Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Do It Yourself Divorce- Think Twice

The following is a story from the Los Angelas Times and was picked up here locally by the Houston Chronicle. The traps of "Do-It-Yourself" Divorces are no less here in Texas than in California. Caveat Emptor! Buyers Beware! Scams are everywhere. If you are seeking a divorce, you absolutely should invest at least in a short consultation with an attorney experienced in divorce before you attempt to do anything on your own. Good attorneys (like myself) will not try to hustle you into an expensive divorce if you can't afford it and you can do it for yourself. However, our courts are incredibly "non user friendly". More often than not you will wind up paying fees twice: once to try to do it yourself, and then again to finally hire a lawyer to fix the mess you made. The old adage is very true: "Anyone who attempts to represent themselves in court has a fool for a lawyer."

LOS ANGELES - When Yanic Chan and Vanessa Van split up in 1995, they could not afford a lawyer. So, like thousands of other people without money, they filled out the divorce paperwork themselves, with help from a friend and courthouse staff.

In November 1997, Van went to the Riverside County Courthouse to enter a final judgment. "The clerk put the stamp on it," Van said. "I asked, 'Everything finished?' She said 'Yes.' "
Chan returned to his native Cambodia, fell in love and married again. Then, in 2006, he tried to bring his new wife to this country. That's when Van and Chan got a nasty surprise, one that court officials fear could be awaiting thousands of other former California couples: Their divorce had not gone through.

Driven by rising legal fees, a shortage of legal-aid lawyers and a do-it-yourself philosophy, about 80 percent of people in California handle their own divorces.
Accidental bigamyMany of them are not quite as divorced as they think they are. Some, like Chan, are even accidental bigamists.

Tens of thousands of others have some understanding that their divorces are not done. But stumped by complex paperwork and court procedures and unable to afford thousands of dollars for attorneys, they simply let their cases languish.

Court officials suspect the problem is vast. In Los Angeles County, perhaps more than one-third of all divorce petitions filed have not been finalized, according to Kathleen Dixon, who heads the Los Angeles County Superior Court's programs for self-represented people.
Officials don't have statistics because they don't monitor cases to make sure they are finished.
One Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, Mark Juhas, found that about one-third of the roughly 3,600 divorce cases filed in 2001 and 2002 and assigned to his courtroom remained open. Some of those couples may have reconciled, but Juhas suspects that many more are stuck or may even think they are divorced when they are not.

At one legal services center in the Van Nuys district of Los Angeles, officials say they see 20 people a month who wrongly thought they were divorced.

"They come in screaming," said Norma Valencia, a paralegal at the center operated by Neighborhood Legal Services. "They say, 'You don't understand my situation. I want a divorce right now.' "

In California, getting divorced takes at least three steps: filing divorce papers, serving them upon the spouse, and then writing and processing a judgment with the court. The process can be more complicated if there are children, or fights over assets. A divorce cannot become final until at least six months after the papers are served.

Increase in trendIncreasingly, across California and the nation, people are handling their own civil court matters. In San Diego County, one of the few counties where statistics are available, 46 percent of people represented themselves in divorces in 1992, but by 2000 that figure had climbed to 77 percent.

One reason: increasing fees for lawyers combined with decreasing legal-aid services for poor people, said Richard Zorzo, who coordinates a national network of organizations working on self-representation.

Also a factor, he said, is a "Home Depot philosophy of people feeling they can do things on their own." But the legal system wasn't organized with a do-it-yourself approach.

Juhas said the problem was brought home to him a few years ago, when a couple came before him on a routine matter. They had filed for a divorce a few years earlier, and both husband and wife had since remarried. Juhas said he looked down at their file and then back up at the couple. "I said, 'Do you realize your judgment was never entered?' "

Luckily for the couple — and their new spouses — Juhas finalized their divorce without invalidating their new marriages.


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