I have had more than one person ask me, "how do you get a divorce when you don't have any money?" This is a very understandable question. Breaking up is not only emotionally painful; it can be expensive.
Many people live paycheck to paycheck and do not budget for the day they may need an attorney or a divorce. Another situation could involve someone being on a fixed income. Typically, there is no money for a divorce lawyer and court costs in either scenario, not to mention the other related expenses.
For many couples, finances keep them from getting a divorce because they are afraid they cannot afford it.
What Divorce Options Exists for those who are Financially Struggling?
Many people I meet with want to know:
- Are there any options available to someone who wants a divorce but cannot financially?
- Can someone be too poor to divorce?
- What if I can not even afford to pay the filing fee?
When a divorce is filed, you must usually pay a "filing fee." There may also be other court fees depending on your divorce.
Some of these fees may include:
- Paying for copies or
- Paying to have the other side served with court documents
If you do not have enough money to pay the court costs or fees, you can ask a judge to waive those fees.
The Good News - If You are Poor, You Do Not Need Money to Get a Divorce
You do not have to have any money to get a divorce, but you do have to follow the procedure set up by Texas to have the court fees waived.
This can be a huge benefit when you need to get out of a marriage but not have the money.
The Bad News
As mentioned above, just because the fees are waived does not mean you can sign a piece of paper and you are done. There are a lot of procedures to follow.
I like to say you may have all the ingredients, but the cake will not bake itself. When you are representing yourself, you will have to do everything. That means:
- Fill out the correct paperwork
- Filing the paperwork
- Calling the court to get a hearing date
- Letting the other person know about the hearing date
Nothing happens automatically for the most part. So, if you ever feel like nothing is happening in your case, then you are probably the reason. Those clerks at the court take the paperwork; your job is to do something with it.
Other Self-Representation Cautions
Whatever your reason for representing yourself (or going "pro se") in your divorce, self-representation can be more expensive than having an attorney.
The lawyer fees you save can cost you in other ways, sometimes in irreversible ways. Five reasons you should retain a well-versed divorce lawyer instead of self-representing include:
- You risk not getting as much as you're entitled to by law
- Unforeseen issues may arise that you are not equipped to handle
- Your divorce may take longer and be more frustrating than it needs to be
- You may frustrate or anger the Judge by your lack of knowledge or experience
- You may lack objectivity
You Get Less than you are entitled to
Getting a divorce involves more than just knowing what forms to file and where to file them. A lawyer knows:
- the law
- the legal system
- divorce procedure
- what you should fight for, and how you should do it
Not having a lawyer represent you puts you at a disadvantage, especially if your spouse has a lawyer.
While you may think you and your spouse have all the issues worked out, and your case is straightforward, my experience is that's rarely the case.
By definition, your interests are rarely genuinely aligned with the person you are divorcing.
An example of this is when somewhere in the process, your spouse will change their mind on:
Unfortunately, this often comes as a surprise in the form of a change made to the paperwork, and the spouse does not learn about it until the divorce is over and their wages are garnished.
It is also possible the complication could be something else. Maybe you and your spouse's interests are truly aligned. However, a child is born during the marriage but with someone other than your spouse.
This complication will mean there is a divorce case and a paternity case simultaneously. This little thing can mean your divorce is more complicated than many pro-se people can handle.
Your Divorce May Take Longer
A divorce lawyer has experience navigating the legal system. This can significantly speed up the process of your divorce.
I have seen a non-lawyer who tried to do their divorce describe their experience as if someone dropped them in the middle of a jungle blindfolded without a map, compass, or any form of transportation and then told them they need to get to Disneyworld.
You may Frustrate or Anger the Judge.
According to an American Bar Association Coalition for Justice survey, judges believe that self-represented litigants do poorly represent themselves.
My observations of people representing themselves in courts are that judges often ignore these individuals and instead look to the other party's attorney for what is going on. Things are often decided quickly, and the person representing is left in the dust wondering what happened.
You Risk Losing Objectivity
It's hard not to be emotionally invested in your divorce case, particularly if you have children. Being too close to a point means you risk losing sight of what's in your best interests.
A lawyer can help you:
- Remain objective
- Let you know what you are entitled to
- Whether it makes sense to take a settlement offer or go to court
Pro Se or Self Representation Options
There are free divorce forms available online to the public. One of the first things you should consider before attempting to represent yourself to minimize divorce costs is that you will most likely make tradeoffs to save on these costs. These tradeoffs can include:
- Time is money
- Knowledge of the law
- Your fair share
Many of the free forms available online will include an affidavit of indigency. With these forms and the testimony of indigency, someone who does not have money can file their divorce for free.
