EP 186: Can Do-It-Yourself (Pro-Se) Divorce Work?

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In this episode, I want to discuss do it yourself divorce and specifically whether or not it can work. Do it yourself divorce, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, means not having an attorney represent you or your spouse during the divorce process. Basically, the two of you decide to work out all of the issues together yourself and you don’t involve lawyers in the process and it actually has a term also called Pro Se divorce. If you ever see the term Pro Se divorce, it’s a form or it’s the same thing as do it yourself divorce and a lot of people choose this process and actually, I was speaking to several attorneys recently and they said it’s becoming a more and more common practice and for good reason. In many cases, depending upon your situation, you might not need an attorney.

So in this episode, I want to discuss some of the situations in which do it yourself divorce can work and some little tips to help you navigate that process should you proceed with do it yourself divorce, and also just some other considerations to think about. Now, when you go the do it yourself divorce route, there are three specific benefits that I like for people to keep in mind. Number one is that it is generally a much cheaper process. Look, you can pursue a do it yourself divorce if in the base level for only the court filing fees. I’m gonna talk about that in a little bit about going to the court, but basically, you are saving perhaps many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars by doing the process yourself. Just cheaper. You’re not paying hundreds of dollars per hour for lawyers fees.

The second thing, the second benefit is that it’s usually a less contentious process. Now, in the context of divorce, almost everything is contentious and let’s get that out of the way. But there are degrees of fighting, you’re getting divorced for a reason. Things aren’t working out. We got it. So when I say a less contentious process, when you go do it yourself divorce route, it means that you and your spouse can have civil conversations, and even though this is a painful process, you can work things out between the two of you in a civilized manner. Yes, there are still emotions involved. Yes, you probably aren’t going to be happy about all of this, but you can talk with each other and talk to each other and therefore work things out. Also as part of that is you can split your stuff up in a reasonable way. You’re not going to be spending $5,000 trying to determine who gets the blender that’s in the house or the food processor or whatever else.

Then the third benefit is, or I’ll just say the third, this isn’t necessarily a benefit, but the third thing to keep in mind is that almost anyone who’s against do-it-yourself divorce is an attorney and there’s a reason for that is because the attorneys do not get their fees as part of the process. So, there are downsides to do it yourself divorce, and I’m going to get into those in a little bit, but most of the time it can work if you think it can work and you fit the right conditions. Now, what are those conditions for do-it-yourself divorce? There are some things that really should be in place, otherwise you’re going to run into trouble and the money you save is not going to be worth the effort of doing this yourself, and it’s probably a better, probably would’ve been a better solution to pursue another divorce methods.

So, I like to keep things simple. I’m going to keep it a list of three things, three conditions that you should have before pursuing do it yourself divorce. The first one is both of you should have a very clear understanding of all of your assets and your debts. Or to put it another way, you both need to have a clear picture of everything that you own and that you owe. You need to know if you have a house, how much is the house is worth and be able to agree upon that. If you have a mortgage, if you have credit cards, if you have a 401k or a pension plan or other retirement accounts, if you have cars, if you have other assets around, you need to know what those things are and both of you need to be on the same page regarding them. If you’re not, do it yourself divorce is probably not the best option for you.

The second thing is you cannot have complex custody issues. Complex custody issues are a challenge, to say the least. An attorney I work very closely with who will probably be on the podcast in the coming months, specializes in complex custody cases and just from knowing her and the types of issues she deals with and the book that she just wrote on the subject, it is one of the toughest things that you can deal with as part of the divorce process, and if you have a complex custody issue, do it yourself divorce is not for you. Now, the third condition that you need to have is the ability to negotiate a reasonable agreement with your soon to be ex-spouse. Now, I didn’t say you have to like your soon to be ex-spouse, but you have to both be in a position to understand and agree to something that’s fair.

Now, there is no divorce agreement in the history of divorce agreements that’s perfect, right? Almost never do I see two people smiling at the end of the divorce settlement and saying, “I got everything I wanted, I’m ready to go,” and if that does happen, there’s probably an issue and someone got cheated. Most of the time, this has to be some sort of an agreement where neither one of you are perfectly happy, but you can live with the results of the process and if one of you is trying to “win” in the divorce process or trying to punish the other spouse or has some other issues that prevent you from negotiating something reasonable, then do it yourself divorce is not for you and you should most likely pursue other methods.

So let’s say you have those three things, look, you have, you understand what you own and what you owe, and the other thing I meant to say about that one is that if you have complicated assets, do it yourself divorce is usually not the right idea. Second is you don’t have complex custody issues, and third is you think you and your spouse can work out something reasonable. So what do you do if you’re going to pursue a do it yourself divorce? Well, what I recommend is you write up your agreement. You put it all on paper. I’ve seen spouses negotiate it and sit down around the kitchen table and come up with an agreement. I’ve seen spouses do it by email. I have a number of people that I’ve worked with over the years who will email each other back and forth some detailed agreements.

