When Yanic Chan and Vanessa Van split up in 1995, they couldn't afford a lawyer. So, like thousands of other people without money, they filled out the divorce paperwork themselves, with help from a friend.
In November 1997, Van went to the Riverside County Courthouse to enter a final judgment. "The clerk put the stamp on it," Van said. "I asked, 'Everything finished?' She said 'Yes.' "
Chan returned to his native Cambodia and married again. Then, in 2006, he tried to bring his new wife to this country. And that's when Van and Chan got a nasty surprise, one that court officials fear could be awaiting thousands of other former California couples: Their divorce had not been finalized.
Driven by rising legal fees, a shortage of legal aid lawyers and a do-it-yourself philosophy, about 80% of people in California handle their own divorces, according to court officials.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Divorces: An article in Section A on Monday about problems with do-it-yourself divorces misstated an attorney's explanation as to why a divorce was not completed for a Riverside couple, Yanic Chan and Vanessa Van. The article reported Chan's lawyer, Faith Nouri, as saying a judge had asked for additional information about child visitation. Rather, Nouri said the divorce was not completed because a family law examiner noted that provisions for child support had not been made. The article also said Nouri did not know how to help her client bring his new wife to this country. Nouri said there is a solution that requires her client to complete a divorce from Van and then remarry his third wife.
Many of them are not quite as divorced as they think they are. Some of them, like Chan, are even accidental bigamists, carrying not only hopes and dreams but also an earlier marriage to their new one.
Tens of thousands of others have some understanding that their divorces are not done. But stumped by complex paperwork and court procedures, and unable to afford thousands of dollars for attorneys, they simply let their cases languish.
Court officials across the state say they suspect the problem is vast. In Los Angeles County, Kathleen Dixon, who heads the Superior Court's programs for self-represented people, estimated that a third or more of all divorce petitions filed in the county in the last several years have not been finalized.
Neither state nor county officials have statistics because they don't monitor cases to make sure they are finished. But the evidence they have worries them.
One L.A. County Superior Court judge, Mark Juhas, found that about a third of the roughly 3,600 divorce cases filed in 2001 and 2002 and assigned to his courtroom remain open. Some of those couples may have reconciled, but Juhas suspects that many more are stuck or may even think they are divorced when they are not.
Bonnie Hough is supervising attorney for the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, a division of the state Judicial Council's Administrative Office of the Courts. She noted a study in Placer County in the 1980s that found that 30% of people there who filed for divorce did not complete the process.
At one legal services center in Van Nuys, officials say they see 20 people a month who incorrectly thought they were divorced.
"They come in screaming," said Norma Valencia, a paralegal at the center operated by Neighborhood Legal Services. "They say, 'You don't understand my situation. I want a divorce right now.' "
Others show up weeping: They've remarried without a finalized divorce, and they're afraid to tell their new spouses.
Many people, Valencia said, think divorce is like a traffic ticket and if they fail to take care of it properly, the court will track them down and notify them.
But it doesn't work like that. In California, getting divorced takes at least three steps: filing divorce papers, serving them on the spouse and then writing and processing a judgment with the court. The process can be more complicated if there are children or fights over assets. A divorce cannot become final until at least six months after the date the papers are served.
Increasingly, across California and the nation, people are handling their own civil court matters. In San Diego County, one of the few counties where statistics are available, 46% of people represented themselves in divorces in 1992; by 2000 that figure had climbed to 77%.
One reason: increasing fees for lawyers combined with decreasing legal aid services for poor people, said Richard Zorza, who coordinates a national network of organizations working on self-representation.
Also a factor, he said, is a "Home Depot philosophy of people feeling they can do things on their own." But the legal system wasn't organized with a do-it-yourself approach. It's meant to be navigated by lawyers. And people without legal training often make mistakes.
"People just don't get it done. They don't know how to get it done," said Juhas, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge. "That's troubling. There are legal ramifications to continuing to be married."
Juhas said the problem was brought home to him a few years ago, when two people appeared in his courtroom on a routine matter. They had filed for a divorce a few years earlier, and both had since remarried. Juhas said he looked down at their file and then back up at the couple. "I said, 'Do you realize your judgment was never entered?' "
In plain English, that meant they weren't divorced. Luckily for the couple -- and their new spouses -- Juhas finalized their divorce without invalidating their new marriages.
But it got him thinking: What about the thousands of other people whose files remain open?