The 12 Biggest Mistakes People Make When They Do their Own Utah Divorce
Quick Utah Divorce Statistics
The latest statistics say there are about 10,000 divorces per year in Utah.
In about half of those divorces, no one uses an attorney. This is called a “do-it-yourself divorce” (lawyers, because we have to make everything more difficult, call it a “pro se divorce”).
In about another 30% of Utah divorces, one person hires an attorney, but the other person doesn’t.
And in the last 20% of divorces, both people hire attorneys.
So, out of 10,000 divorces per year in Utah, the numbers breakdown like this:
- 5000 are true do-it-yourself divorces
- 3000 include one attorney
- 2000 include attorneys for both people getting divorced
Why People Don’t Hire Divorce Attorneys
So, why is there such a large percentage of people who don’t use divorce attorneys?
From the research I’ve read — yes, I read research on why people don’t hire divorce attorneys because I’m an attorney and a nerd — there are three primary reasons:
Divorce attorneys tend to cost a lot, and many people don’t believe they can afford one.
- People don’t know what divorce attorneys do.
Divorce attorneys tend not to share what they do with the general public. This is because attorneys want an air of mystery about what they do. This way people will feel compelled to hire them. It’s an odd sort of logic that tends to backfire, because when people don’t know what you do, they don’t hire you to do what you do.
- People think their divorce is easy.
Divorce can seem super easy. You and your spouse talk about things, you both want to be civil, and you say you agree on everything.
Easy peasy. Why would you need an attorney?
Well, you may not. Your divorce may actually be that easy.
Problem is people change when the divorce-rubber meets the road. People change their minds as they think through things more, and think of additional things they never thought of when you first talked. In other words, things go sideways, and they go sideways often.
- People don’t trust divorce attorneys.
I get it, many people don’t like divorce attorneys. We’re portrayed as slime balls and sharks on TV. And, sometimes, we don’t do a lot in real life to dispel those stereotypes. That kind of situation doesn’t build trust, so there isn’t a lot of trust.
(Aside: despite all this, I can tell you, having done exclusively divorce for quite a while, the overwhelming majority of Utah divorce attorneys care deeply about their clients and their clients’ children. They want to help their clients succeed during a very difficult time.)
What You Should Watch Out for if You Do Your Own Divorce (A.K.A., The 12 Biggest Mistakes People Make When They Do their Own Utah Divorce)
If you’re one of those 8000 Utah divorces in which at least one spouse doesn’t hire an attorney, there are some major pitfalls you’ll want to watch out for.
Today, we’ll talk about twelve of those pitfalls.
- Pitfall #1: using do-it-yourself divorce documents designed for other states.
One of the most popular ways to do-it-yourself divorce (you like how I made a verb out of a noun there?) is to buy forms on the internet and fill them out.
Problem is the vast majority of these forms are not built for Utah divorces. They’re developed in New York, California, or Illinois, and marketed as if they were written for Utahns. Every state has different divorce laws (vastly different laws), and using forms from another state is a sure-fire way to get your divorce paperwork rejected in Utah.
Essentially, the court clerk will read your forms, see that they don’t conform to Utah law or procedure, give them back to you, and tell you to try again. And if you don’t do anything to fix the problem, the judge will dismiss your divorce.
If you’re going to do your divorce pro se, make sure you use Utah forms. For example, the Online Court Assistance Program (OCAP) is the most popular option. These forms were developed by the Utah courts and cost about $35 to use.
(Note: OCAP works perfectly well for ultrasimple divorces. As in, you get married at 19 and divorced at 20, and you have a dog and a Honda Civic. A monkey couldn’t mess up that divorce, so OCAP is perfect. Anything more complicated and OCAP tends to break down and create more problems than it solves.)
- Pitfall #2: not inventorying assets and debts before beginning the divorce.
So many times, people want to get divorced ASAP. This is understandable because, well, divorce sucks.
When you rush divorces, though, you tend not to do fundamentally important things, like include all debts and assets in your divorce paperwork.
If you don’t include a debt or asset, then you don’t know what to do with it.
