Some low-income Texans may be expected to represent themselves in divorce cases if the Texas Supreme Court approves the use of user-friendly divorce forms for litigants. However, many Texas family law attorneys oppose the use of do-it-yourself divorce forms at all, worrying that they may actually cause more problems than they solve.
On April 13, a task force called "Solutions 2012" presented recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court Advisory Committee on whether user-friendly divorce forms should be used and, if so, what form they should take. The idea is make it easier for people who can't afford a lawyer to get access to the legal services they need -- even if that means representing themselves with what minimal guidance the forms could provide.
Obtaining free or low-cost divorce representation can be problematic. Often, people who legitimately can't afford attorneys are not considered poor enough to obtain help from Legal Aid, and far too few family law practitioners offer pro bono (free) or low-cost representation. Some attorneys argue that focusing on offering more low-cost services would be a better resolution than leaving low-income divorcing couples to figure it out on their own via forms.
Texas does have forms allowing people to represent themselves in property seizure and wage garnishment cases, but this would be the first time pro se forms would be introduced in divorce and family disputes.
Many Texas family law and divorce lawyers are concerned that the forms will lead to a legal quagmire that would disproportionately impact lower income people. Among their worries:
- People who use the forms may not fully understand the implications of the choices made during the divorce process, particularly when it comes to complex issues affecting child custody, parenting time, child support, division of marital assets and taxation.
- The forms might not be updated as laws change.
- It is unclear who would ensure the forms submitted are filled out correctly in the first place -- or who might be held responsible if an incorrectly filled-out form caused problems later on.
One Fort Worth attorney said that people already try to handle their divorces on their own, and he regularly sees the results in his practice -- in the form of headaches from the mistakes they made, which require costly modifications. "The issue comes up in divorce court all the time," he said.
Solutions 2012's recommendations were also presented to the State Bar of Texas board of directors, which accepted the task force's work during a meeting last week. The board is currently considering what advice to give the Texas Supreme Court, and the issue is up for public comment. Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether the forms would be accepted by the courts, what monitoring would be required and how to respond to errors that cause problems later.
What do you think? It's true that many people who would like to have family law or divorce representation find it difficult to afford, but are do-it-yourself forms the answer?
Source: Star-Telegram, "User-friendly divorce forms stir legal debate," Diane Smith, April 14, 2012