Reviews of the Best New Divorce Options in California

Reviews of the Best New Divorce Options in California

A steady and ongoing policy shift in California makes family law matters more accessible to regular people.  This has led to the development of new and user-friendly ways to get divorced.

When you think of divorce, you probably think of lawyers, paperwork, and court rooms.  But there are many alternatives to a litigated divorce, and more and more people are taking advantage of them.  In California 67% of family law cases involve one or both parties not having an attorney.  By the time the case is decided, that percentage jumps to around 80%. ((Judicial Council of California, Statewide Action Plan for Serving Self-Represented Litigants (2004), available at: stuckilawfirm.com/docs/action-plan-for-self-represented-litigants.pdf))  So much of what goes on in family law courts is not led by attorneys, but by unrepresented parties.

California has changed its laws and policy to become more supportive of this huge population of unrepresented people (called Pro Se or Pro Per).  The goal is to move family law cases through the courts more quickly and effectively.   The steady policy shift that makes divorce more accessible to regular people led to the development of alternative methods of divorce.  The following alternative options are almost always cheaper and faster than divorce with lawyers.

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Divorce Mediation

Instead of lawyers arguing in court before a judge who ends up making the decisions, you and your spouse develop your own agreement.  Coming to an agreement with the person who you are divorcing is not easy.  So a divorce mediator will provide a safe and confidential environment and knowledge of the law that can help ensure an agreement can be made.  When you come to an agreement, the mediator then writes a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).  The MSA filed with an abbreviated amount of divorce papers.  A judge reviews the MSA and makes the orders based on your agreement and issues a final divorce decree.

Court Sponsored Programs

About 10 years ago there was a big push for California to set-up family facilitator and self-help centers.  These facilitator have been invaluable to many self-represented people seeking family orders.  Unfortunately, judicial budget cuts have forced many of the self-help programs to limit the amount of help they provide or close altogether.   The Superior Court of Sacramento County has developed a unique program to help alleviate the situation.  Volunteer law students act as document reviewers to go over and instruct the various required court forms.  Volunteer attorneys then review the case and send it to a judge to be reviewed that same day.  The program is called One Day Divorce, because all the paperwork is completed and the divorce decree is issued all in one day.  However, the program only allows cases where service of process is complete, there is agreement on all issues, and subject to income guidelines.

Collaborative Divorce

This process also involves each party represented by attorneys.  But the major difference is that the goal in collaborative divorce is to avoid a trial.  This is accomplished by having all the parties work together to come to an agreement.  The ‘opposing’ attorneys are both on board with this process and work together to help their client save money, time, and stress.  Other professionals like accountants and mental health professionals may also be part of the team.  Collaborative practice is less expensive than litigation because less attorney hours are required.  However collaborative practice is more expensive than divorce mediation because each party still has to pay for an attorney and the other professionals involved.

Summary Dissolution

This is a divorce process that is somewhat simpler than regular divorce.  It requires less paperwork.  However, only certain situations will qualify.  The marriage must be for less than 5 years, no children, no real estate, and limited amounts of assets.  The benifit is the process is quick and a little less confusing.  The downside is that most couples will not qualify for summary dissolution.

Self-Help (Pro Per)

80% of family law cases end with one or both parties self-represented (called Pro Se or Pro Per)  Many people cannot afford an attorney and attempt self-represented litigation.  Some are successful, but the process is very complex and time-consuming.  Many judges are sympathetic for the plight of Pro Per parties, but don’t expect any special treatment.  Self-represented litigants must follow the same evidence rules and court procedures as attorneys.  The rules are very complex and numerous.  The most common scenario of Pro Per divorce cases is that the initial divorce papers are filed (not very difficult to figure out).  But then the next steps for divorce become much more complicated (see my guide to Do-It-Yourself Divorce) and so the party gives up and the case sits unresolved.  The benefits of self-representation are the price, you only pay for filing fees.  The downside is that the forms and process are extremely confusing so many give up.

Litigation 

Litigation is expensive because the average family law attorney charges $300 an hour and it takes many, many hours.  You will also need to come up with a $3000 to $5000 retainer up front.  Litigation will be needed if you or your spouse refuse to agree on family issues.