Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)
314.727.4880

Free Assistance in St. Louis County For Do-It-Yourself Divorces Without Lawyers

Although I’m a lawyer, I know there is a growing population interested in handling legal matters without an attorney. The primary motivation is financial. Some simply can’t afford one, while others who can like the challenge of doing things on their own to save a buck or two.

 

I must admit, though, some people just don’t like lawyers, believing we overcharge and make situations more complicated or contentious to justify a higher fee. Unfortunately, it only takes a few high profile, unscrupulous lawyers to create an unfavorable impression that the rest of us have to overcome.

 

The result is more litigants showing up in court representing themselves and this is particularly true in the area of divorce. Often, they turn to the Internet for mass-produced forms and assistance from “legal document specialists” that promise to make it easy for them to obtain a divorce without an attorney, at a price of a few hundred dollars.

 

However, if they are filing in St. Louis County, they are paying for forms and assistance that is provided free through the Legal Resource Center on the first floor of the county courthouse, which was set up to serve those representing themselves in various court matters. (The forms are also available online at www.stlouisco.com/circuitcourt/forms.html) Its staff includes a clerk and an attorney focused primarily on divorce-related cases. They provide the “self-represented” with all the forms they will need to file and complete their divorce as well as assistance in completing the forms, although they cannot and will not provide legal advice.

 

The county is the only Missouri jurisdiction to offer this service and to learn more I turned to Judge Dennis N. Smith, who presides over the “pro se docket” (i.e. for the self-represented) of the county’s Family Court. According to Judge Smith, this docket (i.e. the listing of the cases for the day) is held 3 to 4 times a month and typically hears about 50 cases a month.

 

Judge Smith emphasizes that the pro se docket and the Legal Resource Center is designed for litigants with uncontested divorces where neither party is represented by an attorney and cases where there are not complicated custody, support or property issues. “Pro se litigants have very little animosity toward each other,” says Judge Smith “but if one of the parties hires an attorney then we kick the case off the docket.”

 

“Most people think it’s a simple process, but it's not” warns the judge. “If they have kids, they need a parenting plan. I always recommend that people see a lawyer. In fact, instead of spending the money for forms and assistance from the Internet, they should hire an attorney to help them prepare the forms we offer.”

 

“Typically, we provide 100 to 150 (form) packets a month, but only get about 50 back (completed).”

 

According to Judge Smith, the risks of going unrepresented is that people don’t know their rights or that they will make errors that will come back to haunt them, such as not listing all their property and debt on the forms. Since it’s not listed, the court can’t divide it. “If you don’t list a house, you may not be able to sell it in the future. If you have a pension, but don’t list it, your ex-spouse could come back and try to get all of it”, says Smith.

 

One thing Judge Smith is most careful about is if one party seems to dominate the other, or has much greater income, such that this party can take advantage of the other. “I’m the gatekeeper”, says the judge, “and I try to catch the patently unfair situation, but I can’t always. A good lawyer will catch these all the time.”