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Who Benefits From ‘One-Day Divorce?’

The question about one-day divorce, or do-it-yourself divorce, is this: Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

I think the answer is “yes.”

One-day divorce is a relatively new option, limited in the U.S. so far to certain courts in California. The program, as The New York Times reported, does not actually start and end a divorce in the same day. But for couples who have met residency and notification requirements and filed the initial paperwork, the program helps get people through the legal system quickly when their divorce is relatively simple and uncontested. The eligibility requirements vary between jurisdictions, but for couples who meet them, the program is designed to alleviate long waits and potentially confusing court rules.

Randall M. Kessler, a family law specialist based in Atlanta, told The Times that such programs may be “the wave of the future” if California’s programs prove successful. The prediction seems all the stronger in light of the popularity of “do-it-yourself” divorces, an option that has proliferated in the age of Internet-based document preparation services and reference materials.

Just because it’s possible to divorce without attorneys, though, does not mean that it is always a prudent idea.

Almost any financial planner will probably tell you that divorce of any kind is one of the most efficient destroyers of household wealth around. You instantly nearly double the cost of maintaining two adults by separating their households. Divorced individuals also lose the security that comes from having a second income stream, at least in the typical dual-income American household. Often, a divorce means you have to sell a residence or other assets at an inopportune or unwanted time. And in many cases, the operation of a family business is imperiled.

With all of these concerns in play, the legal fees can seem to add insult to injury. Such fees are often significant and are sometimes exorbitant, especially if there are highly contentious issues to be resolved such as the custody of children or the division of significant property. Few would blame a couple for looking at ways to lower or avoid them.

Still, nobody advises people to spend their lives in unhappy marriages for financial reasons. Many families find themselves better off when people who can’t live together happily chose to live separately instead. In the same way, I suspect few financial planners would advise pursuing a DIY divorce solely because it is cheaper.

Divorce, like marriage, is a significant financial transaction. And just as some marriages are best entered with a prenuptial agreement while others have no need, some divorces can only be prudently accomplished with the help of legal counsel while others could appropriately and cheaply be terminated quickly and on demand.

Until recently, the bar held the key to the divorce courthouse because judges and legislatures were unwilling to establish simplified procedures that were accessible to laypeople. Thankfully, that is changing. While California’s one-day program is so far unique, many states offer “simple” or “summary” divorce in cases in which the split is amicable and there are no minor children or disputed assets involved. The precise requirements vary from state to state, and while such divorces do typically involve attorneys, they may serve as a template from which a more accessible process might be developed.

Of course, many divorces must proceed the traditional way, and that will not change any time soon. Not only do couples with minor children or significant wealth need legal counsel, but there are cases in which one spouse may suspect the other will try to hide or lie about assets, or take other measures to pursue an unfair outcome. Where a prenuptial agreement exists, couples will often want a legal team capable of making sure the agreement is executed properly.

In cases where there are no children, no controversy and little in the way of assets, however, having each party hire a lawyer can simply be wasteful and time-consuming. It is good to see the legal system evolving to provide alternatives. Some state legal aid offices provide their own free divorce packets, while services like LegalZoom provide document preparation for a fee that is still significantly less than the cost of retaining an attorney.

If you are considering a do-it-yourself divorce, ask yourself this question: Are you comfortable preparing your own tax return? If not, don’t even think about handling your own divorce filing. Same-sex couples should also be especially cautious because of the still-evolving legal status of their unions; an attorney’s advice may be essential.

If you feel comfortable proceeding, carefully weigh the pros and cons of a one-day or DIY divorce before you proceed. In some cases, a cheap divorce could turn out to be a lot more expensive than you expect.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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