Personal Finance

One-day divorces in CA chop costs, pain

Ann Carrns

Marissa York, a real estate broker in Manhattan, used a $50 online do-it-yourself divorce kit when she and her husband of more than nine years decided to part ways. Their breakup was relatively amicable, she said, so she figured they could save money by avoiding lawyers: "We didn't want to drag it out over months or years," she said.

But after the courthouse clerk rejected her filing because the document formatting was incorrect, she had the paperwork reviewed by a lawyer, who informed her that if she waited six more months to file, she would be entitled to a portion of her husband's pension benefits. She ended up paying about $10,000 in legal fees, which was worth it because she received part of the pension, she said. "If I had to do it over, I would hire an attorney immediately," she said.

Mike Kemp | Rubberball | Getty Images

Costs vary by location, but Randall M. Kessler, a family law specialist in Atlanta, said a typical divorce with no major disagreements over assets and custody issues might cost a few thousand dollars, while cases with significant disputes can easily cost $25,000 or more.

Despite the potential pitfalls, D.I.Y. divorce remains a lure for people seeking to avoid the cost and time of a traditional dissolution. Those who enter the system without lawyers, however, may be unaware of what the law entitles them to, and the process can end up taking longer than it would otherwise. "It's like going to WebMD and deciding to treat yourself," said Michael Stutman, a family law specialist in New York.

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In California, roughly three-fourths of family law litigants lack lawyers, said Maureen F. Hallahan, supervising judge in the family law division at San Diego Superior Court. Typically, people file initial divorce paperwork on their own, but they don't know what to do next, so their file languishes for months. Budget cuts in the state courts reduced available personnel and made the problem worse.

London no longer divorce capital?
London no longer divorce capital?

So now, some courts in California offer one-day divorce programs for people who either can't afford to, or don't want to, hire a lawyer. "The reality is, people are going to do it without lawyers, and we had to accommodate that," said Judge Hallahan.

The program doesn't mean a divorce is truly started and completed in a single day — residency and notification requirements have to be met first. You must, for example, already have filed a divorce petition and served your spouse with divorce papers, in order to participate.

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But the program does allow you to wrap things up in a single day, or even a matter of hours, once you meet the initial criteria. "This is designed to help people get through the system," said Judge Hallahan.

Sacramento Superior Court began offering a one-day program, created by Judge James Mize, more than a year ago, and San Diego Superior Court began offering a similar option in March. Details of the programs vary (the Sacramento program has income limits, while San Diego's currently does not, for instance), but both are free to the participants.

Under the San Diego program, you answer a series of questions online to see whether you qualify to use the program; a family law expert, acting as the program's coordinator, advises you ahead of time what forms and documentation you must bring to court.

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Couples arrive at court in the morning having generally agreed on the division of property and debts and a plan for the care of any children. The coordinator makes sure the paperwork is in order and helps wrap up any remaining details. (The coordinator isn't representing either side, and doesn't offer legal advice or strategy, said Judge Hallahan.) Then, you go before a judge in the afternoon, and leave with a divorce judgment. Since the program made its debut in March, the court has handled four to five such divorces a week, said Judge Hallahan.

Comment cards provided by the court, with the participants' names redacted, suggest users are pleased. One reported being "lost" in the court system for months until receiving help from the one-day program, which enabled the completion of "all the necessary things to get this final in one day."

Such abbreviated options work best when there is no dispute over custody of children or division of property and no request for financial support, said Ann-Margaret Carrozza, a lawyer in New York who specializes in asset protection.

Maria P. Cognetti, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, noted that many courts already offer self-help clinics to teach divorcing couples how to navigate the legal system. She strongly cautioned couples with any significant assets to avoid one-day programs, since both parties may benefit from legal advice. If either spouse has any assets, "you should be booted out of the one-day divorce scenario," she said.

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Here are some additional questions about divorce options:

Are one-day divorce programs likely to become widely available?

Mr. Kessler, the Atlanta lawyer, said such one-day programs may be "the wave of the future" because court dockets in many areas are clogged by people whose cases are stalled because of their lack of experience with court rules. Their spread may depend in part on the success of the California programs. Another legal trend that began in California, no-fault divorce, is now an option in all 50 states.

Are the one-day divorce programs similar to the DivorceHotel concept?

DivorceHotel is a company started in the Netherlands offering expedited divorce negotiations. Couples check into a hotel on a Friday, work with a mediator and independent lawyers to resolve differences, and check out after the weekend with a divorce agreement. Jim Halfens, DivorceHotel's founder, said in an email that he was working to bring the program to the United States before the end of this year.

Are some states known for fast divorces?

Las Vegas and other places in Nevada have long been known for fairly quick divorces, since you must be a resident of the state for just six weeks in order to file there to dissolve a marriage.

Other states may shorten the process in other ways; in New Hampshire, for instance, a divorce is final as soon as a judge signs it, while other states may require substantial waiting periods after that.

— By Ann Carrns, The New York Times