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Your Guide to Do-It-Yourself Divorce

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Sep 14, 2023

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Your Guide to Do-It-Yourself Divorce

Do-it-yourself (DIY) divorce is an alternative to using a divorce lawyer to obtain a legal dissolution of marriage. This method saves couples thousands of dollars on attorney fees while avoiding the stress that lawyers and court appearances create.

This article will discuss the concept of a DIY divorce, the essential steps to complete it, the principal cost, and the timeline. In addition, we’ll explore the common pitfalls and mistakes when getting a DIY divorce and how to avoid them.

Let’s dive right in.

Your Guide to Do-It-Yourself Divorce

Understanding DIY Divorce

Getting a DIY divorce means that a divorcing couple goes through a divorce process without help from a lawyer. Instead, they must draft the legal paperwork, file it, and represent their case in court.

However, the absence of an attorney does not give the spouses the right for mistakes. On the contrary, they must adhere to the same rules applied to all cases. Thus, to successfully apply for a DIY divorce, you must understand several vital aspects described below.

-You and your spouse must apply for an uncontested divorce.

Both spouses must agree with the decision to divorce, with neither party contesting the marriage dissolution. An uncontested, no-fault divorce stipulates that both parties are in 100% agreement on ending the marriage.

-Spouses must be able to communicate with each other and work together in an amicable, collaborative divorce.

Although working together to get divorced may seem contradictory, do-it-yourself divorce requires couples to engage with each other.

Communication between spouses is often done through family law attorneys during contested divorce proceedings. However, because DIY divorce does not involve divorce lawyers, couples must independently navigate complex issues like alimony, child custody, parenting plans, and community property.

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It means that both parties must:

  • know the physical address of their spouse
  • be able to speak to each other by email, phone, or written correspondence
  • communicate in a calm, amicable manner

Without communication, discussions on how to end the marriage can trigger arguments and derail your uncontested DIY divorce. In addition, a communication breakdown can result in being forced to hire lawyers, spend thousands, and battle the case in a family law court.

-You and your spouse must agree on all critical issues like child custody, support payments, and finances.

Even as a couple is ending a marriage, they must work closely to separate successfully, achieve an amicable divorce and move on to the next chapter of their lives.

In addition to being able to communicate, you and your partner need to work together like a team to navigate complicated legal issues.

-You and your spouse are required to work together to draft a Marital Settlement Agreement (sometimes referred to as a Stipulated Judgment)

In addition to completing all the required divorce forms, DIY divorce necessitates that spouses negotiate their marital settlement agreement without the assistance of lawyers.

This separation agreement will contain the terms of the divorce that you and your spouse have negotiated and agreed upon.

The agreement will include provisions on how the issues below will work after the marriage is dissolved:

  • Spousal Support
  • Assets and Property Division
  • Division of Debt
  • Child Custody
  • Co-Parenting
  • Child Support

In most cases, as long as you and your spouse are on the same page and sign the agreement voluntarily, your divorce case can be finalized without appearing in court.

However, a family law judge must approve the marital settlement before issuing a divorce decree to grant the dissolution.

As long as the judge determines that the agreement is fair and does not blatantly favor one spouse over the other, the court will likely approve the marital settlement.

Once your divorce has been approved, the court will send you a copy of the signed divorce judgment and notice of entry of judgment in the mail.

-Both parties must complete financial records and paperwork, including tax returns, pay stubs, and bank statements.

The do-it-yourself divorce process will go smoother if both parties’ documentation is well-organized and easy to access. Later, these documents will be necessary when completing your family law forms.

Depending on your location, the court may also require that you exchange financial documentation with your spouse and verify the date and method of exchange.

-You may need to hire a QDRO attorney if you or your spouse own qualified retirement or pension accounts.

QDRO, or “qualified domestic relation order,” is a separate legal order that specifies how to allocate retirement benefits to a spouse, child, or dependent. The order guarantees a spouse’s legal right to a portion of their ex-spouse’s retirement benefits.

Once drafted, the QDRO is submitted to the plan administrator.

Many retirement account plan administrators will require a valid QDRO before paying benefits to a former spouse. QDRO agreements are documents that will need to be prepared by a licensed QDRO attorney.

Beware of using someone that calls themselves a “QDRO specialist” but is not a licensed attorney to draft the order. Also, avoid using a QDRO template provided by your plan administrator.

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It could cost you and your spouse considerable money and cause a loss of benefits in the future.

-You should work with a financial advisor or accountant to calculate tax impact if you and your spouse own significant real estate, assets, and debts.

Before finalizing your marital settlement agreement, you and your spouse should understand the tax consequences. Working with an accountant or financial advisor will ensure that you have accurate information about taxes you may have to pay in the near or long-term future.

You can also visit irs.gov to review the information the Internal Revenue Service provides on divorce-related tax issues.

-DIY divorce requires you and your spouse to understand the family law forms you will submit in your divorce package.

