Filing legal documents by mail, which is an option in all states, is often overlooked by divorce filers. Because of courthouse closures and social distancing practices, most states are encouraging filing by mail or e-filing. Even in counties that have temporarily stopped processing non-emergency filings like divorces until stay-at-home orders are lifted, filing now means your paperwork will already be in line when processing begins again in the coming weeks. This is especially important since the divorce rate is expected to surge in the U.S. after quarantine and a backlog is sure to follow.
When you file for divorce by mail, you will need to send the original of each document for the court's file plus two copies (one for each spouse). In a few states, you may need to send additional copies of certain pleadings like the divorce petition when minor children are involved. With other documents like civil coversheets, vital statistics forms, and forms containing certain confidential information, you only need to send the original without any copies. When organizing your documents for mailing, keep the original of each document with its copies. If you have conflicting information about the number of copies required, remember that it is better to send too many rather than too few.
The cover letter tells the court clerk everything you have inside the envelope--the name of each document being filed, the number of copies included, the amount of the filing fee enclosed, and what you would like done with the paperwork--i.e. file them and return the file-stamped copies to you. In a few states, all documents are filed at once, but in most states filing divorce paperwork is a two or three-step process. Include a filing cover letter every time you mail in paperwork to be filed. Your documents should be organized in the same order as they are listed on the filing cover letter, and the cover letter should be on top so it is the first thing the court clerk sees. Although the number of documents being filed varies by state, in most states a 9 x 12 envelope will be the right size.
Seventeen states plus D.C. have the same filing fee statewide: AK ($150), CA ($435, $450 Riverside and San Francisco counties), CO ($230), CT ($360 plus $50 marshal fee), DC ($120), ID ($207), IA ($185), ME ($120), MD ($165), MA ($200), NE ($158), NJ ($300), NY ($210), ND ($80), RI ($160), SC ($150), SD ($95), and WA ($314). The filing fees in the 32 other states varies from county to county. More information on filing fees by state is available here. All courthouses accept cashier’s checks and money orders. Many, though not all, accept personal checks so if you need to use one, call the court clerk to confirm that is an acceptable method of payment.
The court clerk will keep the original paperwork and then return the remaining copies to you. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope with adequate postage to accommodate the return of both sets of copies to you to make it easier for the court clerk. Once you receive your file-stamped copies, serve the other copy on your spouse in the manner required in your state.
E-filing had advantages over filing by mail, namely e-filing is faster, does not require multiple copies of documents, and carries no risk of virus transmission. That being said, while the federal court system has had mandatory e-filing for 15 years, the state courts continue to lag behind. As of April 2020, only these states allow you to open a new divorce case using e-filing: CA (16 counties), CT, FL, GA, IL (mandatory), IA (mandatory), IN, MD, MI (Oakland and Washtenaw only), NV (Clark only), NY (51 counties), OR, RI, TX, VT, WA, and WI. Other states may offer e-filing, but not in divorce cases, or may offer e-filing in divorce cases, but only once the case has been filed with the court clerk's office. Learn more about e-filing your divorce papers here.
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