Originally created 06/18/97

South Carolina to debate do-it-yourself divorce



CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Handling your own divorce would seem easy, using do-it-yourself forms found in stores or for sale over the Internet.

But it can often lead to legal red tape, delays and more hearings in already overcrowded Family Courts, according to attorneys who want the South Carolina Bar to endorse forms allowing people to handle divorces in limited circumstances.

"There are a lot of people who label themselves paralegals who have put together packets (of forms) and are selling them," said attorney Ethel "Eddie" Weinberg. "People pay their money but nothing happens (in court) because they are not in proper order."

Ms. Weinberg, an attorney with Palmetto Legal Services, a legal aide organization in Columbia, said many stock forms don't say how to proceed in court or get evidence before the judge.

She estimates up to 90 percent of do-it-yourself, or, in legal jargon, "pro se" divorces encounter problems, usually delays.

"The judges so desperately want to help these people get a divorce but their hands are tied," said Sandi Parise, who practices family law in Columbia. Judges may not advise parties how to proceed once the case is before them, she said.

Both attorneys have worked with Family Court judges, courts officials and other attorneys in developing forms for people handling their divorces.

The free forms would be used only in cases where the couple has been separated a year, has no children and minimal property. They would include forms for a summons, complaint, financial declarations and final decree.

The South Carolina Bar, the organization to which all practicing lawyers in the state must belong, will debate the merits during its annual meeting on Hilton Head Island this week.

About 500 attorneys and judges are expected to attend the meeting that opens Thursday.

An uncontested divorce can generally be granted about two months after the filing. But improper paperwork can mean twice the wait and more court hearings, Ms. Parise said.

Palmetto Legal Services wants to help indigent people get out of abusive relationships or those involving drugs and alcohol, Ms. Weinberg said.

Since most clients can not afford an attorney they sometimes enter another relationship without benefit of divorce.

"They end up in a Never Never Land where they never finish one relationship," she said.

About 10 percent of the divorces in South Carolina are handled without attorneys, a figure that might increase to 20 percent if paperwork were easier to manage, Ms. Parise said.

There were 15,171 divorces in the state in 1995, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Both attorneys said the forms will make the paperwork easier, not getting a divorce easier.

"All we're doing is making a form available for divorce that is already legislated," Ms. Weinberg said.