Texas Supreme Court offers do-it-yourself divorce forms
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For nursing student Inez Rodriguez, hiring an attorney to oversee her divorce just wasn't an option about a year ago.
Then, facing mounting tuition costs, she found a free form on TexasLawHelp.Org that would cut out the middleman - an attorney.
Unconcerned about the dollars and cents hanging in the balance, she said it was the best solution for the pair, who had no children and already had sold their house.
"I figured once I finished school and completed the goals I wanted, I would be able to make my own pension," Rodriguez said. "Even though I knew I was entitled to half of that, it just wasn't worth it."
Despite some family law attorneys' concerns, the Texas Supreme Court has created its own divorce form, which is online now and will be made available in a hard copy for the first time to Victoria County residents beginning Feb. 1.
Designed for childless couples who share no real property, Trish McAllister, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission, said it could help curb a worrisome statistic.
Eighty percent of Texans who go to a legal aid office for help get turned away, she said.
McAllister believes a form endorsed by the Texas Supreme Court will add uniformity and put at ease jurisdictions that, for whatever reason, don't already allow its residents to submit them.
Stephen Williams, the 135th District judge, agreed but said he wasn't sure whether adding the court's name to the document was a good idea.
"I think it gives the impression that we (as judges) don't have the discretion to deny it if it's filled out incorrectly," he said.
Jack Marr, who has practiced family law in the community for more than 30 years, said there's still a lot to be done to make transactions like this fool-proof.
The form's current wording might allow someone to unwittingly sign away their rights to more complicated forms of property, such as a 401(k). He's caught situations like that early on when clients sat down for a one-on-one consultation.
Marr said although the form is intended for the indigent, that doesn't stop others from taking advantage of it. He worries they'll flood the district clerk's office with legal questions they can't answer.
"Any clerk who does something like that is putting themselves in severe jeopardy, perhaps even running the risk of getting the county sued," said Marr, who was sworn in as the 24th District judge earlier this year. "That is a Pandora's box that hasn't been opened yet, but it very may well be."
For that specific reason, Jackson County District Clerk Sharon Mathis won't provide the form at her office.
"Just to take the temptation out of it, we always send them to a website like TexasYoungLawyersAssociation.com," she said, anticipating that policy would not change.
Lynn Knaupp, another area board-certified family lawyer, suspects people of all incomes already use the divorce forms. She hadn't seen the one the Texas Supreme Court proposed but said mistakes people make on forms are likely their own fault.
"It's sort of a penny wise and a pound foolish, if you will," she said.
Since 2008, the Victoria County District Clerk's office has processed 1,125 divorce cases in which one party has represented themselves in some form, according to records obtained by the Victoria Advocate.
Victoria County District Clerk Cathy Stuart suspects that figure will not change when they put the form on the counter.
McAllister said, overall, the benefits far outweigh what could happen if people don't get separated. She said some struggle to track down their spouses years after the fact only to find they've gone on to have children with other women.
"Then, the situation becomes much more complex," she said. "Our position is that it's best to just go ahead and help these people help themselves."