very, very do-able today, and it wasn't 20 years ago.

UPDATE:  The Texas Supreme Court has approved free check-box forms for a limited numer of cases.  If you have been married a short period of time and have no children or community property, you can use the free forms.



About the author:  Daniel Adair is the author of, "The Texas Divorce Course, A Peoples' Guide to the Texas Divorce System."  He spent 16 years in a Central Texas law office that processed between 25 and 40 divorces a week, and has written extensively on the Texas divorce process.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER
This information is offered as software to inform and empower you.  It is not intended as a substitute for competant legal counsel.