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Are you calling around for free consults so you can try to do your divorce forms yourself?

Posted by Elizabeth Steen | Oct 14, 2020 | 0 Comments

Let me just say up front, NOT EVERYONE NEEDS A LAWYER. If you don't have a home or retirement savings, and you already agree on how to set up your time with your children together, then you should be fine filling out the court paperwork yourself and filing it all for a $314 filing fee. 

Let me also say that calling around to various lawyers to get free or low-cost advice on the divorce process is totally unnecessary, and unlikely to do anything but make the process more frustrating. If you are feeling overwhelmed by trying to fill out the court forms to save money, don't pay for a one-hour lawyer consult. Lawyers only charge for the consult because we are all pretty overwhelmed with calls from people who want free help. The charge for a consult is for the lawyer's convenience, not yours. More important, the state has already set up a free or low-cost ($30) service to help you with your court forms. This service is going to be better than any quick lawyer visit. 

So let's walk you through this. First you think, "I want to file my court forms myself." That's fine, so you go to this website, "Ask for a Divorce, King County,""  The court has a list of all the court forms you will need. Print them, fill them in as best you can, and if you still have questions about how to get the forms filed, take them to the King County Family Law Facilitator. This a taxpayer-supported service of the courts. Their whole job is to help you fill out forms so the court will accept your forms. They are really good - better than any service that charges more. They are literally a part of the courts, so they know their stuff better than anyone else. They will review your forms for $30, give you some tips, and when you present the forms to the judge, the judge will sign the forms because they've already been checked over by the court. If you have income restrictions, then you can apply to waive the $30 fee. You can make an appointment, and, during covid, they have remote help available. It's an easy, low-cost, reliable solution that fixes the problem. Judges WANT you to do this because it makes their job easier. The service is set up for exactly your situation. It is your best option for self-help divorce. 

But what if you run into a legal question? The Family Law Facilitator only helps you with your paperwork. They don't answer legal questions. So it looks like you might need more help? What do you do? If you need low-cost or free help, then call the Eastside Legal Assistance Program. If you are experiencing domestic violence, then call New Beginnings or the Protection Order Project for free help. 

What if you're still stuck, or you make too much money for one of the clinics? Should you then start calling around to family law attorneys for free consults? Or pay a $125 or so fee for a paid consult? Or pay $450 or so for some document prep service to fill out your forms for you? 

No. You definitely should not. None of the document prep services will do any more than you can get with a $30 visit to the Family Law Facilitator, and the document prep services, which also don't offer legal help, will all cost more, in one way or another.

And the lawyer consults may seem to be free, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. If you want legal advice, or help with "the divorce process," the lawyer can't give you advice that would create a relationship - that's against the rules governing lawyers. And no one can explain "the divorce process" in a free, fast consult. Your specific divorce process is not going to be exactly like anyone else's. Overall, you fill out the forms, sign the forms, and file the forms. That's it. That's the process. But the legal questions that go into the forms are not going to be the same for any two families, even if your situation seems similar. And any advice you get in a fast conversation is not going to be any more helpful than just taking your forms to the Family Law Facilitator, which is part of the court and so can help you manage the court system. 

What is likely to happen, though, is that your lawyer will say something intended to scare you and stick in your head. Something that will convince you that you need a lawyer. Something that will make you pull out your checkbook for the $5000 or $7500 retainer that the lawyer charges before starting work. Usually this fear that the lawyers plant is around "hiding assets." Everyone's bank records are online. Your tax returns are online. Your retirement accounts, also online. It takes less than five minutes to get up-to-date account statements for almost any person. But lawyers know that you don't entirely trust your spouse or you would not be getting divorced. So lawyers know they can manipulate people who are feeling nervous to think, "What if?" What if your spouse has an account you don't know about? What if your spouse isn't telling you about their real paycheck? What if your spouse is a tax cheat? 

Well, let's walk through these scenarios... "What if your spouse has an account you don't know about?" You know they get paid, but you don't know where they bank? All you have to do is send a subpoena to the spouse's employer asking for the spouse's direct deposit records. The employer can either get sued trying to protect an employee. Or give them to you. Which do you think is the most likely response from most risk-averse companies? 

But, the lawyer who wants your money will say, "What if your spouse is really good friends with his employer and it's a small company?" Or what if your spouse is one of the vanishingly few people in the world who collect a paper check and deposit it personally each payday? Well then you get the tax returns for the company and the tax returns for your spouse and check those returns against each other to see what the employer is paying. It's also pretty easy to find average salaries for the various jobs and other information that can fill in any blanks your spouse is trying to hid. Again, all of this information is online. 

But "What if your spouse is paid under the table? Or you think there's a second job?" Well, okay then you ask for the spouse's credit card statements, which they are required to give you, and you check to see if they are paying a $2900 a month bill while reporting a $1200 a month salary? You run a Zillow check on their house. You ask the bank for the mortgage statements. It's not hard to establish what any one person spends because again, it's all online. 

If all else fails, and your spouse pays cash for everything, lives with their parents, and has no discernible source of income. Then that right there is kind of your bigger problem. And if you really, truly ended up married to someone who lives off the grid and won't contribute, then you can step back and let the state sue that deadbeat parent for support. The state will, gladly, and they will find any online traces of income and garnish any future wages. 

The lawyer consult is designed to scare you into paying for litigation that you probably don't need. Litigation is exhausting and expensive. Research shows it's not optimal for children - lowering the conflict will help you all move on. 

So if you need some resources to help do your court forms on your own, that's great. There are a lot of resources available. Don't get sucked into a lawyer's scare games trying to get free advice. The lawyer isn't even allowed to advise you on anything more than general things that you could google. There are a lot of free and low-cost services set up to help you with your court forms. Use these services. They're better than any of the alternatives. The  court form services and document prep services are all just doing the same thing the Family Law Faclitator does better and cheaper. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Steen

Elizabeth Steen is licensed in Washington State as well as Washington D.C. After work, Elizabeth enjoys making her West Seattle renowned flan recipe with her daughter, which she’s willing to share with favorite clients. She also enjoys hiking, yoga and chasing her family’s fantasy football league title every fall.

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