Where to Start
You may want to start your self-representation journey by researching divorce law and procedure in one of the local law libraries. The following law libraries are available to the public:
- Harris County Law Library - 1019 Congress Ave, Houston, TX 77002
- John M. O'Quinn Law Library - 4800 Calhoun Rd, Houston, TX 77004
- Fred Parks Law Library- 1303 San Jacinto St, Houston, TX 77002
- Thurgood Marshall Law Library - 3100 Cleburne St, Houston, TX 77004
- Montgomery County Law Library - 301 N Thompson St #105, Conroe, TX 77301
Affidavit of Indigency
The affidavit of indigency is the form used to ask the court not to charge you for court fees. This form is also called an:
- Affidavit of Inability to Pay Court Costs or
- Pauper's Oath
You can only use this form if:
- You get public benefits because you are poor or
- You can't pay court fees
The information you give will ask about:
- What public benefits do you receive, such as SSI, WIC, Food Stamps, TANF, Medicaid, CHIP, etc.
- Your income sources include wages, spousal support, child support, workers comp, etc.
- Your spouse's income
- Your dependents
- Your property
- Bank accounts
You will also have to swear under oath that you cannot pay court costs.
A Hearing on the Affidavit
Typically, after you file your case, the District Clerk will set the affidavit for a hearing in front of the Judge and make you prove that you are unable to pay court costs.
If this happens, you will need to provide the Judge with information about:
- Your finances
- Evidence related to your income and expenses
- Why you are unable to pay court costs and filing fees
Legal Aid Divorce Help
If you cannot handle a do-it-yourself divorce option where you file all the papers yourself, you may qualify for legal aid in your area or a volunteer lawyers program.
Some Houston non-profits include:
- South Texas College of Law Legal Clinic – Phone: 713-646-2990
- AVDA – Phone: 713-224-9911
- Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program – Phone 713-237-9429
- Houston Lawyer Referral Service – Phone: 713-228-0735
- Lone Star Legal Aid – Phone: 713-652-0077
Each organization will have its own set of qualifications you will need to meet. Those qualifications can include:
- Certain levels of poverty, often 200% below Federal Poverty Guidelines
- Many law school clinics will only take simple divorce cases such as no children, minimal property, and everything in the agreement.
In addition to the requirements, there is often a long waiting list. It can be anywhere from several months to years long, depending on the list. Everyone wants a free or pro bono attorney so that the wait can belong.
Mandatory Appointment of Attorney ad Litem for Parent
In particular family law cases, you may be entitled to a free lawyer. These cases are typically where the government is bringing a lawsuit against you.
Texas Family Code Section § 107.013 states that:
- In a suit filed by a governmental entity under Subtitle E in which termination of the parent-child relationship or the appointment of a conservator for a child is requested, the court shall appoint an attorney ad litem to represent the interests of:
- an indigent parent of the child who responds in opposition to the termination or appointment;
- a parent served by citation by publication;
- An alleged father who failed to register with the registry under Chapter 160 and whose identity or location is unknown
- registered with the paternity registry under Chapter 160. Still, the petitioner's attempt to personally serve citation at the address provided to the registry and any other address for the alleged father known by the petitioner has been unsuccessful.
(a-1) In a suit described by Subsection (a), if a parent is not represented by an attorney at the parent's first appearance in court, the court shall inform the parent of:
- the right to be represented by an attorney; and
- If the parent is indigent and appears in opposition to the suit, the court-appointed the right to an attorney ad litem.
- Suppose both parents of the child are entitled to the appointment of an attorney ad litem under this section. The court finds that the interests of the parents are not in conflict and that there is no history or pattern of past or present family violence by one parent directed against the other parent, a spouse, or a child of the parties. In that case, the court may appoint an attorney ad litem to represent the interests of both parents.
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Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC | Spring Divorce Lawyers
The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC, routinely handles matters that affect children and families. If you have questions regarding divorce, it's essential to speak with one of our Spring, TX Divorce Lawyers right away to protect your rights.
Our divorce lawyers in Spring, TX, are skilled at listening to your goals during this trying process and developing a strategy to meet those goals. Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC by calling (281) 810-9760 or submit your contact information in our online form. The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC, handles Divorce cases in Spring, Texas, Cypress, Spring, Klein, Humble, Kingwood, Tomball, The Woodlands, the FM 1960 area, or surrounding areas, including Harris County, Montgomery County, Liberty County, Chambers County, Galveston County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County, and Waller County.