The D.I.Y. Divorce
Is a storefront divorce right for you?
Posted May 12, 2015
A sign in the window of a small storefront on Wilshire Boulevard caught my eye: “Divorce: $399.” I’d seen these drop-in divorce shops in Manhattan, generally depressing hole-in-the-wall places, usually under scaffolding. But the Santa Monica office of The Document People was on a street lined with palm trees, across from a Whole Foods. How unsavory could it be?
The price certainly sounded fiscally healthy.
Inside the spare office, the atmosphere felt benignly impersonal. It smelled like take-out Chinese food the two employees were having for lunch. Michael Jackson’s “PYT” played on a boom box. It resembled an H&R Block. There was an H&R Block two doors down.
Can you really get divorced for under $400? Yes, said Petra, a thirty-something paralegal and notary from Guatemala with a sweet, calm manner, short blond hair tucked behind her ears, and a green health shake sitting on her desk. Though since we have a child, we’d have to spend about $200 more. “More forms,” Petra explained. Plus nearly $500 in California filing fees. Still, that's a lot less than hiring two lawyers.
The Document People is a group of privately-owned stores in California staffed by paralegals or Legal Document Assistants—people who have been trained in asking questions, filling out and filing legal forms. A storefront divorce works if you're in agreement about the details. It doesn’t make the decisions any easier—you still have to figure out a separation agreement and parenting plan—but it lets you do that work yourself and leave the onerous task of filing to someone else. Filling out forms can make the calmest among us want to throw a temper tantrum. Separating the deciding from the filing enables people to think clearly about their finances and future without the extra pressure of squeezing their lives into tiny boxes on legal forms. This highlights an important fact about divorce: the process itself can trigger anxiety and anger. You want to chose a process that helps keep the peace.
The possibility of doing it yourself, or mostly yourself, is one reason that divorce can be so much better today than in the past. If you don’t feel comfortable filing your divorce in strip mall next to a nail salon, there are other options. You can find child- and spousal-support guidelines online, download reams of advice from law firms, get emotional support from bloggers with names like The Divorce Diva.
County courts have changed too, increasingly offering staffed self-help centers to guide you through the process. In many places, you can find lawyers willing to work in an “unbundled way”—offering advice and education on an hourly bases—saving you tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, an economizing that can ease anxiety.
I’d thought of the storefront divorce store as a paltry option, designed for the desperate. But Petra said she sees rich and poor. The common denominator among clients is desire to do it cooperatively, and correctly. “When people come here, they really need help. It’s a service. It’s a very fulfilling job. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve made a difference.”
One caveat about doing it yourself: resources often go to those who are fighting. You don’t want your good will to prevent you from accessing help that might be forced upon a couple embroiled in a court battle. If you go it alone, you still might benefit from a parenting class for divorcing families, meeting with a financial planner, or enrolling your children in an afternoon workshop. The support is out there, but you'll have to find it.
Did you file yourself? Write to me and tell me how it worked at wendyparis.com.