Fewer couples opting for divorceDocument Transcript
For better or worse, fewer using divorce lawyers
By Steve Campbell
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Sunday,April 19, 2009
*The growing number of self-represented divorce cases is throwing a
hitch into court operations.
FORT WORTH -- D-Day starts at 8 a.m., five days a week at the
district clerk’s office.
After completing a mandatory 61-day "cooling-off period" for divorces,
dozens of men and women stream past a security officer toward a
warren of cubicles.
You can see their determination; this is the final step in a daunting
Three men take seats shoulder to shoulder under a sign reading "325."
Their paperwork is quickly "proved up" by a clerk, who then shepherds
them to state District Judge Judith Wells’ 325th District Court
overlooking the Trinity River. The clerk gives one snippet of nonlegal
advice: "Whatever you do, don’t call her Judge Judy."
By 9:20 a.m., the three men have their final divorce decrees. And they
pulled it off without a hitch -- or a lawyer.
They are part of a growing trend at the Tarrant County Family Law
Center and courthouses nationwide as a slumping economy prompts
more people to save money by representing themselves.
In 2008, the Tarrant County district clerk’s office recorded 9,681
divorces; 6,405 of those, or 66 percent, included at least one pro se
defendant. That’s up from 58 percent in 2004. (Pro se is a Latin term
meaning "for oneself.")
The crush of cases is straining courthouse staffs and judges who have
to guide "self-represented litigants" through the justice system while
holding them to the same legal standards as attorneys.
For 36-year-old Terrance, who asked that his last name not be used,
getting his final divorce decree from Wells was a huge relief.
Suffering from kidney disease, the Fort Worth father subsists on $600
a month in disability payments and lives with his mother. But after two
lawyers "clued" him in on legal costs starting at $700, he hired
Terrance paid $149 for legal forms from DivorceWriter.com. He also
calculated his child support at $120 a month, and his now-ex-wife
agreed to it. "You hear horror stories, but it wasn’t like that," he said.
"It was a lot easier and quicker than I thought it would be."
'Not enough money’
In the current recession, many unhappily married couples are sticking
it out for economic reasons. But thousands more will be splitting the
sheets, just as they always do when times get tough.
"It’s a general rule of thumb in family law that the divorce rate rises as
the economy worsens," said James Paulsen, a family law professor at
the South Texas College of Law in Houston. "More marriages fall apart
Legal observers say pro se cases have increased in the last decade as
more people turned to the Internet for self-help. But Paulsen said
that’s not the only factor.
"I would say it is related to the economy even without the current
economic problems. Lawyers are just getting more and more
expensive," he said.
Divorce is a reliable industry in Texas.
In 2007, there were 176,305 marriages and 77,806 divorces,
according to preliminary numbers from the Texas Department of State
There are no statewide records for pro se divorce cases, according to
Carl Reynolds of the Texas Office of Court Administration.
But, just as in Tarrant County, district clerk offices in Harris, Travis
and Bexar counties report a substantial rise in the number of pro se
cases over the last five years.
"It’s to the point that all of us are struggling with it," Wells said. "And
we have a committee going right now trying to determine how we
assist these people or if we assist these people in getting their divorce.
It’s a real time crunch. It eats a lot of time for everybody that is
involved from clerks on up to the judges."
Self-representation was signed into U.S. law by George Washington as
part of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
But an adage often attributed to Abraham Lincoln sums it up for a lot
of lawyers: "A man who represents himself has a fool for a client."
But Honest Abe wasn’t accounting for a digital world.
Today’s pro se cases are part of the "do-it-yourself, Home Depot-style
generation" that thinks it has the mental and Internet skills to pull it
off or doesn’t have the money to do it any other way, said Sharon
Wayland, director of the Tarrant County Law Library.
"They come down here like it’s the DMV to change the address on their
driver’s license," Wayland said. "They think they’re going to get a
divorce by filling out a couple forms. It’s just not that simple."
Lisa Hoppes, a Bedford attorney and president of the Tarrant County
Family Law Bar Association, said many people can do it but not
"There’s a big difference between pro ses who are young kids and
don’t have property who opt to do it themselves. Then there is the
segment that backs up the court worse -- the people who hang on to
assets and have something to fight about," Hoppes said.
Wells said that the economy has driven up pro se numbers in recent
months and that she’s not just seeing poor couples in her court.
