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While filing legal documents electronically has been commonplace in the federal courts for several years, it has been slow to spread to the state court system, particularly for family law cases like divorce. While larger cities have gotten onboard, in most of the U.S., filing for divorce means what it always has--making multiple copies of documents and filing them in person or by mail with the Court Clerk's office. That being said, it's very likely that within the next five years we'll see paper filings largely replaced by e-filing.
It's important to note the difference between mandatory and optional e-filing. So far, in jurisdictions where e-filing is available in divorces cases, it's only mandatory for attorneys. In other words, if you don't have an attorney, in most places you can choose whether to e-file. Noteworthy exceptions are the state of Iowa, which requires all divorce cases statewide to be e-filed, regardless of whether you are represented by an attorney, and also DeKalb and Fulton counties in Georgia. In DeKalb County and Fulton County, if you don't have access to a computer, you can use the Public Access Terminals available at the Court Clerk's office to scan in documents for e-filing.
Growing the list of jurisdictions requiring pro se divorce filers to file electronically is Illinois where e-filing becomes mandatory in all divorce cases starting January 1, 2018.
Generally, five to ten separate documents need to be filed to get an uncontested divorce. Additionally, a minimum of three copies of each of those documents--one for the Court's file, one for you and one for your spouse--must also be filed. Depending on the county and/or whether the parties have minor children together, additional copies may be required. When you file for divorce electronically, however, the need for multiple copies of documents is eliminated.
Less paper isn't just good for the environment, it's crucial to save our courthouses. After so many years of warehousing case files, our courthouses are literally buckling under the weight of them. Courthouses across the county complain about sagging floors due to rooms filled with files.
With traditional paper filings, if you need copies of documents from your file, you have to request them by mail or in person at the Court Clerk's office, and pay a per page fee for the photocopies. When documents are e-filed, however, you have immediate access to all documents filed in your case day or night, free of charge.
Some pro se filers find interacting with the Court Clerk's office intimidating. With e-filing, you bypass direct interaction with the Court Clerk's office and eliminate the possibility for unpleasant interactions with busy and sometimes impatient office staff members. In most states, the case number is assigned after the Court Clerk reviews and accepts your filings, which means e-filing submitted after office hours will need to wait until the next business day.
Registering for an e-filing account is just like registering for any online account. You create an account by selecting a username and password. You will also need to provide an e-mail address and basic contact information. Depending on the state and county, you may receive a confirmation e-mail containing a link you will need to click on in order to activate your account before you start the filing process. You will use this account throughout the divorce process to file all of your documents. It can even be used to file documents for your spouse.
In a state like Iowa, for example, every filer in the state registers for an account through the same Electronic Document Management System, or EDMS, located here. In comparison, when e-filing in Texas and in Illinois, filers may choose from several electronic service providers.
When you use an online divorce product like DivorceWriter, you can receive a copy of your documents via e-mail. This means that instead of having to scan and save each divorce document into an electronic format, you will receive them that way--no scanner needed. It also means that you can type in the date and an electronic signature on your documents (ex. /s/ Jane Doe) instead of having to manually sign them, unless a hand-signature is required in your county. If your jurisdiction's e-filing system requires PDF format, you can easily convert .doc/.docx files to PDFs by clicking "save as" when you have the document open in Microsoft Word. Then, below "file name," click on "save as type." Select "PDF" and click "save." You will need to do this for each document you are filing, if applicable.
Once you have a registered for an e-filing account in your jurisdiction and have your documents signed and in the proper format, you will need to log in to the e-filing system to begin your filing. The exact steps vary depending on the state and even possibly the county of filing. If you are opening a new divorce case, the selections will likely be somewhat different than when you are filing documents in later steps of the process. For the most part though, the selections should be straight-forward. If you encounter problems, the e-filing provider in your jurisdiction offers free tech support.
In most states, before the e-filing process is complete, you will need to pay the filing fee with a credit or debit card. If you are unable to pay the filing fee due to financial hardship, the e-filing services have information on how to e-file your divorce if a fee waiver is granted. In addition to the filing fee that is required whenever a new divorce case is filed, the county, state or e-filing service provider may also assess certain fees. A brief explanation of any fee charged will be explained on the e-filing service providers website before you submit your documents for filing.
You will have to serve your spouse with divorce papers in whatever manner is required in your state. In almost all states, uncontested divorces with a cooperative Respondent/Defendant allow the Petitioner/Plaintiff to avoid formal service of divorce papers when the Respondent/Defendant signs a waiver/acceptance of service form. In a few states though, formal service by the sheriff's office or a process service server is still required. The filing instructions that you received with your divorce document package will explain the service requirements for your state.
Since the Petitioner/Plaintiff spouse has already set up an e-filing account, it may be easier for the Plaintiff/Petitioner to handle the e-filing of any of Defendant/Respondent's documents as well. Both parties receive notice of all filings in the divorce case through the court's online filing system.
If you live in a county that doesn't currently offer e-filing, your only option is to file by mail or in person at the Court Clerk's office. If you do live in an area that offers e-filing, whether it's the right choice for you depends on how comfortable you are with things like registering for an account and uploading documents. If you live in one of the growing number of jurisdictions that requires pro se divorce to be e-filed, DivorceWriter provides detailed instructions for e-filing as part of your DivorceWriter purchase.