Do it Yourself Divorce
A statewide task force of Virginia legal aid attorneys has developed an innovative technology-based solution to help self-represented (pro se) litigants file for simple uncontested no fault divorces in Virginia. This solution is readily available on-line for free for anyone to use, at http://www.ValegalAid.org/divorce. Because it is designed to screen out procedurally difficult situations and/or those cases with contested issues while producing a full set of tailored, well-drafted pleadings, this tool can be a valuable resource to circuit court clerks and judges interacting with self-represented parties seeking no fault divorces. This on-line guided interview system leverages developments in technology and the revisions to Virginia Code § 20-106, effective July 2012, which allow divorce by affidavit in certain circumstances. By referring self-represented litigants to this resource, courts can minimize the use of valuable courtroom time devoted to ore tenus presentation of evidence for divorces while increasing the likelihood that those litigants will be successful in navigating the court process and obtaining their final decrees of divorce.
This on-line “do it yourself” divorce program utilizes a cutting edge technological infrastructure known as LawHelp lnteractive. LawHelp Interactive was designed to create legal forms and documents, utilizing HotDocs software donated by LexisNexis, and an innovative guided interview software program, A2J Author, developed by Chicago-Kent College of Law. Users are asked a series of questions, and their answers are used to generate tailored documents. In 2013 LawHelp Interactive was used to create more than 456,000 forms nationwide. These forms represent many legal problems: child support and custody, domestic violence, debt collection, foreclosures, evictions, and divorce.
Using the technological infrastructure provided by LawHelp Interactive, a task force of Virginia legal aid lawyers has worked for several years to develop this on-line no fault divorce program for Virginians. Our goal was to provide an easy to use, low-literacy, online interview that would
- screen out users with procedurally complicated situations;
- screen out contested cases and those cases involving the potential, unintentional loss of rights;
- provide relevant legal information at each stage along the interview;
- generate well-drafted customized pleadings that should be acceptable throughout the Commonwealth; and
- provide a detailed set of instructions to enable the self-represented litigant to navigate the divorce process to a successful conclusion.
While we hope to continue to refine the program to allow it to handle more complicated situations, it currently allows only users with uncomplicated cases to complete the interview and document assembly process. Presently, the program can be used only by people who fall into the following situations (and who meet the criteria in Virginia Code § 20-106 allowing for divorce by affidavit):
- The parties have been living separate and apart for one year, and have no property, support or custody/visitation issues to dispute;
- The parties have been living separate and apart for at least one year and have resolved all of their issues related to property, support, custody and visitation through a property settlement agreement; or
- The parties have been living separate and apart for at least six months, have no minor children, and have resolved all issues related to property and support through a property settlement agreement;
- The parties have been living separate and apart for at least one year, have no property or spousal support issues and have resolved all issues related to custody, visitation and child support through a court order, or do not have minor children.
- Both parties reside in Virginia with known addresses.
Note that there are still some people who will not be able to use the program even though they would otherwise qualify under the criteria laid out above, specifically: parties who are or have been in the military or whose spouse was or is in the military; and parties who have an interest in any type of pension or retirement accounts.
ValegalAid.org, developed by Virginia’s legal aid programs, offers a wealth of legal information covering the most frequently confronted civil legal problems in 16 different subject areas confronted by low-income Virginians, making it a great on-line resource for court clerks who might be constrained in answering questions from self-represented litigants. The site also provides referral information for the local legal aid offices and other relevant pro bono resources.