Do we have to involve lawyers in our do-it-yourself online or mediated divorce?

Many online divorce services promote their use as a total alternative to legal advice and services.  In this article, we would like to weigh in on the question of whether a "pro se" (unrepresented by counsel) divorcing couple should employ the services of a lawyer and if so, for what purposes.

In the promotional materials for many online divorce sites, you will see postings such as "avoid dealing with lawyers," "avoid all attorney fees," etc.  An online divorce such as from OurDivorceAgreement.com can and will save hundreds or thousands of dollars in attorney fees.  However, we recommend that divorcing couples using any online divorce product or using a mediator utilize a family lawyer for one important service - reviewing your Agreement prior to signing and submitting it to the Court.

We urge that an online divorce or mediated divorce is superior to a lawyer represented divorce in the following ways:

1) It is faster.  Divorces with lawyers representing both or one side take months or years.  Online or mediated divorces

2) It is far less expensive.  Depending on the location, legal fees for divorce range from $150-$500 per hour for each party. And the goal of the representing lawyer is not always to get the couple divorced for the lowest price.  Online divorces range from $150-$350 plus filing fees.  Even if a couple uses a mediator for part or all of their divorce, the mediator fee is usually split or shared by the parties, reducing the cost by at least half in most instances.

3) It is cooperative.  The goal of an online or mediated divorce is to reach a mutually agreeable outcome as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.  This encourages cooperation and mutually beneficial outcomes.

4) It keeps control of the process with the divorcing couple themselves.  With a litigated divorce, if the parties cannot reach agreement between the lawyers and themselves, a judge makes the decisions, taking control over the outcome away from the parties.  In litigation or a lawyer represented divorce, there is also some lack of control for the couple because the lawyers do a significant amount of negotiating between themselves.  So communication with the clients about every issue is often absent.

If a divorce situation is highly conflictual, if there is mental or physical abuse, if one party is extremely clueless unfamiliar with their rights and financial issues, a litigated divorce may be necessary and desirable to bring about a reasonable and fair balance of power. 

However, for the relatively cooperative divorcing couple who wishes to fully participate in their divorce and has the information and ability to do so, an online or mediated divorce will save money, time, headaches and stress.

We do however see a role for attorneys in even the most cooperative situations.  We recommend that when a couple using an online divorce product or a mediator reaches a tentative agreement, they take a draft of the Property Settlement Agreement And Child Care Plan (if they have minor children together) to separate family law attorneys for a one hour review.

This ensures that each party has someone with knowledge in family law from the local area look at the draft Agreement with their eye out only for the party they represent.  The advising attorney can call attention to areas in which the party may be being too generous.  The party can be aware of this and still decide to go through with the item, but at least they are informed about the fact that they may not be required to be so generous if a judge were making the decision.

Sometimes, a reviewing attorney can make a suggestion that benefits both parties but is an option that both have overlooked. 

Be careful in choosing an attorney to review your draft divorce agreement.  When you call the office, tell the scheduling secretary that you have been through mediation (even if you have done an online divorce, it is a form of self-guided divorce mediation) and that you would like to hire the lawyer for the limited role of reviewing your draft Agreement.  Set a limit of the amount of time you are willing to pay for.  One to two hours should be sufficient for almost all divorces.  One hour for most.  Be clear that you plan to file the divorce yourself and that you do not wish to engage the lawyer for any other services at this time.

Some lawyers will refuse to serve in this limited capacity.  Their refusal is probably a blessing for you because such and attorney could be likely to steer you in a more conflictual direction. 

In any event, make sure you realize that you are the client and the one paying for services.  Be sure you get the service you want, in this case someone giving you informed and unbiased legal advice regarding the Agreement you wish to enter into.

Once you have gotten the attorney review, you are ready to file your Agreement and other filing documents with the Court.

If you have gotten a legal review of your divorce agreement and the lawyer has not raised any significant objections that you agree with, you can be more certain that you have made a good decision for yourself, your future ex-spouse and your family.


Do we have to list our assets and debts and outline our child care terms if we agree on everything for our divorce?

A common assumption of divorcing couples is that if they agree on everything involved with their divorce they need not list their division of assets, debts and child issues. This assumption often leads to post-divorce conflict that does not give the judge any information with which to rule. This article discusses this dangerous assumption and gives reasons why divorcing couples should carefully and thoroughly list their assets and debts and create a detailed child care plan.

