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Good Idea or Pandora’s Box: Texas Supreme Court Greenlights Process for Do-It-Yourself Divorce

January 14, 2014

In a recent 5-3 decision, the Texas Supreme Court decided to move forward with a new process that would permit low-income couples to divorce without hiring a lawyer. This do-it-yourself divorce process is made possible through a series of standardized forms. While standardized divorce forms could help improve access to the legal system for low-income Texans, do-it-yourself divorce is rife with pitfalls for most couples – and going that route could prove costly for those who choose to forego legal counsel.

The proposed do-it-yourself divorce forms were crafted over an 18-month period by a task force created to draft these forms, and they were approved by the Supreme Court of Texas this past November. The public commentary period on the forms concluded last week; the Texas Supreme Court is expected to approve the new procedures any day now.

The standardized forms will be available to anyone filing an uncontested divorce from marriage without children. Unlike many of the divorce forms currently available in libraries or on the internet, the new standardized forms will be tailored to Texas law.

While the forms will be available to those of all income levels, legal experts warn that they should be used sparingly, only in those divorces that involve few or no assets and in which the parties truly cannot afford a lawyer.

“The new forms, although well-intentioned, have the potential to open a Pandora’s Box on post-divorce litigation,” noted Curtis Harrison, a board-certified family lawyer with Goranson Bain Ausley. “Without legal guidance or other oversight, there exists a substantial risk that the forms will be used in cases for which they were not designed. That would inevitably lead to an increase in post-divorce litigation to fix the problems created by the forms.”

Robert Black, president of the State Bar of Texas, echoed Harrison’s concerns. “The client and the system are far better served by having a lawyer,” Black told The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, attempts at do-it-yourself divorce have contributed to significant case backlogs in many Texas divorce courts, as pro-se litigants — in other words, those who go to court without a lawyer — need more handholding by courtroom staff.

And the issues might not end with that initial trip to the courtroom. As Harrison noted, “This isn’t a question of lawyers protecting their profession. In fact, family lawyers may well experience an increase in work because of the post-divorce litigation that will likely be caused by the improper use of these forms. Rather, this is a question of protecting the public from that harm before it actually occurs.”

Ask a family law attorney if you need legal counsel in your divorce

In 2011, approximately 58,000 Texans filed cases in family courts without a lawyer. For some of them, do-it-yourself litigation was a last resort of a truly dire financial situation. Many would have been better off with an attorney.

If you are getting divorced in Texas, retaining an experienced family law attorney is the best way to ensure that you get it right the first time, get the full share of marital assets you are entitled to and prevent a costly return to court to seek modifications of poorly crafted divorce terms. Hiring a divorce attorney does have an initial cost — but it is an investment that will most likely pay for itself and then some. Call one of our Texas family law attorneys today to learn more about the advantages of getting divorced with the aid of a lawyer.

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