Do-It-Yourself divorce is on the rise. And so are hopelessly screwed up divorces and fatally flawed divorce decrees. Companies like Legal Zoom® advertise that their forms are all people need to handle all sorts of legal work. The Supreme Court of Texas supports fill-in-the-blank forms to help people do their own legal work. But there are many dangers in doing one’s own legal work that the forms just don’t address. I have addressed Do-It-Yourself (DIY) legal work before. See here, here, and here, for examples. This blog addresses three ways people screw up Do-It-Yourself divorce decrees.
1. Failure to divide all the property
In a divorce, the goal is to completely divide the marital estate with the Final Decree of Divorce. Experienced family lawyers address all of the marital property in a divorce decree. A good decree makes sure each piece of marital property gets awarded to one spouse or the other. Generally, the small items owned by a married couple are too small to mention in a divorce decree. For example, no one fights over small kitchen appliances. But I have seen divorce decrees that fail to even mention the marital residence! Likewise, I have seen divorce decrees that fail to divide the retirement accounts.
Risk: Once a Final Decree of Divorce is entered, it is not easy to go back and distribute unmentioned assets. Sometimes, it is not possible at all. Failure to properly award marital property in the decree can be expensive in legal fees. An inadequate decree can even mean a party’s fair share of a marital asset is gone forever! DIY decrees are risky.
Rule: The Final Decree of Divorce should divide all of the couple’s property including personal property, real estate, and retirement accounts. It’s worth the peace of mind to have a competent lawyer prepare your decree to avoid DIY mistakes.
2. Failure to properly award the debts
Do-It-Yourself divorce decrees often fail to assign debts properly. A divorce decree should assign all the debts to the parties in a way that makes sense. For example, when the marital house is awarded to a party, the Final Decree should clearly state who is responsible for paying the mortgage, insurance, HOA dues, taxes, etc. Likewise, the decree should state who pays the credit cards,car notes, and income taxes. Pro se divorce decrees often fail to properly account for all the debts. Pro tip: It’s best to award a debt to the person who is contractually obligated to the creditor to pay the debt whenever possible.
Risk: Failure to properly award debts in a Final Decree of Divorce could be disastrous to one or both of the spouses. Damaged credit scores could hold up moving on with a new life after the divorce. For instance, it could be hard to buy a new house if the mortgage from the previous divorce wasn’t dealt with in the decree.
Rule: A Final Decree of Divorce should properly assign debts, so the parties walk away knowing who pays what. Ideally, each spouse would be responsible for paying his or her own credit accounts. Joint credit accounts should be closed. All this protects the parties from credit damage due to the actions of the other party after the divorce.
3. Failure to secure any contractual provisions
It is common for people to make agreements in a decree. Also common is failure to insert any consequences if the other spouse fails to perform. For example, say a decree states that one spouse must pay the other a sum of money or perform some other task. The decree then should have provisions for ensuring that the spouse performs. Certainly, there needs to be a deadline for the spouse to perform the task. We know a woman whose DIY decree awarded her $20,000 of her husband’s retirement. However, there was no date for him to pay her the $20,000, and he never did. She lost that money, but a competent attorney would have inserted a deadline for payment.
Risk: Unless the terms of a decree are specific as to the obligations of the spouses, it can be difficult or impossible to enforce the decree. A decree that doesn’t specify the contractual duties of the parties is a recipe for disaster. What good are agreements in the divorce, if the decree doesn’t mention the agreements? Do-It-Yourself divorce decrees often don’t account for critical agreements in the divorce. When they do, significant elements of the agreements are often omitted.
Rule: A Final Decree should list specific dates for transfer of property and other tasks as well as consequences for failure to perform any ordered tasks.
Youngblood Law, PLLC is a Fort Worth, Texas family law firm focusing on helping working people live the life they WANT to live through divorce and beyond. This essay is intended for educational use only, and is not a replacement for competent legal counsel. If you are facing a family law matter, we recommend obtaining competent legal counsel like Youngblood Law, PLLC. For more information contact us at 817-601-5345, find us on the web at www.youngblood-law.com, Find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/youngbloodlawPLLC/