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Legal firms see rise in demand for 'repairs' to DIY divorce agreements

HALIFAX — Of all the cases Brian Galbraith has worked on over the years, one that still sticks with him involves a client who divorced his wife using a documents they completed themselves.

HALIFAX — Of all the cases Brian Galbraith has worked on over the years, one that still sticks with him involves a client who divorced his wife using a documents they completed themselves.

The owner of Ontario-based Galbraith Family Law said the “do-it-yourself divorce” agreement was favourable to his client. However, when it was challenged by his client's ex-wife a few years later, a judge ruled the documents "weren't worth the paper they were printed on." 

“He tried to save a few dollars at the front end by doing it himself and ended up costing himself a lot,” Galbraith said.

Experts in family law say that as anecdotal evidence suggests a spike in divorces amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the complex nature of the process means it's often worth hiring proper legal representation at the start in order to prevent a costly, drawn out affair.

DIY options such as like Untie the Knot offer couples access to an uncontested divorce "without the high cost of a lawyer." For $899 (or $499 if you file your own documents) the service claims to guarantee 100 per cent court approval.

According to Diana Isaac, a partner at Toronto-based family law firm Shulman & Partners, the issue isn’t so much signing a template divorce agreement as it is what could come up in the aftermath.

The firm has seen a spike in interest during the pandemic, she said. From June 2019 to June 2020, Shulman and Partners reported a 19-per-cent jump in new clients, including people looking to challenge a DIY divorce.

“These are usually issues that have to go to a trial and going to a trial is very, very expensive,” Isaac said in an interview. “At times, it could cost six figures."

Galbraith said his firm has also reported an increase in clients — numbers are up 30 per cent since last year.

And like Isaac, Galbraith said the firm has been doing more “repairing” as well.

“My guess would be that doing repairs to an agreement that was done improperly would be many times more expensive than doing it properly the first time,” he said.

Along with having to pour more money into the divorce, Isaac spoke about the heightened emotional toll that revisiting divorce settlements can have on clients.

“I look at these people and say, ‘Well, had you come to us in the first instance, it would have been a lot more cost effective’, and there's no assurance that you'll be successful in setting it aside or not.”

In general, most cases the firm sees concerning DIY divorces involve clauses that may have been excluded from the initial agreements, like settlements on property, spousal support obligations and child care, Isaac said.

Challenging a divorce agreement starts with a cost-benefit analysis, she said, and if the benefits don’t outweigh the time, effort and funds required to take the matter to court, clients may find themselves stuck with a bad deal.

“You don’t want to pay $10,000 (just) to get $11,000,” she said.

Lawyers also need to consider the unique qualities of each case, including figuring out whether one of the parties in the divorce was under duress or if both parties were fully aware of the other’s assets at the time the divorce was finalized.

“No two cases are alike. The area of family law is so factually contingent, so a lot of this is looking at the parties' circumstances, the family dynamics and tailoring a resolution,” she said.

The increase in DIY divorces may be connected to an overall increase in divorce rates during the pandemic, said Rachel Margolis, a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

Margolis, who studies how family dynamics shape population change over time, said in an interview that while there aren’t recent numbers on divorce rates in Canada, she expects there could be an increase in separations in the coming years based on data from previous economic recessions.

“During recessions, generally divorce declines because people don't have the money to get divorced,” Margolis said. “During the pandemic … I think for a lot of (people), there's been a lot of sort of reorientation of what people value.”

“My general sense is that the pandemic and everyone being at home will increase the speed of divorces that were going to happen anyway,” Margolis added.

Both Galbraith and Isaac said they recommend couples seek legal advice from experts if they are planning to end their marriage and avoid templates and other DIY services.

“Nobody wants to draw out their matter. No one wants to go to court," said Isaac.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 1, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

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