For example, if you have two homes and you split the equity on one 50/50, you know what to do with that one. If the divorce papers are silent about what to do with the second home, no one knows what to do with it. You don’t know, your spouse doesn’t know, the title company doesn’t know, your realtor doesn’t know. You might not even be able to sell the home in this sort of situation, and if you did, you may end up fighting forever about who gets what percentage of the equity. See the problem?
Same goes for debts. If you don’t include all debts, then your ex might try to stick you with 100% of a particular debt, instead of the 50% you should pay.
How do you keep this from happening? Slow down and make a complete inventory of every debt and asset you have. A debt is anything you owe money on. An asset is anything you own free and clear. (This means a home is not an asset unless it’s completely paid off.)
- Pitfall #3: using the language provided in the do-it-yourself documents.
You may want to use do-it-yourself divorce forms because they’re cheap.
Well, they’re cheap for a reason, and that reason is they assume every divorce is the same. This means they don’t contain much language that can be individualized to your particular situation.
Going back to the dog/Honda Civic example above, if you have a very simple divorce, then any form will do. But where people go wrong is using the template language when things aren’t simple.
What if you have a screwy work schedule and need to write very specific parent-time and custody language? If you use the form template language, it won’t do what you need and you’ll be in a divorce lawyer‘s office within six months to change everything.
And what if you want your ex to keep the home for three years before he sells it, but when he does sell it, you’ll each get 40%, and 20% will go in to your daughter’s 529 college savings plan? You use the stock template language and that’ll get messed up beyond recognition.
- Pitfall #4: using vague language when talking about selling and refinancing homes.
One of the biggest problems I see with do-it-yourself divorces revolves around selling the marital home.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen language like this: “Petitioner will sell Parties’ home and Parties will split the equity evenly.”
Sounds simple and to the point, right? It is, but it’s also seriously flawed, and here’s why: it’s too vague.
When will Petitioner sell the home? In a week? In a year? In five years? It doesn’t say. The practical effect of language like this is the person selling the home can sell the home whenever he or she sees fit, which could be never.
So, you could end up not being able to get out from under a home you thought would be sold shortly after your divorce. In a situation like this, you’d have a very difficult time moving on and buying a new home for yourself and your kids.
Here’s how to solve this problem: make everything specific. Put a time limit on selling or refinancing the home (e.g., 90 days). You could also include that if the home isn’t sold within 90 days, the other spouse gets to sell the home.
Make things specific: you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.
- Pitfall #5: not addressing holiday parent-time.
Holidays are tricky things. Which holidays are holidays that should be celebrated? (Christmas and Thanksgiving are obvious, but what about Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day?) When do holidays start and end? Do holidays cut in to normal parent-time?
These are all questions you have to wrestle with if you’re doing your divorce yourself. And if you don’t answer them in your divorce paperwork, you are asking for serious, ongoing conflict with your ex.
Thankfully, Utah law (specifically, Utah Code Annotated, Section 30-3-35) addresses holiday parent-time in detail. I suggest you use language like the following to clear things up:
“Parties will follow the holiday scheduled contained in Utah Code Annotated, Section 30-3-35.”
- Pitfall #6: not reading before signing a divorce agreement.
Who in the world signs a divorce agreement without reading it?
Apparently, lots of people.
I know because they end up in my office after reading their divorce decree for the first time and realizing their ex pulled a fast one on them.
I have seen ex’s take the 100% of the marital home, take full custody of the kids, and take the bank accounts, among other things.
You have to realize that it’s very difficult to change a divorce decree you agreed to, even if you didn’t read it. Judges assumes adults read documents before they sign them, and they aren’t very forgiving when adults don’t.
Please, read your divorce agreement before you sign it. Better yet, have an attorney read it with you.
- Pitfall #7: not including retirement and investment accounts in the divorce paperwork.
This one’s similar to pitfall #2.
The principle is this: if you don’t include a retirement account or investment account in your divorce paperwork, then you don’t know what to do with it.
In practice, what really happens is the person who has the money keeps the money.
So, if you forget to include your ex’s $100,000 401(k) in the paperwork, then you probably won’t get any of that money because you can’t prove you have a legal right to it.
Only way to fix the problem is to go back and modify your divorce decree to include the 401(k).
