By Jenny Tiegs, GalTime.com
Online DivorceDivorce Divorce is an emotional thing. It's also an expensive thing. Online divorce services promise a simple and quick solution to help couples move on quickly and less expensively. Is it worth it to skip the attorneys and court time and opt for an online divorce instead?
First consider the price tag. In 2010, 872,000 divorces were filed, averaging a cost of $15,000. Even if a couple does not have mutual assets -- a house or cars, for example -- the bill for attorney fees ads up quickly. In these economic times, is it savvy to spend a fraction of the cost to dissolve a marriage online?
"NO, never!" says Nancy Fagan, a divorce mediator and owner of The Divorce Help Clinic in San Diego. She says her company gets calls every week from people who have tried to save money by doing the online route for divorce. "I hear terrible experiences, many which are from people seeking our services to correct the mistakes they made."
Here's what you need to know before you put a divorce in your online shopping cart.
FIRST, UNDERSTAND THAT A DIVORCE IS ESSENTIALLY A LAWSUIT
This is the main point offered by Jennifer Brandt, a divorce attorney who answers questions on Avvo.com, a company that answers consumer legal questions online.
"Most people would not resolve a civil or criminal matter online," Brandt points out.
When it comes to most aspects of divorce, like property division which are final, permanent and incapable of being changed in the future, the matter is "too serious to be done online without careful thought, guidance and expertise that an attorney can offer."
The short-term fee of an attorney may be a lot, but rushing into a decision might be more costly. The average person will not be aware of the finer points of filing, Brandt explains. Even experienced attorneys must keep up on the proper rules for filing and processing a divorce efficiently.
"These rules vary from state to state and ofentimes from county to county. No online service can produce with 100 percent accuracy the processing of every divorce in countless jurisdictions," she says.
SECOND, GET FAMILIAR WITH THE TERMS OF DIVORCE
"Couples who think they have an "uncontested divorce" should be especially careful," Ani Mason, a collaborative family lawyer and mediator, warns. "The fact that you and your spouse agree to divorce does not mean that you have an 'uncontested divorce'".
Mason explains that the only way you have a legally uncontested divorce is if you both agree to divorce and agree on a resolution of ALL the issues concerning children (including custody, visitation, child support and other vital areas of child welfare) and property. You also need to be in total agreement whether there will be spousal maintenance (casually called 'alimony'), and how much and for how long. There's also division of debts and property to consider.
"It's the negotiation and settlement of these potentially thorny issues that makes many divorces slow, expensive and contentious. The paperwork is typically the least of people's worries," Mason says.
After the main issues have been tackled, the piles of paperwork must be filled out and filed.
THIRD, CONSIDER WHETHER SMALL COST-CUTTING MEASURES WORK FOR YOUR SITUATION
Dara Strickland, an attorney in St. Louis with Strickland Family Law, advises clients on ways to save money during divorce. Finding the forms needed for an uncontested divorce online for a reduced price or even for free is one way couples can cut costs during the process. An online service may help you prepare those forms for a lesser price than attorneys charge for their time to write them up. State family court websites may also offer these forms for free.
"Online forms with a price attached are kind of the worst of both worlds-you pay for the same thing the court gives out for free and still don't get the legal advice you'd get from going to an attorney," she says.
FOURTH, STEER CLEAR OF ONLINE SERVICES ALTOGETHER IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN
"Divorcing parents have many additional responsibilities that must be met before finalizing any divorce," stresses Rosalind Sedacca, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network.
Sedacca doesn't want parents to feel the need to shell out tons of money for big-shot divorce attorneys who boast their court litigation expertise, either.
"Parents need to work with divorce mediators or Collaborative Divorce Attorneys," she says. By doing this, the children's best interest is put ahead of anything else and both parents can be successful head in the years to come. "The goal is to minimize the trauma and pain for children and encourage parents to share parenting responsibilities whenever possible. Children in low-tension divorces do much better long-term than children whose parents continue fighting, disrespect one-another and let resentment color their parenting decisions."
An online divorce is too dangerous for such important futures when it comes to children, she says.
FINALLY, TALK TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN THERE
Professional advice is very helpful when dealing with legal issues, but the advice from a mother who chose to do an online divorce is powerful. Jennifer, who is still dealing with the fallout from a failed online divorce says decisively: "No online divorce!"
Jennifer chose this route four years ago and is now paying thousands of dollars for an attorney to get the divorce modified.
"When you go online, you don't realize how much you don't know about the law," she says. "You think it will save you money and you pride yourself on being mature enough to not fight with your ex."
The consequences were steep for Jennifer. She says she went years without getting the correct amount of child support or reimbursement for daycare. She also failed to claim her son on her taxes and went bankrupt while her ex acquired cars and a new house.
"You need an expert going through this process to protect you and your children in the future," Jennifer urges. "It will save you a lot of money and headache going through the modifications as well."
WHEN IT WORKS
While there are many who believe online divorce is a bad idea, there has been success stories, according to Randy Finney, Founder and CEO of CompleteCase.com. He started his company over 12 years ago and says hehas helped over 100,000 people divorce in an agreeable way.
"It's as easy as making a deposit at the bank," Finney says.
After years of working as a divorce attorney himself and seeing frustrated couples coming in with paperwork that was incorrectly filled out, messy and who couldn't afford an attorney, Finney started CompleteCase.com. The online divorce site guides you through correctly filling out paperwork using software that prints out a professional set of documents.
"We try to encourage people to get a divorce in an amicable way," Finney explains. "Take the argument out of it."
According to Finney and his experience, most of the money is spent at the pretrial meetings concerning temporary orders for child support, car and house payments, and other costs before the divorce case even starts. During this time is where the arguments start and carry through, costing everyone time and money.
"Online divorce is as easy as it seems. It's effective and works," says Finney.
Using an online divorce can save you time and money, seeing as the cost for using the site is equal to about one hour of divorce attorney fee. The software is easy to use with simple questions that can either be answered together as a couple, or in separate locations.
The average length of time to finalize depends on how complex your case is, but can range anywhere from half an hour to several hours to answer the questions, print the paperwork and file your divorce.
What do you think? Would you try the online route to end your union?
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