The highest court in the Texas judicial system approved the introduction and use of standardized divorce documents in a 5-3 decision. The Texas Supreme Court’s decision was hailed by some low income advocates as an improved mechanism for poor couples to dissolve their marriages, but has proven to be a growing burden upon many lower courts as well as these households. The availability of forms without proper understanding of the language or the appropriate legal procedures has led to widespread confusion which has actually increased the ultimate costs to many of these litigants. As a family law attorney in Austin, I understand the need for individuals to keep legal costs low, but going through a complicated process like a divorce without legal counsel can often be more costly than hiring a competent attorney.
The decision by the Texas Supreme Court may have been based on the belief that standardized forms would streamline the process for family courts, and expedite the resolution of the more than 80,000 divorces occurring annually. The forms approved by the Supreme Court on Nov. 13, 2012 were a result of an 18 month long process. The forms were designed to be specific to Texas law and usable by anyone in a marriage without children. The document creators intended the forms to be used by individuals of all households, but experts warn that only those couples without significant assets and cannot afford an attorney should utilize them.
Numerous complications can arise from the use of these forms if one or both parties possess assets like 401k plans or retirement accounts. Without adequate legal representation, a litigant could be passing up thousands of dollars in potential benefits.
The real cost for those seeking a do-it-yourself divorce is often not a result of lost assets, but rather the costs of a botched legal procedure. Many filers may misunderstand the language and present answers that are inaccurate. This can often result in extended legal proceedings and greater legal costs when an attorney may be required to resolve divorce proceedings that have become tangled due to improper completion of divorce papers.
The solution presented by the Family Law Cares project is to match pro bono attorney with indigent households. This project helps attorney who are willing to work pro bono on divorce cases communicate more effectively with one another, thereby allocating available legal resources to individuals who desperately require them. The Family Law Cares project also helps introduce new law school graduates to the legal system by giving them the opportunity to work in courtrooms and aid these couples.
As a family attorney in Austin, I realize that many couples who want to end their marriages try to take the option that presents the least up-front costs. While the forms that are available may seem attractive, there is often no substitute for experienced legal counsel.