I know spouses who do it in any number of methods and ways, but whatever it is, you need to put it on paper and you need to work out, you say, “Hey, here’s what we’re going to do.” I like to do things big to small, so if your biggest asset for most people is a house, second big asset is a retirement account, but if that, let’s just assume for a moment your house is the biggest thing, you’d say, “All right, here’s what we’re going to do about the house. We’re going to put it up for sale. We’re going to split the proceeds 50-50,” or whatever you think is right or one is going to keep the house or whatever else, and then when you come to agreement about the house, you move on to the next asset and the next asset then the next asset, and or maybe if you have debts to consider, then you go through down the line on the debts. But the point is is you negotiate something reasonable and you go through each thing and you put these items on paper and you come up with what you want your agreement to be.

Now it doesn’t stop there. Next thing you have to do is you have to figure out how you’re going to actually file the paperwork. One complexity about the divorce process that’s really challenging is that every county has a different divorce procedure in the United States. I’m going to give you an example. I’m based in Dallas, but I travel very frequently. Dallas, where I am in the city of Dallas, there is about four to five counties within a 20-minute drive of where I live. Each one of those counties handles divorce totally differently, even though they’re all in the city of Dallas or the Dallas metroplex, each county has different rules, different procedures, different judges, different processes, so that’s one issue.

Another issue that’s involved is they have different paperwork and so you need to understand what county you’re going to file in and how to do that. Now, one, there are a few solutions that are out there in terms of figuring out the right paperwork to get. One thing you can do if you really want to keep costs to a minimum is drive to your county courthouse. If you go to your county courthouse, you go to one of the clerks at the windows and you can ask them, “What divorce paperwork do I need?” and they can point you in the right direction. Some counties actually have it on their county website, but you need to make sure you get your appropriate county’s paperwork because even though the laws might apply on a statewide basis, the exact procedures occur county by county.

Second thing you need to or so one method I said is going to the clerk. Another method potentially is going online. Now, aside from going to the court’s website, you can also use one of the online divorce services. There are many do it yourself divorce services that guarantee that they’ll provide you the right paperwork and it’ll be filled out correctly and whatever else, and usually those services go anywhere from I’ve seen $150 upwards to about a thousand dollars and, if you get a reputable one, there’s a lot of questionable ones out there, but if you get a reputable one, they can help you in that process and through that process.

Now, another thing you can do is either work with a paralegal or an attorney on an uncontested divorce package. Many attorneys in just about any city have an uncontested divorce pack, uncontested divorce package where it is usually a fixed fee package that you pay and they guarantee that the paperwork works or will be handled appropriately for you. So it’s usually between a thousand and $3,000 depending upon where you are, but you get to guarantee that everything you’ve done is … That everything that you’ve done and submitted is correct. Here’s why this might be a good option. You might have all the paperwork, you might go to the court, you might have everything correct, you might submit it in the right way, but guess what? Unfortunately, this is a complicated process and papers can get rejected for oftentimes some of the silliest, smallest reasons. Court paperwork, I’ve almost never … I’m sure there’s a state somewhere that’s good, but I haven’t found it yet. Almost no court paperwork is easy to navigate. It is complicated. I haven’t talked about this example in a while, but the state of New York where I have lots of clients, New York, California, Texas are my three biggest but all across the country, lots of clients. But in New York, the New York paperwork is so difficult to complete. Even just the basic paperwork, I hate looking at it. It’s necessary, but it is not very user-friendly. The point being is if you have a little bit of money saved aside, it can be cost-efficient just to say, “Hey, we want an uncontested divorce, here’s everything we’ve already agreed to. Can you just check over it and fill out the paperwork for us, please, attorney,” and you can do that for a fixed fee.

So it’s okay if you’re going through a do it yourself divorce to get limited help. So that’s the other thing I would say is so those are the options for filing the paperwork but just my last tips for those considering do it yourself divorce is consider getting some additional help, what I call as the sanity check. One of the most common things or the biggest things I recommend is maybe once you’ve come up with a full agreement and you got everything down, it can be worth having an attorney or an associate or a paralegal or me, via a coaching session say, “Hey, this is everything that we’ve agreed to. I think it looks good. Why don’t you read over it? Give it a check and let me know what you think,” and oftentimes you might see something. Someone who looks at these, hopefully for you, this is the only time you have to deal with this, but someone who sees hundreds or thousands of divorces can say, “Hey, you’re missing one, two and three,” or “Hey, it might be better if you consider this thing for a tax purpose,” or “Hey, you’re going to both end up in the same position, but maybe we should split stuff in this manner instead of the way you propose.”

It can be pretty quick for someone who looks at these things all the time to figure out what the best options are. So I might say for some people, and I tell people all the time, go sit down for an hour with someone or 30 minutes with someone just to get a second opinion just to make sure that everything is okay. It doesn’t mean that what you’ve done is bad, but sometimes it can be helpful just to have that other set of eyes. Look, do it yourself divorce, if the issues at hand are not too complicated, I’m a big proponent of it. I mean, I think you should, by all means, save money in your divorce. It’s not for everyone and it won’t work in every situation, but if you are in a position where you think it can work for you, definitely start by pursuing that path. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to. There are options you can pursue on the do it yourself divorce path and then, looks like things aren’t working out the way you would have wanted them to and therefore you switch up and you do both get attorneys. But if you think you can start with the do it yourself divorce and resolve things that way, by all means, check it out because it could be a good solution for your situation.

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