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Family Law

Online Divorces

Online divorces or DIY divorces are becoming more commonplace for couples seeking a low-cost way to separate. Companies like legalzoom.com and mydivorcepapers.com offer what appears to be a seamless online divorce process for a fraction of what reputable law firms would charge. And many residents are flocking to these sites for their divorce needs without understanding the consequences.

Technological Innovations

Much of the technological changes that have taken place online over the last couple of decades have revolutionized how we live. From health and wellness guides to personal investing courses, the internet has created opportunities and reduced costs for needed products and services by creating intense competition. We’re more informed and empowered consumers because of technology.

However, this progression towards cost savings through minimizing human interaction can have serious consequences, especially as it’s applied to the practice of law. And the DIY divorce is a perfect example of what can go wrong when technological innovations seek to streamline complex issues.

Companies that offer online divorces make money by quickly and efficiently processing each new client. Any personal attention given to a new customer detracts from the company’s business model, which is to apply “one size fits all” legal forms to situations that are highly unique and often complex.

For example, retirement accounts are assets that can be divided in a divorce, but many couples don’t understand the complexity of dividing these type of assets. A QDRO is a form that allows a family law judge to divide a retirement account between spouses. The primary benefit of this form is that it allows spouses to avoid having their assets taxed by the IRS because of an early withdrawal penalty. Without this document, the IRS can levy a huge penalty on the withdraw. A 20% penalty for early withdrawal is not uncommon.

Filling out a QDRO form is a complex procedure, and someone without a legal degree who attempts to prepare such a document does so at their peril.

The same goes for military divorces. These types of divorces differ substantially from civilian divorces, and even many civilian attorneys aren’t sufficiently experienced to handle these types of cases. Since this type of case requires a special skill set that many attorneys don’t possess, it’s highly unlikely that an online divorce service would provide any value here.

With regards to other assets, there may be instances where one spouse had a property that wouldn’t be included as marital property, given proper counsel. This property could potentially be exempt from the division of assets during a divorce. Again, not knowing this could be costly.

These issues though don’t even begin to cover the greater problem of hidden assets. Many spouses think that they can get away with hiding assets during a divorce. Without the skills of an experienced divorce attorney, these assets might remain illegally hidden.

The Court’s Acceptance

Just because the court accepts someone’s divorce petition doesn’t mean that it serves the best interest of either spouse. For couples without children and no assets, a basic online divorce form may get approved by a family law judge, but a flawed divorce may come back later to haunt the parties in the separation.

For couples with children, the costs from even a poorly written parenting plan can result in thousands of additional dollars because of extended litigation and subsequent conflict.

When is an Online Divorce Good?

Each couple who undergoes a divorce has unique circumstances. However, couples that are in complete agreement about everything could become ensnared in further legal proceedings after their divorce is finalized. For example, if an ex is still on a loan or a cosigner of a loan, negative credit consequences may arise if they experience a future bankruptcy, lien or wage garnishment action.

Following is an insightful comment by an online divorce company customer:

“Warning to anyone filing for an uncontested divorce without minor children…SAVE YOUR $299! You can download these forms online from your local court website and fill out the forms yourself! The only information on these forms is your and your spouse’s name and address information. I was so ****** when I went to the court to file and discover that I owed an additional $318. I am a VERY dissatisfied ex-customer.”

When Are Online Divorce Unacceptable?

The most obvious situation would be for divorces involving children. The parenting schedules needed to serve the best interests of children are complex, and the forms that most online divorce companies offer are nothing more than basic templates that are intended to provide minimal direction.

As mentioned above, if these documents aren’t filled out correctly, parents can become entangled in a web of court forms that would cost much more than if they had hired a good divorce attorney from the start.

Any couple that has shared marital property would be wise to stay away from online divorce services. Again, when dividing assets, these online templates offer very little in terms of providing substance.

Lastly, any situation where you can’t afford an attorney, turning to legal aid for assistance would be a better option than using an online divorce site. Even with legal aid, you’ll get personal assistance from an attorney who has passed the Bar exam.

If you really can’t afford the services of a divorce attorney and you don’t want to use (or don’t qualify for) legal aid, consider using a divorce mediator. Although their assistance doesn’t include legal advice, they’ll know how to best plot the course of an amicable divorce.

If you still are contemplating using a service for online divorce, please contact our office so we can talk to you about this risky decision. We provide a free consultation and we would be happy to discuss options available to you.

Posted November 30, 2016
by: MFL Team


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