By: Christopher Pearsall, Esquire
a.k.a. " The Rhode Island Divorce Coach ℠ "
This is a loaded question. I hear people who are angry at the clerks for not helping them with the forms. Other people are upset when the clerks caution people to speak with a lawyer about filling out the paperwork.
The big problem here that causes the frustration for people is that they want to do this without a lawyer because they either do not have money to spend on a lawyer or they simply don't want to spend money on a lawyer.
I can understand that. That is the very reason I created my coaching program because I knew people needed a more affordable way to get help with the documents that are filed with the family court when they file for divorce. Perhaps my biggest mistake was failing to understand that most people don't understand the significance of the documents they are creating.
So let's address the main question. Are the clerks making a big deal because the papers really are a big deal? Or are the clerks making a big deal because they get tired of people's angry attitudes when they have to reject their papers because they are wrong or incomplete?
Truthfully I think that both of those questions give us the reason. Perhaps people would get the message if there weren't any things called "forms" given out by the court at all.
Now this has nothing to do with wanting to deny attorneys or anyone else access to some forms that could generally be used for divorces. Heck, forms make things easier for everyone don't they. They certainly make them easier for me.
However, here is one of the problems that forms cause. When you have a form, here is what people think,
"Hey, this is easy to do this. I just fill in the blanks in each of these forms. I don't need a lawyer for this. I know how to write and so I just fill in the blanks with what makes sense. Or, better yet I'll look at one that was done in another case by an attorney and I'll use what they wrote but apply it to my own case. So I don't need a lawyer. I don't need the hassle of finding one and I can keep the money in my own pocket."
So, all of these things happen because the court provides a few forms. Some of the forms are semi-clear. Some of them are vague with big blanks in them. Some of the divorce forms have tremendous signficance. Do you know which forms are which? Do you know which ones you CAN NOT afford to make a mistake on?
Do you know that for some cases, even simple cases, there is crucial language that can hurt you if you don't include it? Most people don't. Did you know that the clerks can't give you advice about filling out the divorce forms as much as they might like to? Why? Because they are not attorneys and the law prohibits them from doing do.
So they give you a hard time about filing your initial papers for your divorce because it IS a big deal! Sometimes even one word..... that's right.... ONE WORD. . . can make you or break in a divorce. Every word you put in those forms has to do with your legal rights.
Do you think the divorce court clerks are thoughtless and could care less about you? On the contrary, I have known many of these clerks for years and I know they are not only good people but they are caring people. Do you know how hard it is for them to perform their jobs and have their hands tied from trying to help you because the law prevents them from giving legal advice? These folks care about you. If they gave you a big deal or if you felt hassled, then remember that they care! They have a hard job.
I've seen a few clerks try to help people with the forms only to get reprimanded because they are not supposed to give out legal advice and because they might be (and sometimes are) incorrect in what they told the person.
So I'll curse the forms on this one. If you think that because some forms exist that this is easy and you don't need even the advice or help of a lawyer, then you need to get a grip on the concept of divorce.
EVERY divorce is different and I do mean EVERY SINGLE ONE! Your life does not fit any form! Unless a lawyer sees it clearly enough to make the form conform to your life and legally protect you.... then your form might as well be a bunch of blanks each of which is a landmine waiting for you to step on it and blow your legal rights all to hell! You are not a template!
Trust me when I tell you that I made a few minor mistakes in my early years of practice by excluding things from those blanks that need to be included. Thankfully I was allowed by the court to fix those errors under exceptions to certain rules.
Don't expect a clerk or a judge to protect you. When you hire a lawyer to give you advice then that's his or her job! Are we necessary? Absolutely!!!
Should the clerks make a big deal about the initial filing of your divorce papers? Yes! If they didn't, they would be doing you a disservice.
Get some legal advice. You don't have to get full blown representation in every case but if you don't get some legal advice about your paperwork and your rights, then you are acting foolishly.
These are your rights. If you're willing to buy a few Christmas presents for $150 or $300 at holiday time or to pay for a party for your child but you're not willing to spend the same amount to protect your legal rights in a divorce then clearly your legal rights don't have the priority they should.
Hopefully this helps you understand why clerks make a big deal about your initial divorce papers when you go to file them. Because they are important and chances are better than not that you forgot something and they get so tired of seeing people who are throwing their rights out the window when they could afford some proper legal advice.
Do yourself a favor! Get some legal advice from an experienced Rhode Island family court lawyer!