While the DIY divorce process may seem simple, it involves hours in completing dozens of legal forms, formalizing mutually agreed negotiations between spouses, and serving and filing legal papers in court.

Additionally, the court often rejects paperwork because some forms are missing or contain errors.

-Depending on state and county requirements, you and your spouse may be required to pay filing fees when submitting your divorce papers in court.

Some jurisdictions require one or both spouses to pay a filing fee when submitting their divorce package. The amount can range anywhere from $100 to $450, depending on the state and county. However, this filing fee does not guarantee that the divorce will be approved in court.

-Both parties should be open to seeking legal advice if complicated issues arise.

Even though a DIY divorce service allows couples to avoid using attorneys to represent their divorce case, issues may arise which necessitate seeking legal advice.

For example, you and your spouse may need legal counsel on issues like child custody or community property. It should not be seen as something negative but as an effective way to accurately outline both parties’ wishes.

When Do-It-Yourself Divorce Isn’t the Right Option

While do-it-yourself divorce can save thousands of dollars in legal fees, it’s essential to understand that it’s not suitable for everyone. In particular, couples with complex legal issues and disputes can’t proceed without an attorney.

Since a contentious divorce case will go through a court trial, only a lawyer can protect their client’s rights and help achieve a fair divorce outcome.

So, when is a DIY method a bad idea? Below are a few situations when you’re not the best candidate for a do-it-yourself divorce.

You don’t communicate well with your spouse and can’t trust them.

If you suspect your spouse might conceal assets or transfer joint property without your permission, it may be wise to reconsider handling your divorce independently. In such a situation, consulting a lawyer can be advantageous as they can help you discover hidden assets and obtain all the necessary financial information.

There’s a history of domestic violence.

Pursuing a DIY divorce is also inappropriate when you feel your safety is at risk because of your spouse’s possible violent reaction. In such cases, it’s better if an attorney handles communication with your spouse and helps you obtain a temporary restraining order if needed.

You disagree on significant issues.

If you can’t agree on property division, child custody and support, and even grounds for divorce, obtaining a divorce without legal representation will be highly complicated. One option to overcome this obstacle is divorce mediation, where the qualified mediator will help spouses resolve the disputes before going to court.

You don’t have the time to research state laws and feel uncomfortable representing your case before a judge.

Obtaining a divorce may be complicated if you don’t have any legal background and have no time to figure out all the necessary legalities. In addition, DIY cases might require a court appearance of both spouses, where they might need to answer several questions. So, if you’re uncomfortable representing yourself in court, it’s better to seek an attorney’s assistance.

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Steps to Filing for Do-It-Yourself Divorce

The steps to complete a DIY divorce depend on the state family laws and local court rules. Let’s look at the most general ones that all couples will go through at one stage or another.

1. Discuss the DIY Option for Divorce With Your Spouse

If you have already decided to get a divorce and believe your spouse will cooperate, you can discuss the available options together. This way, you’ll understand the level of conflict and whether the do-it-yourself way is right for you.

2. Check Your Compliance With the Residency Requirements

Depending on the state where you plan to start your divorce, either you or your spouse must meet the residency requirements.

These are the days or months you must have lived within the state’s territory. In addition, complying with the filing requirements will give the local court jurisdiction to issue orders regarding your divorce.

3. Decide How to Divide the Property

If you accumulated marital property throughout your marriage, you could agree on its division in a settlement agreement. Look in your state’s property laws to understand your rights. Some states divide assets and debts 50/50, while others implement an “equitable” approach.

4. Discuss Child Custody and Alimony Issues

You can decide how to divide the time each parent will spend with a child after divorce. All child custody arrangements should comply with the child’s best interests. Also, discuss the need for alimony and its amount.

You can find the spousal support (or maintenance) laws in your state family code.

5. Complete Divorce Forms

You can find blank DIY divorce papers on state court websites. The self-help forms are cheaper but riskier and more time-consuming. You may spend days and weeks filling out the forms and still do it with errors.

In addition, it may lead to rejections of your paperwork and delays in divorce proceedings.

Consider using online divorce services if you want faster and more reliable results.

Online DIY Divorce

With the advent of legal software and technology, DIY divorce proceedings can now be completed through an online divorce service like Divorce.com.

Online divorce services simplify the legal process through easy, guided questionnaires embedded in an online divorce navigator that enables couples to generate family law forms with a few clicks of a mouse.

Using Divorce.com, you and your spouse can complete your divorce paperwork and save money, time, and stress, guided by the most experienced team in the online divorce domain.

6. File the Paperwork With the Court

Take completed forms signed before a notary public to court and pay the filing fee. The fee differs from county to county, so find this information in advance. After you file the paperwork, the court clerk will stamp the date and the case number on every form.

