Pitfalls of a DIY divorce in California

The do-it-yourself approach to divorce can easily lead to mistakes and delays. For couples with property or children there are a myriad of issues that may come up.

Separating from a spouse and reaching the final decision to divorce can be a difficult, drawn out process. When it comes to finalizing everything with the California family court, you may think that you can go it on your own.

The California state court websites provide many of the necessary forms to complete an uncontested divorce. Last year, Sacramento County even started offering a one-day program subject to income limits for divorce cases. However, you cannot truly get divorced in one day, because first you must meet residency and notification requirements. The program does allow a couple to wrap up an amicable divorce in a single day once they meet the initial criteria.

While the forms are available, there is little guidance on completing them. The clerk of court will return filings that are missing information or incorrectly formatted. It can often take several rounds to get the initial forms completed properly.

What happens next? Cases can easily languish for months and years

Many individuals can file the initial forms, but then they do not know what to do and their case may stall. Service of all the initial paperwork has its own requirements. Then there is a waiting period for the spouse to respond. How do you get from here to a final judgment?

Most couples want to get through a divorce as quickly as possible to move on with their lives. By seeking the counsel of a family law attorney at the beginning of a case, you may be able to avoid these lengthy delays.

Community property: How does this affect asset division?

Generally, community property is everything that you and your spouse acquired during the marriage. That means assets, such as a home, retirement accounts, a business or recreational vehicles. Debts may include a mortgage, student loans or credit card or medical bills. Each spouse owns half of the assets and owes half of the debts.

If you and your spouse own a home or have retirement accounts, the issues become more complicated. Even if you agree on who will stay in the home, conflicts can easily come up related to the current value of the residence, which affects equity. How will the spouse who stays in the home pay a portion of the equity to the one who agrees to move out? What if the mortgage is underwater and neither spouse wants the burden of dealing with it?

One pitfall of doing a divorce yourself often relates to retirement accounts. You may be eligible for a portion of a spouse's pension and not realize it. In one case, if a woman waited another six months to file divorce she was entitled to a portion of her husband's pension. Without legal guidance, her future financial well-being would have been jeopardized.

Often a retirement account requires a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) to divide the future benefit. These orders need specific language and it is very easy to make mistakes. Avoiding tax penalties when moving assets between retirement accounts is also tricky.

For couples who have property or children the do-it-yourself approach can lead to mistakes and delays. Speaking with a family law attorney right away will help you identify possible sticking points and ensure you receive a fair property settlement.

Keywords: Divorce, Property division