Twelve times over five years, Yazmin Cruz and Marcio Hernandez went to court to try to make their uncontested divorce happen. Twelve times, their paperwork got caught in a snag, and to their great consternation, kept their marriage intact.
Last week, they were back in Sacramento's William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse, for the 13th time. Once again, something came up: a child support issue. But this time, they would not leave the building in frustration. This time, they had signed up for the Sacramento Superior Court's new one-day divorce program.
With the aid of Lincoln Law School student Gabriel Campos, who helped them through the paperwork, and Judge Pro Tem Cheri L. Simmons, who made sure the divorce met state legal requirements, they walked out of the courthouse not man and wife - and they couldn't have been happier.
"I'm glad it's over, it's done," a smiling Hernandez said, after driving 400 miles the night before from Long Beach. "It's been years, and it took a few seconds to get it done. Now we can move on."
About 20 couples a month are untying the knot in the court's one-day divorce program, designed for the 72 percent of applicants for dissolution in Sacramento County who go through the process without lawyers. A good percentage of the parties - almost all of them financially pinched - generally agree on all the terms of their dissolution, no matter how complicated, and really don't need high-priced legal help.
After practice runs that took place under wraps in December, the program went public in April. The program is available to anybody who filed for divorce at least six months ago and is ready for judgment. Court officials hope to expand fairly quickly to handle as many as 100 cases a month. More than 5,300 couples filed for divorce in Sacramento County last year.
"We're skimming the cream off the bottom," Judge James M. Mize said of the program he created. "The easiest cases are at the bottom, and we're getting rid of them so people who don't really need to have a trial can get it taken care of.
"As you get to the top, people who really have trouble with communication, who have dysfunctional relationships, who argue about everything - fine, those cases are going to trial. But there are a lot of people at the bottom who just want to get on with their lives. And there's practically no dispute."
Mize said he created the program as a result of the frustration he felt over the frustration he saw. Couples would spend years trying to navigate divorce court on their own, to save on lawyers fees that start at about $1,000 for the simplest uncontested cases and can escalate into the tens of thousands of dollars the more complicated and contentious they get.
For now, his one-day program is the only one going in California.
The way Yazmin Cruz described it, the trip through the line at a typical divorce court - even in amicable cases such as her own - can be as disorienting as a trip to the House of Mirrors on the State Fair's midway. Fill out this form, answer that question, check this box. Give the wrong answer or check the wrong box, it's back to the end of the line.
"I would come, I would have to bring my lunch, and it was an all-day process," Cruz said.
Cruz, 38, is a business administration student who wants to work in mortgage finance. Hernandez, 49, is a contractor who went bust in the recession but now has a degree in construction contract management.
Six years after the couple's separation, they were pretty much still at square one on the divorce. Then she heard of "ODD" - the county's one-day divorce program. Last week, the two of them gave it a shot.
They gathered in a room with about 10 other soon-to-be ex-couples, or single parties - all of them women - who came hoping to obtain default judgments against men who were not contesting the dissolution. Cruz and Hernandez got the rundown on the program, hooked up with their volunteer law student and headed to the computer room to attack the forms.
Right away, another snag. The county's Department of Child Support Services had tagged Hernandez for monthly child support payments of $178. Cruz had to waive it if the two were to proceed. Campos, who is about to graduate from Lincoln Law School, brought them back to Simmons, a certified family law specialist who also works as a family law pro tem judge. Cruz said she was willing to waive child support. They still needed to modify the payment, and agreed to head over to the support services department later in the day. With that issue resolved, Simmons kept their divorce petition in play.
They needed the divorce, both Cruz and Hernandez said, because his credit took a disastrous hit during the foreclosure crisis. His name was still on the deed to the south Sacramento duplex where Cruz lives with their two children. She's behind on the payments and would like to refinance, but can't until his name is removed from the property documents, by way of divorce.
"We're both on the loan, so we have to fill out the loan together, and qualify for it, and he has to sign for it," Cruz said. "But he doesn't have the means, and I can't get it done until I get him off the loan."
"She needs to get the house refinanced," he said. "It's important that she get it, mainly for her and the kids. Mainly the children. They're the ones who need to have a roof to live under."
Simmons said she was gratified to see the anxiety dissipate as Cruz and Hernandez worked through the documents.
"They are able to accomplish something and work together in a way that is very satisfying," Simmons said, "particularly after years of not being able to accomplish something that they both need."
With no budget for ODD, the program would not work if not for the volunteers.
Stasia Salmon is a second-year student at McGeorge School of Law. She helped Campos guide Cruz and Hernandez through the computer room. Then she ushered them back to the pro tems to get their judgment prepared.
"Some of these people have been dealing with this for 10 or 12 years, and they can't get past the bureaucratic red tape by themselves," Salmon said.
"They get frustrated. Then they come here, and it may be a little bit of a mess, but we get it all done. And they're so relieved and so happy; it's the only time I ever see people leaving the family court with smiles on their faces."
Once the forms were corrected and after the pro tem signed off, Cruz and Hernandez took the elevator up to Mize's courtroom, where they sat side by side. The judge looked over the documents, and drew a nervous laugh from the couple when he asked if they really wanted him to sign the order.
If they preferred, he said, they could spend a few more years waiting in line, having their paperwork rejected.
It took them about a second to answer, and another second for him to say he would sign.
"That would be awesome," Cruz said.
HOW TO SIGN UP
For more information on the one-day divorce program, visit the Sacramento Superior Court's family law website: www.saccourt.ca.gov/family/one-day-divorce.aspx
Call The Bee's Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.