by Tina Seymour Demoran, Esquire
I see it all the time.
Someone goes on Facebook and asks for a referral for a divorce attorney, and ultimately, someone will comment: “you don’t need an attorney, just download the forms and paperwork from some website,” or the one that really makes my skin crawl: “I’m a paralegal and can send you the paperwork my attorney uses to do it yourself.”
Two problems here. Let’s address the second comment first, as it poses all kinds of problems.
First, I LOVE my paralegal. She’s pretty amazing. However, she is NOT a lawyer. Also, if I ever found out that she’s sharing my documents and work product with anyone without my permission, she will be fired immediately. It is, quite simply, THEFT. Some attorneys may be ok with this, but I can guarantee that most attorneys I know realize that this is a huge problem, and brings into question the paralegal’s future with their firm.
(Let’s make something clear: My paralegal also has something called INTEGRITY, and I can never see a situation where she would do this. That’s why I trust her with my firm documents. As I said above, she’s pretty amazing.)
Second, by sharing legal documents with a “friend” or “changing the names on the paperwork and sending them to a friend,” the paralegal is practicing law without a license.
That’s against the law.
I’ll stop there…as I could write a few blogs regarding the problems inherent in someone without a law school degree, a current law license, and applicable experience offering legal advice to another person.
Now that we have covered the second comment, let’s look at the first comment.
“Just download the documents from ….x website…and do it yourself.”
Yes, you can do this (pro se). Save a few dollars.
However, this morning in court was a perfect example of pro se divorce documents gone bad.
My client and I were sitting there, waiting our turn, and while I normally take advantage of the judge’s offer to allow the attorneys in the courtroom the opportunity to present their ID divorce documents first, we chose to allow a few others to go ahead of us.
It seemed like the neighborly thing to do.
Out of the several ID divorce papers presented for review, the special master sent all but two couples back to the drawing board.
Several documents presented were in the wrong format, missed key wording, and didn’t pass snuff for a judge to approve the property settlement agreements, let alone sign off on the divorce.
In contrast, the two clients with attorneys present (my client and myself included) were in and out of the courtroom five minutes after they stood in front of the judge.
The special master even said, “I usually let the attorneys go first, as I know the paperwork is going to be in order and ready to be signed.”
Yes, you can do the paperwork on your own.
Several people can most likely testify to the fact that they were able to get through the process without a lawyer.
But I’ve also seen the horror stories.
And let’s be honest, I make really good money fixing documents that people have bought online and filed pro se…or they obtained from a paralegal friend. Sometimes, they simply retype a set of paperwork from a friend’s divorce, not realizing that every case, every situation has subtle differences that will affect the final paperwork.
Really good money.
I get paid hourly to fix those problems, and fixing the issues can take considerable time in court and in my office.
Really. Good. Money. By. The. Hour.
In probate, when the will is found to be insufficient to avoid court, in divorce, when the judge refuses to sign off on the child custody and property settlement agreement because they are missing key phrases and particulars…and after the divorce, when one of the parents realizes that the pro se language in the agreement is too vague to actually enforce it in a court of law.
I always say, you get what you pay for when it comes to legal advice.
When it comes to estate planning, contracts, divorce, child custody, and making sure your property is split fairly, it is wise to hire knowledgeable, licensed legal counsel to guide you through the process.
Think of it this way: Why not do it the right way the first time…with the potential to save a lot more later on down the road?