By CASEY CLARK-NEY
If you are looking for an affordable method to file for divorce, using a paralegal may be the way to go.
Amy Wishart of Do It Yourself Documents has worked as a paralegal in the state of Washington for several years. Wishart said she provides a service that saves people time and money. “The main benefit is the savings as whole,” Wishart said. “If they have nothing to divide then it’s the easiest and most inexpensive way to get a divorce.”
According to Wishart, most paralegals charge anywhere from $150 to several hundred dollars to prepare divorce documents. The charge does not include the state’s filing fee, which depends on the state. For Washington, it costs $250 to file for divorce, she said.
While paralegals can help save a divorcing couple a lot of money, Wishart warns, the duo must be in agreement on all terms of the divorce. “In using a paralegal they either have to be in agreement, or they can’t find the other person so they know they will serve by publication and the other person won’t respond because the paralegal cannot give legal advice,” Wishart said.
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, there is no one definition that best describes the term paralegal. Instead, each state has its own legal understanding of the word. For Wishart, being a paralegal means knowing and understanding the legal processes. “A paralegal can do everything an attorney can do except give legal advice or step inside a court,” she said.
There are two types of paralegals. Wishart is an independent paralegal that prepares documents for individuals who retain her services. There are also paralegals that work for attorneys and can therefore speak on behalf of their employer, Wishart said.
Along with the definition, states also have separate certification or licensing processes for paralegals. Some states do not even require a paralegal to hold a certificate, Wishart said. Because paralegals are not legally allowed to provide their clients with advice, Wishart said many independent paralegals avoid direct contact with their customers. “Somebody who prepares documents can’t give advice, but they have the knowledge,” Wishart said. “It’s a very fine line that cannot be crossed.”
To avoid crossing that line, Wishart, as with many paralegals, has her clients fill out and submit a questionnaire. She then uses the information provided to fill out the appropriate court documents, she said. “I use the questionnaire to avoid asking questions,” she said.
Danette Therkildsen, an independent paralegal with the Washington Divorce Service, agrees with Wishart. “I’m very careful not to give legal advice,” Therkildsen said. “It’s just complicated for people. It can be a real challenge.”
Therkildsen, who has worked as a paralegal for 30 years, goes as far as to include a disclaimer on the home page of her Web site that reads, “WashingtonDivorceSerivce.com does not give legal advice. You are purchasing a package of completed forms based on the information you provide. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney.”
According to Therkildsen, using a paralegal services has its pros, but potential clients should be cautious. “The good thing about paralegal services is the price,” she said. “But anyone can claim they are a paralegal. It is kind of a buyer beware situation.”
Therkildsen recommends starting the hunt for a paralegal with an Internet search. “You want to know if it’s a legitimate business,” she said. “What are their qualifications, experience? Are they licensed with the state?”
Both Therkildsen and Wishart also suggest checking with the Better Business Bureau to ensure there are no complaints against the company. Even if you use an online service, call and talk to someone at the service,” Wishart said. “There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there.”
Therkildsen said finding a qualified paralegal is extremely important. She has seen cases of individuals posing as paralegals who will take their client’s money and nothing more. Other supposed paralegal services simply sell the documents needed to file for bankruptcy and mail the blank forms to the client. “My pet peeve is people who claim to be a paralegal and sell the documents you can get off the state’s Web site for free,” Therkildsen said.
THE DIVORCE PROCESS
Once a couple has selected a paralegal to assist with their divorce, the process is fairly painless. “They fill out a very simple questionnaire,” Wishart said. “It asks for names, birthdays, personal information, how they want the property divided. All the services do the same thing.”
Once the paperwork is filled out, Therkildsen said she returns the documents to the client and they sign and submit them to the court. “I don’t meet with the people, everything is done on the Internet,” Therkildsen said.
Ironically, Therkildsen said it is not uncommon for her clients to hold off on filing the papers. “Some people sit on their paperwork for months,” she said. Once the papers are signed and submitted, Therkildsen said the couple would most likely have to appear in court. “Most courts require you to walk the papers through,” she said.
In the state of Washington, couples seeking a divorce must wait 90 days for the request to be granted. “There is no shortening of time-period … it’s 90 days mandatory,” Wishart said. “It’s a cooling off period. That is its intent.”
According to Wishart, most states have some form of waiting period that ranges between 90 days and six months. Once the period is up, the couple appears in court. “If they appear before the judge, they have to go in, ask a few questions and the judge signs the documents,” Wishart said.
This, however, is not always the case. Take for example the Lincoln County Court in Washington. “Everything is through the mail … people don’t have to go to court,” Wishart said of Lincoln County Court. “The judge signs documents on Mondays. Any other court, at the end of the 90 days, the individuals have to go into the court themselves and have a hearing set.”
Therkildsen views the Lincoln County Court as an asset, but did say an all-mail court is always the way to go. “Lincoln County is a good place to file if you are filing without kids,” she said. For situates that are not as cut and dry, even when amicable, Therkildsen recommends using a traditional court. Her recommendation is based on the need to physically visit a courtroom in the event of a disagreement after the divorce is finalized.
For example, ex-spouses who later disagree on their parenting plan can’t litigate in a near-virtual courtroom. The venue of the case would have to take place at the expense of attorney fees. However, the overall effectiveness of a mail-in court is top notch, Therkildsen said.
As a whole, Wishart said the divorce process done through a paralegal tends to be faster for a variety of reasons. First, paralegals are not tied to court schedules and client meetings the way traditional attorneys are. “I don’t have other cases that will hold me, I don’t have to go to court,” she said.
Additionally, divorces done through a paralegal are amicable, which naturally speeds up the process because there are no objections and court hearings. “We can prepare the documents, get them filed, but if the other party objects, we are done,” Wishart said.
At the end of the day, paralegal services are a good fit for a certain group of people. Couples who can agree on how they will parent their children and split their assets can utilize a paralegal to complete the divorce documents. Furthermore, the use of a paralegal saves everyone time and money. “It’s a very simple process for anybody who wants to get a divorce, legal separation or annulment,” Wishart said.
It is, however, important to understand that not all states allow paralegals the same rights in terms of filling out documents and assisting clients, Therkildsen said. To learn more about how you can utilize a paralegal in your state, contact the National Federation of Paralegal Services.
Casey Clark Ney holds a B.A. in Communication and has more than six years experience in newspaper and magazine writing. Her Web site can be viewed at www.CaseyClarkNey.com. E-mail correspondences can be sent to email@example.com