Getting Help with Your Mind-Numbing Divorce Forms
For many women, filing for divorce is not only emotionally draining but mentally tiresome as well. Divorce forms are not created for the average person to understand. They are filled with legal lingo and unclear terms. Even smart, well-educated women find this paperwork baffling. These factors can make it feel nearly impossible to complete your paperwork accurately. This article will outline different, affordable ways to get help with your divorce forms. You should not have to navigate the system alone.
What are Divorce Forms?
The first step in completing your divorce forms is understanding what you are filling in. It is important to know that every state has a different set of paperwork needed to file for a divorce. Each state follows its own laws requiring which forms and documents. You can determine what forms are needed by searching your state’s family court process to decide where to start.
For more on divorce and individual US states, check out “Your State Law and Divorce: Where You Do IT Matters.”
While every state has its own unique set of forms, there are common trends. States require certain documents to be filed for a divorce. Suppose you are the person starting the divorce paperwork. In that case, you will likely need a petition for dissolution of marriage. It includes basic information about the marriage and what you are asking of the court. Your forms might also have a summons, which allows your Ex to receive notice of your filed papers and allows him* the ability to respond to your initial requests.
Many states have paperwork involving property ownership or net worth in their divorce forms. In California, this is done through a Declaration of Disclosure, a form that documents marital assets and debts. States like New York and New Jersey require a Statement of Net Worth, essentially an overview of your financial history where you list your and your Ex’s income, assets, and debts.
If you have children, you will need to fill out a form regarding your desires for your children as well. These forms can include issues like child custody, parenting time, child support, and spousal support.
All these forms can be tricky to fill out because they require precise information and must be filled out in a very particular way. Even if you plan on completing some or all of the paperwork yourself, there are legal nuances you need to be aware of, which might require outside help.
1. Attorney Services
The best way to ensure your divorce forms are filled out correctly is to meet with an attorney. Ideally, you would meet with an attorney and hire them to represent you throughout your divorce proceeding. Being represented by an attorney is the number one way to best succeed in your divorce. Divorce attorneys will know your state laws and have the experience needed to navigate the court system. Hiring a lawyer can be expensive, however, and this cost can be a bar to having representation for the entire process.
However, the potential cost should not stop you from at least consulting with a lawyer. There are different levels of representation that many lawyers offer. This means that depending on the lawyer and the firm, they might offer different levels of service to help you with your divorce.
Types of Attorneys to Consider
Ideally, you would hire a full-scope attorney to assist you with all aspects of your divorce, including forms and in-court representation. But full-scope lawyers are not the only type that can help with your divorce. Consulting attorneys are lawyers who can help you with the paperwork and divorce forms but won’t physically represent you in court.
Depending on your specific needs, you might also consider a limited-scope attorney. This is a lawyer whom you might hire to help with one particular aspect of your divorce. For example, you might hire a limited-scope lawyer to help with custody forms or a particularly difficult Statement of Net Worth. Often, these lawyers offer a specific service for a flat fee, making them an affordable way to fill out needed forms.
How do you even find a reputable divorce attorney? A good question!
Read our important piece, “How to find a Good Divorce Lawyer.”
Even if you don’t hire an attorney in any capacity, setting up even one initial meeting with a lawyer is always advantageous. At an initial meeting, they can likely give you basic advice regarding your rights and what you are entitled to. They might also be able to break down the divorce forms to help you fill them in on your own. Many attorneys offer free or inexpensive consultations to start you on the right track for a DIY divorce. Additionally, even if the lawyer themselves can’t assist you, a paralegal or legal secretary might offer you help on your forms.
To prepare for an initial meeting with a divorce lawyer, read our “Questions to Ask a Divorce Attorney at a Consultation.”
2. Court House Services
If you cannot or will not meet with an attorney, you can get basic help with your divorce forms at the courthouse itself. If you go to your local courthouse to pick up your divorce paperwork from the court clerk, they might be able to answer any basic questions about the forms.
Some courthouses even have legal aid services in the location itself to help in this exact situation. They anticipate that you might need help understanding the forms and how to complete them best, and they can direct you to free legal services in the same building. This most often comes in the form of attorneys, paralegals, or volunteers walking you through the paperwork and answering any questions you have on how to complete the forms yourself.
If you are overwhelmed with the legal, financial and emotional process of divorce (and who isn’t?), get anchored and print our “55 Must Do’s on Your Modern Divorce Checklist.”
3. Online Filing Services
Another option for filling out divorce forms is to use an online legal service. You can utilize online platforms to help with your divorce forms in many different ways.
Some states offer free web programs through legal aid services to make filling out paperwork more manageable. For example, in Illinois, Illinois Legal Aid Online has a computer program for DIY divorces. The program allows you to input basic information about your situation and generates the divorce forms based on that information.
One advantage to a program like this is that it limits the amount of “legalese” or lawyer speak, which tends to make divorce paperwork so challenging to complete without the help of an attorney.
In some places, this can be done through the online court portal. Courts themselves generally have an online portal with the needed forms for your divorce. They usually have some form of self-help guide that will walk you through the paperwork and give you the basics on how to fill them in. Some courts have a more hands-on approach to their online platform. For example, the California Superior Court system has an online Self-Help page that walks you through the forms you need and gives examples and explanations for how to complete the forms. It even has a 24/7 chatbot to answer any questions you might have while filling them out.
4. Legal Aid Services
One final way you might get help with your divorce forms is by seeking the help of a legal aid organization. Legal Aid organizations aim to make the legal system more affordable and accessible for all people.
Generally, legal aid organizations are made up of attorneys, paralegals, and volunteers that care about access to justice and legal help. That means they are likely to approach the practice with empathy and understanding.
There are many different types of legal aid organizations that might fit your specific need. Some legal aid centers offer free services if you fall under your region’s poverty line, while some allow clients from wider income levels. Different legal aid centers might also focus on various aspects of a person’s identity. For example, there are legal aid services to support women, veterans, various identity groups, and survivors of intimate partner violence, just to name a few. Legal Aid organizations offer a variety of services as well. If your circumstances meet the organization’s requirements, they might fully represent you throughout your divorce. Other places will help with the initial completion and filing of the forms, and others might fully explain your rights and what you’re entitled to based on your marriage.
While filling out divorce forms can seem like an unwieldy task, you are not alone in the process! Based on what is best for your position, you have options for assistance with your legal paperwork. Use these suggestions as a jumping-off point to learn what options are available to you in order to secure the best possible outcome for your divorce.
Elizabeth Newland is a third-year law student in Chicago committed to children and family rights. She aims to work in a family-related non-profit firm after graduation.
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*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”