The use of pre-made, or check-the-box, forms in a Texas divorce can be perilous for one or both of the parties in a divorce. The result is usually that one or both of the parties retain lawyers within a couple of years to straighten out the mess created by the use of the non-attorney prepared form. These scenarios often remind me of the old Clint Eastwood character, Dirty Harry, and his catch phrase, “Go ahead, make my day!”
Let me explain. In the 1970’s movies, Harry Callahan was the street guardian who solved crimes and helped those being vandalized and victimized by people who wanted to get ahead the easy way. The easy way for them was just to ignore the law, which really got under Harry’s skin. After giving the perpetrator a stern warning to think about what was going to happen, while the perp looked down the barrel of Harry’s Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, the perp got to choose the next move. He (or she) could correct the action or accept the fate dealt by Harry’s .44 Magnum.
In the world of Texas divorce, there are three suits wrapped into one divorce lawsuit: the dissolution of the marriage, the division of the marital estate, and the suit affecting the parent-child relationship. It is also more common than not, in Texas, for a couple to agree on how to resolve all three suits in a divorce decree. Obviously that is what initially happens to those couples driven to adopt generic forms to finally and legally settle all issues. They agree and then say, “Hey, let’s just do this ourselves. We can save lots of money using this simple form.”
Now, it’s legal to do your own divorce without any attorney for either party. And our Texas Supreme Court has promulgated forms to allow pro se parties to do their own divorce. So the couple grabs the forms at the Courthouse library or downloads them from the Internet, then sit down to fill them out. Not knowing the significance of jurisdiction, managing conservatorship, or ERISA-based retirement plans, the couple wades through the questions just making a stab at each question. Intent on getting through the process on their own, however, the parties start guessing at what the answers should be. They start checking boxes, flipping coins, or just guessing, but they fill out the form. Well, except for those few questions that they left blank or the exhibits they omitted.
At this point, they scurry down to the Courthouse to get in front of the Judge to present their “decree.” At this point, the Judge is sitting there, squinting her eyes, and silently asking, “So, do you feel lucky? Well, do you?” One of the parties spouts out the words written on the instructions to the forms, “Your Honor, we’re here to get a divorce. . . .” They hand the form decree to the Judge, the Judge looks it over and says, “This doesn’t appear to be complete. I cannot tell you what’s missing, but you might want to go over this again or get an attorney to help you with it. Be careful, you might just get what you pay for here.”
The couple ducks their tails and head to the hallway just outside the Courtroom. Looking bewildered at each other, and believing they both understand what they marked on the form is correct, they hear that another Judge down the hall will sign it without really looking at the decree. “You just read to the Judge what you’re supposed to, and the Judge will just sign-no questions asked!” the stranger informs you.
The couple looks at each other with a new found hope, and they speed down the hall.
Sure enough, the Judge down the hall did just that, and the couple is now divorced, their property is divided, and the issues regarding their children are resolved. Or so they think. . . . What they should have heard was, “Go ahead, make my day!” But just like in Dirty Harry, they didn’t listen either. The Smith & Wesson went off, but its discharge would just be heard and felt later.
Fast forward about a year, and the ex-husband/dad moves to Georgia, he’s good with the two children staying with ex-wife/mom in Texas to go to school. Well, “good” until next summer rolls around and he says he’s not sending the kids back to Texas, he wants them to go to school with him there in Georgia. Ex-wife/mom freaks and takes her little form decree to a local attorney who tells her that there is neither an order in the decree stating the rights and duties of the parents nor an order designating where the children are supposed to live. No boxes are checked, and nothing is indicating the split of time between the parents with the children. Oops! “So what does this mean?” the ex-wife/mom inquires.
That means that there possibly exists a scenario where the couple is likely legally divorced, yet the property and the children’s issues are not yet resolved. What the couple thought they had in the decree, they did not. The money they thought they were saving, they did not. The headaches they thought they would avoid, they did not.
Now they are looking at a drawn-out custody battle over a long distance across the country, and it will no doubt cost many times what the initial divorce would have cost.
I am by no means implying that this couple is involved with anything criminal, like the perpetrators in the Dirty Harry movies. But the wounds from the Smith & Wesson may be just as great, since the couple did not heed the warnings and proceeded with getting it done not knowing what they were getting into. And because scenarios like this one are not far off from the truth, believe it or not, the couple will surely feel that they made somebody’s day by having to spend a lot of money and time to get the property rightly divided and the children’s issues squared away.
I recommend everyone involved in a divorce be represented by a qualified attorney who can lead them through the process without ever having to peer down the barrel of a large caliber handgun, or even being asked “Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?” when it comes to serious legal matters like a divorce.