published Monday, January 26th, 2009

Divorce without lawyers

Do-it-yourself clinics help low-income couples split up cost-effectively


by Monica Mercer
Audio clip

Barry Gold

Amanda Dykes of Signal Mountain said she was “totally broke” last year and soon would face the prospect of raising two kids as a single mother.

If she could get a divorce, that is.

Hiring a divorce lawyer often means an initial out-of-pocket expense of several hundred dollars, with costs usually going up from there depending on circumstances.

With a job that paid her only $9.50 an hour, Ms. Dykes, 28, said the thought that kind of bill “totally scared me.” She said her soon-to-be ex-husband, an auto mechanic to whom she was married for 10 years, faced the same challenges.

“I just knew I couldn’t do it,” Ms. Dykes said.

According to Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Ms. Dykes’ situation is the norm. Financial hardships often can force a couple to stay married simply because they can’t afford a lawyer or they can’t otherwise navigate the legal system.

CASE CLOSED

Legal Aid of Tennessee closed 7,275 cases in 2008. The largest area was in family law, which represented 37 percent of the cases. The next two largest areas were in consumer and housing law, each representing 18 percent of the total cases closed.

In the family law cases, most dealt with domestic violence issues.

A “do-it-yourself” divorce clinic seeks to help low-income couples whom Legal Aid cannot help.

Legal Aid of East Tennessee has offered a “pro se” divorce clinic — essentially a “do-it-yourself” divorce course — since 2004 to help low-income residents end their marriages.

With the current economic crunch, the demand for DIY divorces has never been greater, according to Legal Aid Associate Director Debra House.

Divorce is “a luxury item for low-income people,” Ms. House said. “You can live without getting divorced. You can’t live without food on your table and clothes on your kids’ backs.”

Chattanooga divorce lawyer Barry Gold said that, at least anecdotally, the economy is affecting divorce rates.

“I think folks (seeking divorce) who are pushed economically are very tuned in that we are in some precarious times,” Mr. Gold said.

Unfortunately, budget constraints mean Legal Aid of Tennessee takes on only the most serious cases, leaving people with run-of-the-mill divorces with no other recourse. Legal Aid of East Tennessee currently has the capacity to meet just 5 percent of the total need for low-income people in the area.

The divorce clinic has been able to fill the gap, helping about 300 people in East Tennessee since 2004. The clinics are held once a month and are available only to couples who qualify for legal aid and who already agree on the terms of their divorce.

The clinic takes a couple of hours to complete, after which an attorney reviews the paperwork and counsels couples on how to file the documents with the court.

Those who qualify for legal aid in Tennessee must live at or below federal poverty guidelines. About 1 million residents in Tennessee are eligible for free help with legal problems ranging from housing issues to divorce.

Ms. Dykes said the clinic she attended last fall was a lifeline. She and her husband will go before a judge in March to finalize the divorce.

“I think the clinic made the divorce a lot easier,” Ms. Dykes said. “I’m glad they’re there for people who can’t financially afford to separate.”

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