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DIY divorce

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / March 18, 2009
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Many miserable couples are just too poor these days to get a proper divorce.

Some have opted to wait it out until property values rise, jobs are secured, and alimony can be paid. Some are even cohabitating until the economy is back up and running.

Other cash-strapped couples aren't as willing to hang on until the market inflates. They've decided to divorce, but to save cash they're skimping on attorneys.

DIY divorces are pretty common these days. You can find the instructions and paperwork online. Websites such as www.easy-divorce.com, www.completecase.com, and www.mydivorcedocuments.com charge about as much - and make it look as easy - as TurboTax.

"Our online divorce volume has actually increased as the recession has deepened because couples are looking for a less expensive way to get divorced rather than spend thousands of dollars on legal fees," e-mailed Richard Granat, a lawyer who specializes in online law services and runs a number of state-specific sites including www.madivorceonline.com.

Doing a divorce pro se (that's what the courts call self-representation) is certainly possible, as is representing yourself in any legal matter. But is it wise?

To my surprise, I found a lawyer who isn't opposed to turning away business and telling people to take matters in their own hands. Steven Ballard, a divorce attorney in Wellesley Hills and Worcester, says we live in a DIY world. Some people are capable of undoing their own bad situations, especially when those bad situations are simple.

"The reality is that people can represent themselves in many cases," Ballard says. "It's been my practice to tell clients . . . they can handle the divorce themselves. If there are little in the way of assets to divide, if there are no children, there's no reason people shouldn't go into court and grab the papers themselves." Ballard recommends the book "How to File for Divorce in Massachusetts" by Sharyn T. Sooho and Steven L Fuchs.

Ballard gives a disclaimer: If there are issues with custody and assets, it's worth hiring representation. Of course, Ballard's friend Laurie Israel, a Brookline attorney, would argue that all divorces are complicated, even the ones that appear to be simple.

"I know it's horrible to pay legal fees. I know I wouldn't like it myself," Israel says. "It seems like you should be able to do it, but there are all these pitfalls."

Israel says there's no smart way around lawyers. Often, couples who do the paperwork themselves wind up hiring lawyers later on to undo their mistakes. Even couples who come to an agreement about the terms of their divorce before seeking legal representation wind up making the process more expensive once one of the parties realizes he or she has given up too much.

"You don't know what's fair until you're a divorce lawyer," she says.

Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the Probate and Family Court, says that despite the cons of DIY divorce, it's happening, so the state must address the trend. "The economy has caused more and more people to be self-represented," she said.

Couples have always been able to take advantage of the court's lawyer-for-a-day program, which is basically free legal advice. If they live in Suffolk, Norfolk, or Hampden counties, divorcing people are also allowed to hire lawyers for specific portions of their cases. That's a new trend in Massachusetts - the unbundling of legal services to make them more affordable.

The state has seen such an influx of pro se cases, specifically in family court, that it has started educating the public about how to use the system without help. The Norfolk Probate and Family Court hosts a seminar at 7 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month at Canton High School.

At the very least, the classes can help couples on the fence decide whether DIY law is wise. Israel would say ending a marriage is never as simple as it seems.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com. You can read her daily Love Letters dispatch and chat with her every Wednesday at 1 p.m. at www.boston.com/loveletters.

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