Why crowdfunding your divorce is becoming more popular
Stacey Schnaitman pushed herself as far back into the corner of her L-shaped couch as she could and stared at the little hallway that led to the master bedroom.
The couch of their Geneva home was her refuge anytime she had an argument with her husband, James. She’d slept there for the last three weeks and had finally reached the point where she’d had enough.
Her husband had at least 15 criminal convictions, including four domestic batteries and two violations of protection orders. Stacey felt terror every time he raised his voice. She was ready for a better life for her and her four children.
It would be neither easy nor cheap. The most affordable attorney cost $3,000.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” Schnaitman said. “It would take me forever to save that money up.”
That’s when an idea formed. She’d recently heard of a friend’s family using online crowdfunding to pay for a funeral. Through gofundme.com, a mix of friends and strangers donated money toward the expense.
Schnaitman was hesitant to air her dirty laundry, but she decided whatever grief could come would be worth the reward. She created her own page.
One month in, she’d collected $915 for her cause.
“I honestly thought I wasn’t going to get a single dollar,” Schnaitman said. “I mean, who am I to ask for someone to pay for my divorce? But now people have started sharing the link without me even asking.”
Schnaitman wasn’t the first person to turn to strangers on the Internet for help with her legal fees. With huge demand for free family law help and fewer attorneys willing to provide it, experts and at least one new company believe she’ll be far from the last.
In a criminal case, the law provides people with an attorney if they can’t afford one. That doesn’t happen in civil trials.
Divorce, child custody, unemployment claims, evictions and similar cases are a large part of the justice system’s backbone. In 2013, Illinois circuit court judges tackled nearly 688,000 civil cases; at the same time, more than 650,000 new civil cases were filed.
Local experts say only about one in six Illinois residents gets the help he or she seeks from the various free or low-cost legal services. More people than ever are flooding local courtrooms trying to represent themselves. They almost always lose.
There are two main resources for low-income residents to find legal assistance in the area.
Elgin-based Administer Justice, a faith-based nonprofit, provided help to nearly 4,000 clients last year. Only 7 percent of those clients received help from a lawyer in the actual courtroom.
Not all of them needed it. An amicable divorce, with no property or children involved, can be tackled with little to no legal coaching. But for anything more difficult, Executive Director Eric Nelson said, you really should have a lawyer.
“There really isn’t equal access to justice in many cases,” Nelson said. “If we’re saying represent yourself, be your own lawyer, that’s just not equal justice. We don’t say to people be your own doctor.”
One barrier to legal help is recognizing you need it. Studies show fewer than 25 percent of people with a civil case seek help from a lawyer.
Many people don’t know a landlord can’t just throw them onto the street at a moment’s notice. Or they don’t know they have the right to appeal a denial of unemployment benefits.
Much of the government-funded legal aid services require recipients to have incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s a little less than $30,000 a year for a family of four. For an individual, that’s an income of less than $15,000.
If you’re poor, but not that poor, it’s tough to have a lawyer by your side in a civil case because there’s virtually no aid available for those above the income limits.
Prairie State Legal Services is the second, and larger, legal aid provider for suburban residents. Executive Director Mike O’Connor said he knows the legal outcomes for the five out of six people who qualify for help but still can’t be paired with a courtroom lawyer are grim.
“All the how-to information is not going to take the place of an attorney,” O’Connor said. “The entire court system has been predicated on the idea that people are going to walk into a courtroom with a lawyer. But the number of times where one or both parties are pro se has just become staggering now. It’s bringing the court system to its knees.”
Oddly, having the other side show up without an attorney as well may represent the best chance someone without a lawyer has of winning a civil case, O’Connor said.
“Otherwise, if one guy knows the rules of the game, and you don’t, are you going to win? No.”
Cons of pro bono
Securing a lawyer who knows those rules to provide pro bono legal aid is increasingly difficult.
In 2014, 30,213 Illinois attorneys provided free services, according to a reportby the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. That number represents only one-third of all the lawyers in Illinois.
It was a 1.7 percent decrease in pro bono work compared to 2013. The number of hours of pro bono service provided by those lawyers also decreased by 3.2 percent in 2014, part of a 12.8 percent overall decrease since 2010.
A further difficulty, O’Connor said, is only about 10 percent of attorneys practice a form of law that requires them to regularly enter a courtroom. Legal expertise in Medicaid, evictions and foreclosures isn’t prevalent because people who need help in those areas generally can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
Many lawyers who have courtroom savvy simply can’t afford to give their services away, O’Connor said.
“What it means to be a lawyer is really changing,” he said. “Go back 50 years, and the lawyers and doctors were the wealthy people in any community. But that’s not necessarily true today because now there’s a glut of lawyers.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has taken some recent steps to ease all these difficulties. It has lowered the amount of schooling law students need before they can provide heavily supervised legal assistance. And it has undertaken a massive effort to standardize the most common legal forms, which are typically different in each of Illinois’ 102 counties.
Standardization will make how-to efforts, like the new Illinois Legal Aid Online website, more effective.
But now people needing legal help can turn to a new kind of website tailored to help them actually pay for a lawyer.
Social media justice
Chicago-based Funded Justice launched in December. The website uses online fundraising principles similar to GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
The unique angle is the site’s sole focus on people raising money for legal fees.
Chief Operating Officer Alan Savage said the idea for the site spawned from a group of lawyers who frequently saw prospective clients come in with good, winnable cases but no money to hire them.
“They realized those people weren’t going to have their day in court because the free resources are just inundated,” Savage said. “Those people weren’t going to have justice.”
Savage and his team work with the people launching their legal fee fundraising campaigns to spruce up the message so it tells a clear story that shows a need even strangers could support. Then the team combines the existing social media presence of the campaigner with its own resources to launch strategically timed appeals with enough reach to attain trending status on various social networks.
The company’s cut of the funds raised ranges from 5 percent to 8 percent, depending on whether it’s an all-or-nothing goal or a fund-as-you-go campaign.
“We are a resource for someone in a situation who has no other help,” Savage said. “We believe we are truly disrupting the justice process by using social media for social justice. The world would be a very different place if everyone had equal access to justice.”
That’s all Stacey Schnaitman wants. Her husband is innocent of the most recent criminal charges of felony domestic battery until proven guilty.
If he goes to prison, she’ll feel safe. No matter what, their marriage is over. And she doesn’t need to wait for the resolution of the criminal trial to get a divorce — if she can pay for it.
Deciding to leave was hard. She’s hoping following through on her decision doesn’t take as long.
“You’re so beaten down that you’re afraid to leave,” Schnaitman said.
“I want the good part of my life back. I know what I’m doing is the absolute best thing for my children and myself. It has to end.”