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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. With limited exceptions, 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 ten years we'll see paper filings almost, if not entirely, replaced by online filing.
It's important to note the difference between mandatory and optional e-filing. When a state or county makes e-filing available in divorces cases, it's optional if you don't have an attorney. Mandatory filing is traditionally only required for attorneys. Currently, the only exception is Iowa, which requires e-filing statewide for attorneys and pro se litigants alike.
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.
With traditional paper filings, you have to request copies of documents from your file by mail or in person at the Court Clerk's office, if you lose your copies. In addition to the hassle of obtaining documents this way, there is generally a per page fee for photocopies. When documents are e-filed, you have immediate access to all documents filed in your case day or night, free of charge.
While the job of the court clerk's office is to accept and process legal documents and collect filing fees, all too often they overstep that role and appoint themselves the reviewer of your documents. They often give unsolicited advice that either doesn't apply or confuses pro se filers. With e-filing, you bypass interaction with the court clerk's office and eliminate the possibility for unpleasant interactions with busy and sometimes impatient office staff members. Your documents are automatically accepted for filing and a case number is immediately issued. Should the judge determine that there are problems with your documents later, you will be notified that changes are needed.
Registering for an e-filing account is just like registering for any online account. You will need to create an account by selecting a username and password. You will also need to provide an e-mail address and possibly 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. 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, in Texas where e-filing is optional if you don't have an attorney, the filer first must select from a list of several e-filing providers. Selecting a provider is complicated by the number and varying features of each. Some providers, for example, charge a per filing or per page fee and some don't allow for the filing of divorces with minor children. These complications may explain why e-filing is currently only mandatory for attorneys and why most pro se Texas divorce filers don't e-file.
When you use an online do-it-yourself divorce product like DivorceWriter, you can receive a copy of your documents via e-mail in a format. 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.
Depending on the county, you may be able to file your documents in Microsoft Word. If, however, your county's e-filing system requires a PDF format, you can easily convert the file by clicking "save as" when you have it open in 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.
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 and begin your filing. Obviously, 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 are relatively straight-forward. If you encounter problems, the e-filing provider in your jurisdiction will offer online tech support that you can contact with questions.
In most states, before the e-filing process is complete, you will need to pay the filing fee with a credit or debit card. In addition to the filing fee that is required whenever a new divorce case is filed, some states may charge an extra fee to e-file, although this fee should not exceed $20.00 and may be as low as just a few dollars.
Generally, 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 document acknowledging, accepting or waiving service. In some states, formal service is still required. The filing instructions that you received with your divorce document package will explain the service requirements for your state.
Usually, at least one document will need to be signed by the Respondent/Defendant. Since the Petitioner/Plaintiff spouse has already set up an e-filing account, it's usually easier for the Plaintiff/Petitioner to handle the e-filing of those documents as well. With subsequent documents, after the divorce is filed, there's no need to serve them or file a Certificate of Service when the court has a valid e-mail address for the Respondent/Defendant because those documents are served electronically as well by 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 have confidence in your ability to do these things and if you will be comfortable contacting technical support if you encounter problems, e-filing is probably a good choice since there are so many benefits. If not, traditional paper filing is probably the best choice for your divorce case.