Like many couples who decide to divorce, Carol and Larry were concerned about the time and cost that would be involved in the process. Married for 13 years with no children, both spouses had full-time jobs, separate retirement accounts, and owned a home together. The split had been mutual and both had already begun dating.
As they looked around at their divorce options, Larry found an interesting ad on Craigslist that promised a legal New Jersey divorce for the flat rate cost of $399. According to the ad, the divorce would be “facilitated” by a local paralegal and was completely legitimate and binding. The website linked to from the ad even showed photos of divorce decrees signed off by a Superior Court Judge.
Move on with their lives for the low cost of a few hundred dollars? Larry and Carol felt like the fates were smiling on them.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Showing up at the paralegal’s office, which was actually the storefront of a local copy shop, Larry inquired about the divorce special. In return, the owner of the shop, who identified herself as a paralegal, handed Larry over a file folder of photocopied forms and asked for payment up front. Larry handed over his credit card, feeling like he was getting the bargain of the century.
After his payment was processed, he asked when he and Carol would meet again with the paralegal to start going over their finances and begin negotiations, as he had read about when studying up on divorce.
The woman hesitated slightly before telling Larry to go through everything in the folder first and then get back to him with any questions.
“Everything you need is here,” she explained, “You will see, you can figure it out. When you bring me back the completed packet, I will give you your decree. It’s all completely valid. This is just how paralegals work.”
Another customer was waiting to pick up his copy order, so Larry left, feeling not quite sure about what he was getting into, but the woman was a paralegal and she owned her own store. It’s not like she was going to disappear in the middle of the night.
Larry and Carol met the next day to start working through the pile of papers. What they found were divorce and asset worksheets printed off the NJ Judiciary’s website. There were a lot of forms to fill out and Carol poured a glass of wine to stop from feeling so overwhelmed, and then poured a few more as the process went on. Larry joined her.
When they got to the end of the folder, there was another sheet, this one printed by the shop owner, asking them to list their final settlement agreement.
Feeling very relaxed and keeping with their “we just want this over without the drama” attitude, Carol and Larry agreed to an even 50-50 split of all marital assets and debts, including their $25,000 in credit card debt and the money they would make from selling their house.
Both signed the paper with a flourish. The next day, Larry brought the signed agreement and forms to the paralegal.
Larry watched as she quickly rifled through the packet, finally stopping when she reached the settlement paper.
“Ah, wonderful,” she said. “See? I knew you were an intelligent man who could figure this out. Your ex-wife signed, too. Excellent. Wait here one minute. You are almost done.”
Disappearing into the backroom, the shop owner reemerged a few moments later with two formal divorce decrees signed by a Superior Court Judge. Included in the official documents were the settlement terms Larry and Carol had agreed upon.
“Congratulations! You are now divorced. Make sure your ex-wife gets a copy of her settlement. That’s it!” The shop owner smiled and then told Larry she needed to take an incoming call on her cell phone.
Larry couldn’t believe how easy that was. He did feel a bit of hesitation wondering why the paralegal didn’t check their worksheets more closely or really examine the settlement terms, but on the other hand, he felt good about the settlement and wine or no wine, Carol had agreed to it and signed.
He finally just shook his head and thought, I guess this is what it feels like to be lucky! Larry had a date that night with his new girlfriend, so he swung by the old house, gave the divorce decree to a very surprised Carol, then went back to his apartment to get ready, finally a free man.
Three months later, Larry was still feeling lucky when his girlfriend Joellen agreed to marry him. They wed in a quickie ceremony in Vegas, followed by a honeymoon partly paid for with the proceeds from the sale of his old home.
Carol, meanwhile, had sobered up since last awful months of her marriage when Larry’s cheating had driven her over the edge and made her want out of the marriage as much as he did. She had been too proud to admit how much he hurt her and so had agreed to his declaration that their divorce be “drama-free.”
Little by little, however, Carol was waking up to problems with their divorce. They had agreed to split the credit card debt 50/50, but then Carol came across some of their old credit card statements and realized that Larry had been making most of the purchases, some of which were for gambling. Why should she be responsible for any of that? At minimum, Larry should be paying for more than half.
Then there was the issue of alimony. With the house sold for much less than expected, Carol was suddenly feeling very insecure about her finances. She was living in a modest apartment, but ultimately, she was paying more in rent than she had paying a mortgage, without the tax benefits or equity accrual. Would the fact that she made less than Larry help her get a judge to go back and change her divorce settlement to grant her alimony?
There was only one way to find out. Carol made an appointment to see an attorney. She brought the divorce settlement papers with her and explained her situation to the attorney. Carol learned that she could go back to court, but that it would be costly — ironically, much more costly and time-consuming than had she gone to court during the divorce itself.
But, as it turned out, there was a much bigger problem with her divorce.
Carol’s attorney called her the day after their meeting with some unexpected news.
“Are you sitting down? I just did some checking into your divorce papers because they contained so many mistakes. I’m sorry to tell you this Carol, but your divorce decree is a fake. There is no divorce on record for you with the state and I just had someone at the Superior Court verify that the judge’s signature on your papers is forged. There is also no paralegal in the state with the name of the one you gave me. You have been scammed, Carol. You and Larry are still married.”
Carol was stunned. She felt panic course through her body.
“Carol, I won’t sugar coat it, this is a bad situation,” the attorney continued. “We will need to start the divorce from scratch. However, there is one small silver lining you can feel good about. At least you didn’t get married again.”
“Why is that a silver lining?” Carol whispered into the phone, thinking of the photos she had just seen on Facebook of Larry’s new bride.
“Because,” her attorney continued, “getting married again without divorcing first is considered bigamy, which is a punishable crime in New Jersey.”
Carol told the attorney she would be in the next day to see her to start figuring things out.
Once they got off the phone, she punched in the numbers of Larry’s cell.
“Larry, you’ll never believe what I am about to tell you…” she began when he picked up.
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