This change will cost you money and a fair amount of time, so it pays to include everything upfront.
- Pitfall #8: threatening a soon-to-be ex if they don’t sign the divorce papers.
Threatening your soon-to-be ex if he or she doesn’t sign divorce papers takes a lot of different forms. I’ve seen threats of physical violence (e.g., “If you don’t sign, I’ll beat you.”); threats to withhold money (e.g., “I’ll keep all the money when I sell the house.”); threats to run away with the children; etc.
Threats like these are not only immoral, they’re a sure-fire way to have your divorce decree thrown out by the judge.
See, judges want to know both spouses were on equal footing when they signed divorce papers. If one was under duress or coercion (threatening someone qualifies), then the judge will very likely overturn the divorce decree and make everyone start the entire divorce process over again.
And, from that point on, the judge will never trust the person who made threats.
Moral of the story: Be nice. Divorce is difficult on everyone. There is no need to play dirty pool.
- Pitfall #9: including the right of first refusal.
The right of first refusal (sometimes called the “first right of refusal”) is a long name for a pretty simple concept, namely: parent care is better than non-parent care. Really, the right of first refusal means that if a parent cannot watch a child for more than a certain period of time, then the parent must offer care to the other parent.
Anymore, attorneys almost never include the right of first refusal in divorce documents. It usually causes more problems than it’s worth.
The reason we don’t include it is when it’s included, everyone lies to each other so no one gets extra parent-time.
For example, if the right of first refusal is three hours (i.e., you have to offer your ex the kids if you will be gone for more than three hours), then people lie to their ex when they’re gone for four hours. They tell their kids to lie. They hide their work schedules from their ex. It’s a mess.
Honestly, it’s easier for kids and parents if you leave it out. But, if you insist on having a right of first refusal, make the time period overnight. That way you only have to offer the kids if someone will be gone overnight. That makes sense, and we’ve noticed much better compliance when the time period is overnight, as opposed to three or four hours.
- Pitfall #10: not including child support or providing the wrong wage amounts.
When people do their own divorces, they have a tendency to believe child support is optional.
Child support is not optional.
If you share 50/50 custody, someone will almost always pay child support.
If spouses agree among themselves not to pay child support, they still have to pay child support.
No matter what, if you have children, you have to include child support in your divorce paperwork. And you have to accept that someone will pay.
The other major problem we see with child support is people will either not provide pay stubs, or they’ll give the judge the wrong numbers in an attempt to fudge child support.
If you do this, the judge will reject your divorce and make you do it over. Best thing to do is be upfront about all the numbers and pay child support.
- Pitfall #11: agreeing to child support and alimony that’s way too high.
On the other side of the coin, some people agree to pay way too much in child support and alimony.
I’ve seen (usually men) agree to pay upward of 70% of their take-home pay to support their ex and children.
That sort of payment is simply not sustainable, and, ultimately, it only serves to hurt children. (When a parent doesn’t have enough money to live, then he or she can’t exercise parent-time, and the kids suffer.)
In the end, it’s best to work out reasonable numbers that (1) ensure the kids are taken care of, and (2) ensure both parents can afford to live.
- Pitfall #12: not discussing extracurricular activities.
One of the major pitfalls in doing your divorce yourself is missing things an attorney would pick up on.
A good example of this is extracurricular activities. These are activities like dance, football, soccer, science club, chess club (if your kid is a nerd like I was), skiing lessons, etc.
Divorce attorneys almost always talk about how to share extracurricular activity fees, while do-it-yourself divorcers almostnever talk about them.
If you don’t agree on how to share costs, then you’re asking for fights and resentment for the next however many years. One parent will either not pay, or will sabotage the activity (by not taking the girls to dance, for example). This will cause serious tension between exes, as well as resentment from the kids.
Best advice: talk about how to share costs and include that in your divorce paperwork. You’ll be glad you did.
These have been a few of the most common pitfalls we’ve seen with do-it-yourself Utah divorces. If you’re going through divorce alone, we hope this helps you with the process.
P.S.: If you feel you need an attorney to review your do-it-yourself divorce documents, or you feel you need an attorney to help you with your divorce in general, call Brown Family Law at 801.685.9999.
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