A sign in the window of a small storefront on Wilshire Boulevard caught my eye: “Divorce: $399.” I’d seen these drop-in divorce shops in Manhattan, generally depressing hole-in-the-wall places, usually under scaffolding. But the Santa Monica office of The Document People was on a street lined with palm trees, across from a Whole Foods. How unsavory could it be? The price certainly sounded fiscally healthy.
Inside the spare office, the atmosphere felt benignly impersonal. It smelled like take-out Chinese food the two employees were having for lunch. Michael Jackson’s “PYT” played on a boom box. It resembled an H&R Block. There was an H&R Block two doors down.
Can you really get divorced for under $400? Yes, said Petra, a thirty-something paralegal and notary from Guatemala with a sweet, calm manner, short blond hair tucked behind her ears, and a green health shake sitting on her desk. Though since we have a child, we'd have to spend about $200 more. "More forms," Petra explained. Plus we'd have to pay California's filing fee.
The Document People is a group of privately-owned stores in California staffed by paralegals or Legal Document Assistants—people who have been trained in asking questions, filling out and filing legal forms. A storefront divorce can be a good choice if you're not fighting over who gets what. It doesn’t make the decisions any easier—you still have to figure out a separation agreement and parenting plan—but it lets you do that work yourself and leave the onerous task of filing to someone else. Filling out forms can make the calmest among us want to throw a temper tantrum. (Is that just me? Am I alone here in finding myself coming undone in the face of legal forms?)
The possibility of doing it yourself, or mostly yourself, is one reason that divorce can be so much better today than in the past. If you don't feel comfortable filing your divorce in strip mall next to a nail salon, there are other options. You can find child- and spousal-support guidelines online, download reams of advice from law firms, get emotional support from bloggers with names like The Divorce Diva. County courts have changed too, increasingly offering staffed self-help centers to guide you through the process. In many places, you can find lawyers willing to work in an “unbundled way”—offering advice and education on an hourly bases—saving you tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, an economizing that can ease anxiety.
I’d thought of these storefront divorce stores as paltry options, designed for the desperate. But Petra said she sees rich and poor. The common denominator among clients is a lack of desire to fight.
“When people come here, they really need help. It’s a service. It’s a very fulfilling job. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve made a difference.”
One caveat about doing it yourself: Resources often go to those who are fighting. You don’t want your good will to prevent you from accessing help that would be handed to a couple embroiled in fighting. If you go it alone, you still might benefit from a parenting class for divorcing families, from meeting with a financial planner, or from enrolling your children in an afternoon workshop. The support is out there. It's up to us to find it.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.