Some people "are overburdened with debt; it’s not that they don’t
have money. When you look at their overall income, it’s the type of
joint income that I think they should be able to afford an attorney,"
she said. "But they’ve maxed out their credit cards; they have a house
payment that is too big and car payments. There’s no discretionary
income left over to hire an attorney."
Fort Worth attorney Rod Marx of Marx, Altman & Johnson, which
specializes in "middle-class divorces," said the rise in pro se cases has
cut into his business.
"We have lost business, but I’m finding we are doing a lot of
corrections for pro se forms gone bad," Marx said. "We’ve picked up
business fixing their mistakes."
Marx said he provides a reliable service for a fair price. His firm
charges $225 for a divorce when no children or property is involved.
"Fees go up with complications, and if you have those you should be
using a lawyer," he said. "With children involved, we charge at least
$425. Adversarial cases are going to be in the thousands of dollars.
Our average cost for contested cases is $2,600."
Gary Nickelson, a Fort Worth attorney and president of the American
Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said costs depend on the case.
"No kids, no property, no nothing -- it’s going to be cheap," he said.
"But when you have kids, retirement accounts, houses and cars, it’s
different. I always tell people what I think it is going to cost but that
my crystal ball is broke."
Marvin and Cynthia Foster of Fort Worth are consummate examples of
an uncomplicated divorce.
They separated five years ago, and last week they finally cut the knot.
"Divorce lawyers told us it would cost $900 to $1,500," said Cynthia
Foster, a 43-year-old career services worker at MedVance Institute.
"In this economy, nobody has that extra money."
So they did it for free with forms from TexasLawHelp. org.
"It’s easy when two people are in agreement," said Marvin Foster, a
46-year-old car salesman. "Thank the Lord, we’re still friends."
It helped that they had worked out a child support agreement years
ago for their now-18-year-old son. Foster, who has another son from a
previous marriage, said he even paid his child support in advance.
'Caught in the middle’
But not all pro se cases are so easy or amicable.
People who are already emotionally frayed by a failed marriage are
easily angered by a system that requires an exacting paper trail, said
Lisa Arnesen, an assistant family law manager with the Tarrant County
Court clerks are "caught in the middle" -- they can’t dispense legal
advice but still must guide people through the maze, Arnesen said.
And when people get lost, they get frustrated.
"We have a saying down here: In criminal courts, you see the worst
people on their best behavior. In civil courts, you see good people on
their worst behavior," Arnesen said.
"That’s why all the managers have security buttons. It’s a highly
emotional thing. Sometimes people are ecstatic to be getting a
divorce. But if it’s adversarial, it can get tense. Since they don’t have
an attorney, you are going to see that lashing-out."
Texas judges say they are working to accommodate pro se cases. "It’s
more complicated for the court system, but I don’t want to suggest
that people can’t come to the courthouse to get their problems
solved," said Travis County state District Judge Lora Livingston. "That’s
what we’re here for, to help people."
Terrance thinks he was well-served. While Wells was reviewing his
case, she noted that since he is disabled, his son would likely qualify
for benefits and that could ease his child support payments.
"I was really surprised when she brought that up," he said. "I
appreciated that. This worked out better than I thought it could."
2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Total pro se divorces 5,328 5,325 5,679 6,039 6,405 1,572
Total divorce cases filed 9,184 9,327 9,505 9,614 9,681 2,766
Pro se % of total 58% 57% 60% 63% 66% 57%
What they are saying
"A lot of them think they are doing an excellent job handling their
divorce cases. There’s a real disconnect between what they think and
what we think down here." -- state District Judge Judith Wells
"I have a pretty poor opinion of online resources. . . . Most of them are
by people out to make a buck, and you get what you pay for and it
isn’t much." -- James Paulsen, family law professor, South Texas
College of Law
Doing it yourself
A good place to find correct divorce forms for Texas courts is a Web
site created by the Texas Access to Justice Commission and the Texas
Access to Justice Foundation. www.TexasLawHelp.org
A respected source for self-help-divorce information is Nolo Publishing
of Berkeley, Calif., which specializes in legal-aid books. 800-728-3555.
The Tarrant County Law Library is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5
p.m. Monday-Friday at the Tarrant County Courthouse, 100 W.
Weatherford St. in downtown Fort Worth. 817-884-1481.
Sources: Texas Department of State Health Services, Tarrant County
district clerk’s office
(C) The Star-Telegram 2009
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