7. Serve Your Spouse With Divorce Papers

You must deliver copies of all papers to your spouse. The rules of civil procedure in most states require that a non-filing spouse receives the documents from a third person. It may be a private process server, a sheriff, a constable, or a person not involved in the divorce case.

8. Wait For the End of the Cooling-off Period

Find out if your state has a waiting period. It may range from 15 days to six months. Most states have a cooling-off period of around 30 to 90 days. If such a requirement exists, your divorce won’t be final until the day after this waiting period ends.

9. Finalize Your Divorce

You may need to attend a court hearing depending on your court rules. However, some states don’t have such a requirement, and spouses with uncontested divorces receive the final decree by mail.

How Much Does DIY Divorce Cost?

The cost of getting a DIY divorce is relatively low, which makes it a popular option to dissolve a marriage. If you draft your own divorce paperwork and don’t hire lawyers or consult other professionals, your divorce expenses will mainly consist of court filing fees.

In different states, these fees range from $100 to $450.

Apart from filing the initial papers, other court costs may include the following:

  • serving the legal documents on the other party
  • obtaining certified copies
  • transcript costs during the hearing
  • filing additional motions, etc.

Overall, the median cost of a DIY divorce is about $1,170 if spouses don’t hire a lawyer to draft the paperwork and present the case in court. However, some pay for limited-scope legal assistance, counseling services, or mediation.

In this case, the overall divorce expenses will include additional hourly fees that certain professional charges. For example, lawyers’ prices begin at $50-$100 per hour and reach $313 on average.

Consequently, the more hours a lawyer spends on the case, the more expensive a divorce becomes.

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How Long Does DIY Divorce Take?

The time it takes to complete a DIY divorce depends on each state’s family laws and the circumstances of a divorce case. The following factors influence the timeline of a do-it-yourself divorce:

  • how quickly the spouses can collect and fill out the paperwork
  • the duration of residency before the spouses can start a divorce
  • the time needed to reach an agreement if you file for an uncontested divorce
  • the backlog of other cases in the court that will handle your divorce
  • the length of the waiting period before the divorce is final

If the circumstances allow you to collect the paperwork quickly, for instance, by using online divorce services, filing the papers will take around two weeks to a month. Then, the couple must wait for the end of the cooling-off period, if any, and a court hearing.

If your DIY divorce is uncontested, it can take one month, or several months for the paperwork and filing procedure. If you state has a waiting period, then you will need to add that time to the estimate, too.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in a DIY Divorce

Even though DIY divorce seems a simple option, many couples often overlook critical issues that could lead to disagreements even after the divorce is finalized. It is particularly true for spouses with minor children.

Let’s look at some common mistakes and pitfalls you should avoid when attempting a do-it-yourself divorce.

1. Believing that you can alter the terms after finalizing the divorce.

You may feel more compelled to agree to your spouse’s terms during settlement because you assume you can amend the divorce decree later. Although some aspects, such as child custody, parenting time, and support, may be revised, others are non-modifiable, and property division is one of them.

So, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement before finalizing the divorce would be more sensible.

2. Being unrealistic about child support.

Many spouses don’t understand that state guidelines help calculate only basic child support. For example, it includes food, clothing, and shelter costs. However, a settlement agreement should cover additional expenses such as medical bills, insurance, summer camp, etc. Otherwise, you will have to modify the support order later, which can add many complications to your initially “simple” divorce.

3. Believing that getting divorce paperwork is easy without any help.

Lacking knowledge of your local court’s requirements regarding legal paperwork can complicate the filing process and delay the issuance of a divorce decree. Since each county can have its procedure and formalities, it is better to use a trustworthy online divorce service or seek legal advice in complicated cases.

4. Thinking that everything will be split down the middle.

Couples owning substantial property might divide everything 50/50 according to the current value of each asset. This way is undoubtedly faster. However, it is fair only sometimes since the value of some assets might increase or decrease after several years.

For instance, vehicles, rental property, and equipment depreciate over time, while savings accounts, stocks, and commodities appreciate. For this reason, the spouses must be very careful when dividing property and drafting a settlement agreement to ensure a fair outcome.

5. Thinking you don’t need a detailed parenting plan.

Divorce may switch the attitudes to child custody between the ex-partners in unpredictable ways. So, even the most amicable couples need a parenting plan to fall back on in case of disputes.

Not including a detailed and well-thought schedule may cause trouble ahead, for instance, when one parent relocates or decides they want more time with a child.

Summary

Doing your own divorce is generally a less expensive and stressful option to end a marriage for amicable couples, especially when there is little property to divide and they have complete agreement on all issues.

In this case, the spouses must only collect the required paperwork and attend one or two court hearings.

And although a DIY divorce has its pitfalls, if you address all potential problems in time, you may enjoy a trouble-free divorce. However, whether to prepare for divorce on your own should depend on many factors, not only the low cost of the process.

Consider such circumstances as the complexity of your situation and the readiness to deal with court procedures independently.

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