Legally, it’s a lot easier to get married than divorced. After all, while getting married usually doesn’t require hiring a lawyer, a divorce often does. And paying thousands of dollars for legal help is not an option for some.
Barbara Griffin, director of the Allegheny County Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Center, said people often call her organization to learn how much it will cost to hire a divorce attorney.
“And they’ll faint,” said Griffin. “And then when they’re revived, they’ll say, 'I can’t possibly afford that.' And they’ll be sent our way for help.”
The bar association runs a program, called the Divorce Law Project, where Griffin, another staff attorney, and about a dozen volunteer attorneys offer free legal help to people who earn 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level.
Daria Goins is a former client of the program. When she decided this summer to get a divorce, she researched how much it would cost to hire a private attorney. By her estimate, she could have expected to pay $2,000.
But then a co-worker told her about the Divorce Law Project, which helped to finalize Goins’ divorce just last week.
“This could’ve never been done this fast without this program,” Goins said, “and there was just no need to just string this along.”
Goins said, legally, her divorce was easy: She just had to sign some forms, and all her court fees waived.
As a result, Goins could focus on things like buying new carpet and artwork to de-spouse her house. She also “changed the smell, changed the color, just to start off fresh.”
Goins said it helped that her ex-husband cooperated through the divorce process, and that there were no child custody or property disputes.
That’s one reason she qualified for the Divorce Law Project: Program director Barbara Griffin said her office only works on simple divorces.
“The resources just aren’t there to serve everybody who needs help,” Griffin said.
Without that help, a recent study of Pennsylvania counties shows, many people do not get divorced at all.
The Access to Justice Lab at Harvard University led the research, and it found that people without lawyers were 87 percent less likely to terminate their marriages. Study participants who did not receive attorneys were instead referred to written "self-help" materials and could have questions answered by phone.
“This was among the more disturbing studies that I’ve been involved with thus far,” said Harvard law professor Jim Greiner, who was part of the research team. “This really should be, in many instances, a quite simple legal transaction … It’s simply a transition, for many people, from a state of married to a state of not-married.”
Greiner said even though simple divorces involve no time in court, non-lawyers struggle with complicated paperwork and requirements.
For example, spouses who have been separated for less than a year must wait 90 days after filing for divorce to move forward with the process.
And Griffin, of the Divorce Law Project, said people often have a hard time understanding legal terminology and following the administrative steps involved in submitting divorce papers.
Griffin noted that the state court system provides guidance and divorce forms on its website for people who do not want to hire an attorney. But she said requirements often differ by county.
“So even what’s called a ‘simple divorce’ can be kind of complicated,” the attorney said.
Is starting over a right?
Greiner said procedural barriers to divorce could be unconstitutional because, he said, they threaten to trap people in marriage.
“I have the liberty to have the personal associations that I want, at least as far as they go with respect to certain marriage or divorce or intimate personal relationships,” the professor said.
That’s one reason Greiner believes it should be easier to get divorced without an attorney.
Even so, he said, there will be messy divorces where there’s property or debts to divide up, or disputes over custody. In those cases, Greiner said spouses should receive free legal assistance.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco said the county’s family court provides that assistance.
“Hopefully, it’s true with all judges,” Hens-Greco said, “that they work really hard to make a level playing field.”
Hens-Greco, who has been a family court judge for 14 years, said the court offers education and mediation programs that help some people resolve custody disputes without entering a courtroom.
In addition, she said she and other family court judges work closely with separated spouses to divide their property.
Still, she said, that process can become complex when pensions, health insurance and home values are involved. Mortgages and credit card debt can further complicate matters.
“Somebody who has a lot of debt and can’t figure out how to afford counsel, yeah, I would worry about the outcome of that,” Hens-Greco said.
Without a lawyer in the courtroom, the judge said all the courts can do is to help estranged spouses make the best case they can.