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Texas Wants to Make DIY Divorces Easier, But Judge Asks: Aren't They Easy Enough Already?

The state Supreme Court is considering developing a uniform, simplified do-it-yourself form for uncontested divorce filings, an effort to increase access to the justice system for people who can't afford a lawyer.

Not surprisingly, some Texas lawyers feel the legal system is too complicated to be boiled down into checked boxes. So a Supreme Court advisory committee took recommendations from both sides of the debate last week, according to the Texas Tribune, and will decide soon whether DIY divorces get their own form and what that form should say.

Meanwhile, Dallas County Family Court Judge Lynne Cherry says either way, the forms would make little if any difference -- at least in her DIY-friendly courtroom.

The Supreme Court wants to make the whole process easier with one standard form to be used across the state, which is why they established the Uniform Forms Task Force last year to do exactly what its name implies. The form already exists in many states.

"It simplifies it for people who don't have a lot of conflict, who don't have property," just as existing forms already do, Cherry says. "I guess I'm not understanding what the panic is about."

People in her courtroom go through divorce proceeding on their own behalf all the time, she says. Other forms exist to aid people in pro se divorce litigation, and they're used so commonly that she once had her intern photocopy a stack to have them on hand in her court. In fact, pro se cases often consume the better part of her day, as she directs people back and forth to the law library and explains things like whose name goes on the "petitioner" line. She doesn't imagine a new form will change any of that.

In cases where the couple has a retirement plan, property, child support payments or any number of complicating factors, Cherry says, no form can serve as a substitute for an attorney. "If it's anything outside the box, they need some extra help," she says. Ideally, she thinks there should be an attorney available for free to help people through filing for themselves, which is offered in Smith County.

She adds that if lawyers fear that providing forms for people is going to cut into their business, it's not. The people who already represent themselves using existing forms -- the same ones who would use the new forms -- couldn't afford attorneys if they wanted to, she says.

And while a lot of lawyers are in Austin speaking out on both sides of the issue, she suspects it could be the case that many don't understand just how often these forms are already used. After all, clients representing themselves don't turn to attorneys. It's the judge, she says, who ultimately must help them help themselves.


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