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New forms allow couples to divorce without attorney

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by Audrey White

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - Breaking up is always hard to do, as Neil Sedaka will tell you, but for some low-income Texans, the Texas Supreme Court is making the process a little easier.

Six of the nine Texas Supreme Court justices approved adoption of divorce forms after months of wrangling with family lawyers who oppose them. Many family lawyers worry the forms could lead to complicated legal problems for couples down the road if they make mistakes in filing.

Pro bono and legal aid attorneys could only meet about 20 percent of the demand for their services for divorce cases last year, said Trish McAllister, the executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Commission. Most other states already have court-approved pro se divorce forms, McAllister said, and the change will make a big difference for poor Texans.

"This really will change the lives of so many people who have not been able to get help through legal aid," McAllister said. "One of the reasons it's important to get a divorce is that if you don't and you have other relationships, have kids, maybe buy a house later down the road, that creates huge complications."

Only couples without children or real estate can use the forms in lieu of seeking a divorce with the help of an attorney. The forms are simple, and using a standardized form will make the judicial part of the process more efficient, she said.

At the Travis County Law Library and Courthouse Self-Help Center, about 20 people per day who come in to seek advice might be eligible to use the forms, said Lisa Rush, the library's manager.

Not many people have used the form so far, though, because it is so new and fewer people divorce during the holiday season, said Paula Pierce, managing attorney at the Texas Legal Services Center.

A task force including lawyers, judges and other experts formed in 2011 to help create the forms along with the Texas Access to Justice Commission. But some lawyers oppose the divorce forms and argue that citizens will be unable to navigate the legal system without an attorney's help. Members of the family law section of the State Bar of Texas and other family law attorneys loudly opposed the forms throughout their creation. And in January, the State Bar voted to urge the court to suspend the work of the task force. But the court decided to move ahead.

Julian Schwartz, a San Antonio family law attorney, said that even the simplest cases can be complicated and lead to legal trouble down the road if not dealt with properly.

"You have to file the divorce in your county of residency," Schwartz said as an example. "If you fail to gain the court's jurisdiction, you could have jurisdictional issues on whether you actually got divorced or not."

Schwartz, who heads a divorce law group called the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas, said he works on few cases in which the couples do not have children or property so he does not have clients who might benefit from the forms.

McAllister said that although ideally every couple would consult with an attorney during their divorce, it's not feasible for many poor Texans.

The forms are "going to help a huge amount of people be able to move forward with their lives," she said.

The forms are currently available for use, although the results of a public comment period that lasts until February could lead to minor changes.

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