Unlike the federal courts, which implemented e-filing over a decade ago, state courts have been slow to get on board, particularly in family law cases like divorce. Even in Los Angeles County, with a population of more than 10 million, you can't e-file a new divorce case. In much of the U.S., filing for divorce still requires you to file hard copies of documents (usually in triplicate) in person or by mail at the Court Clerk's office. That being said, social distancing practices because of COVID-19 are forcing many state courts to prioritize the implementation and expansion of e-filing until it includes all case types.
It's important to note the difference between mandatory and optional e-filing. With the exception of Illinois and Iowa, when e-filing is available, it is only mandatory for attorneys, so people filing for divorce without a lawyer can either e-file or do a traditional paper filing. It's also important to keep in mind that just because your state or county website says e-filing is available, that doesn't automatically mean you can use it to open a new divorce case. Nationwide, e-filing rollout schedules tend to be broken into groups by counties and case type, so depending on the state, not all counties offer all case types.
As the table below illustrates, you can use e-filing to get a divorce (start to finish) in about half of the states. Unless otherwise indicated below, in those states e-filing is optional for people filing without an attorney. In Illinois and Iowa, all divorces must be e-filed, regardless of whether you have an attorney.
|State||Can I e-file my divorce case?|
(existing cases only)
Merced (Los Banos)
San Mateo (Redwood City)
Santa Barbara (Lompoc)
SLO (Paso Robles)
SLO (San Luis Obispo)
|Maryland||Yes, except Montgomery and PG|
|Massachusetts||No (contested 1B divorce only)|
(*existing cases only)
Odyssey by Tyler Technologies is the most commonly used e-filing system in state courts across the U.S. It's already being used in 15 states, although in many of those e-filing isn't available for starting new divorce cases without an attorney. Odyssey can be used to file for divorce without a lawyer in all of Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Texas. Odyssey is also available for divorce in at least some counties in Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana and Nevada (Clark only). The following states use the Odyssey e-filing system, but have not yet made it available for people filing for divorce without an attorney: Idaho, Massachussets, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico.
E-flex by Tybera is used in six states (Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, Iowa, North Carolina and Utah), but only in Iowa can it be used for e-filing pro se divorce cases.
The eight Michigan counties that offer e-filing in pro se divorce cases use MiEfile powered by TrueFiling. However, with exception of Oakland and Washtenaw counties, you can only e-file documents in existing cases, but cannot open a new divorce case by e-filing. Alaska also uses TrueFiling, but divorce cases without attorneys cannot be e-filed there at this time.
Hawaii and Virginia state courts use the Judiciary Electronic Filing and Service System, or JEFS, but neither state currently allows you to e-file a divorce without a lawyer.
Depending on the state, five to ten documents will need to be filed to get an uncontested divorce by agreement. Then, you'll need a minimum of three copies of each of those documents--one for the Court's file, one for you and one for your spouse. In a couple of states, if you have minor children together, certain counties require a copy for the prosecuting attorney for child support. With electronic filing, sometimes nothing has to be printed at all since electronic signaturees can be typed instead of handwritten. Note: If a document requires notarization, you'll need to sign a hardcopy of the document at the Notary Public's office. Besides the environmental benefits, our courthouses have reached capacity for file storage and are having to get additional space to warehouse court 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, you have immediate access to all documents filed in your case at any time 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. Usually after-hour filings will not be reviewed and accepted until the next business day.
Another advantage of e-filing is that if there is any problem with a document, the court clerk will send you an e-mail detailing what needs to be changed. When documents are filed in person, on the hand, the filing clerk usually gives very little information on what to do next. In comparison, if there's a problem with divorce papers filed by mail, the court clerk will usually mail a written rejection notice to the filer. Because of this, if you aren't e-filing, filing by mail may be the second best option.
The procedure for registering varies depending on the e-filing system used in your jurisdiction, but all require the filer to create an account by choosing a username and password, and providing an e-mail address and basic contact information. Depending on the state and county, you may then receive a confirmation e-mail with a link to click to activate your account before you can start the filing process. You will use your e-filing account throughout the divorce process to file documents and access your case. It can also be used to file documents signed by your spouse.
All e-filing systems accept documents filed as PDFs. Some will also allow you to file Word documents. Most DivorceWriter documents are in Word format because it allows documents to be edited before filing, if needed, and to type in electronic signatures (ex. /s/ Jane Doe) instead of having to manually sign documents. Detailed information on preparing documents for e-filing is available here.
Once you have 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. Before the e-filing process is complete, you will need to pay the filing fee with a credit or debit card, unless you are unable to pay the filing fee due to financial hardship and are also filing a fee waiver. In addition to the filing fee that is charged by the Court Clerk whenever a new divorce case is filed, the e-filing service provider may also assess a small fee. A brief explanation of any fee charged will be shown before you submit your documents for filing.
Even though you can e-file documents, electronic service of documents is not usually allowed on parties who aren't represented by attorneys. This doesn't cause a problem with uncontested divorce since most states allow the responding spouse to waive or acknowledge formal service. In a few states though, formal service by the sheriff's office or a process service server is still required and cannot be substituted with e-service on a pro se party.
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. That being said, responding spouses are entitled to register for their own e-filing accounts and e-file their own documents as long as they follow the instructions..
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