Online divorce sites, such as OurDivorceAgreement.com, guide you to list your assets/debts, even if you have already physically divided them or agree on their division.  Let us give you the down side of doing not doing so. 

You know how you want to divide things but the judge in your case does not.  How does the judge know how marital assets are to be divided unless you tell him/her.  If you don't specify things and there is a dispute down the road about something, how does the court decide whose it is unless you have spelled it out in your Agreement.

Same is true with child issues, if you have minor children together.  Even if you agree on everything regarding the children now, this may not continue down the road (especially true if/when new significant others enter the picture).  If you have nothing detailed regarding the care of your children, how can you assert your rights if the other spouse is no longer cooperating with your informal "agreement?"  The judge has nothing to enforce.

As an example, let's say there is an aluminum fishing boat that the husband bought during the marriage that he is storing at Uncle Bob's, but they forget about it during the divorce negotiations.  If the item is not mentioned in the divorce, but the wife remembers it after the divorce is final and says, "Hey, I want half of the value of that boat or I want more in value of the stuff we divided," the couple is in a pickle because the boat is not mentioned in the divorce Agreement or decree.  How would something like that have to be settled?  Probably by litigation that could well exceed the value of the boat. 

The default assumption in a divorce is that all marital assets and debts are split equally.  Whether you or your spouse "have" an asset is not the issue.  Each of you have a claim to 50% of the total.  To keep disagreements from arising down the road, the safest thing is to spend a few minutes telling the court exactly who is taking what.  That way, there is no question later on. 

One more example...We had a couple who did not want to list household furnishings.  He had possession of the big screen TV.  Later on, she decided that she wanted it.  Whose is it if they didn't specify who is getting it in the divorce. 

Finally, the court may not accept your divorce agreement if you do not list and divide your assets and debts.  Remember, the court assumes that everything accumulated during the marriage belongs to both.  Just because it is sitting in an account with your name on it, doesn't mean it's yours when you're married.  Please check this out with your attorney when you have them review your document.

Our site gives a quick way to list the assets/debts in simple web forms set up by category.  If you don't have an item in a category (i.e. securities, etc.) you simply check a box that says "we have no securities" and then our site automatically merges your data into an Agreement acceptable by the Court.  So if you take a few minutes with our site, it could save you months and thousands of dollars down the road.  With your property situation, it shouldn't take long.  We then link you to the state-specific forms needed to divorce.  

Most states require a financial disclosure statement from husband and wife, which is a sworn statement of your assets and liabilities.  This is taken so one spouse does not hide assets of the marriage.  There is then a penalty for not disclosing assets.

Some states may waive this requirement in certain circumstances such as not having minor children together.  We can only recommend that you do certain things based on our experience.  If you definitely do not wish to do this section, contact the clerk of the divorce court in your jurisdiction and see if they require "financial disclosure statements" for divorcing couples in your circumstances.  If they do not, you may do as you wish.

For more information, contact mark.stein@ourdivorceagreement.com or +1 502 897 3020.

(Nothing in this article should be considered to be "legal advice."  An online divorce site can give you the tools to complete your divorce but, there is no substitute for sound legal advice from a lawyer from your jurisdiction looking at your situation strictly from your point of view when seeking a divorce.)


What is the basic divorce process for states in the US?

The steps of the divorce process when one uses an online divorce site such as OurDivorceAgreement.com are dramatically simplified compared to what one would go through when engaging lawyers to handle the entire process, because many of the extraneous and conflict-riddled steps are avoided.

The first consideration for a couple seeking divorce is where to file.  One files in the county/state of residence, not of the marriage. There are residency requirements and waiting periods involved with all states/provinces.  Here is a link to this information for all US states. Waiting periods vary widely, so you will want to find the state that has the shortest waiting period if you have the choice of two different states.

If the waiting periods are equal, we recommend that the person wanting the divorce the most be the one who files in his/her state of residence since this spouse will be the most motivated to see the process through to a brisk conclusion.

Once the couple has decided where to file, they can choose an online divorce site.  Considerations for this decision should include how long it takes to complete the site, how long it takes to get the completed documents, price and service.  OurDivorceAgreement.com compares favorably in all of these respects, but I urge you to research the field thoroughly to make the best decision.

Complete the documents on the online divorce site.  The essential elements of any divorce are summarized in a previous article.

One often misunderstood detail regarding listing your assets and debts is that many couples believe that if they agree on the division of property or their child rights and responsibilities, then they do not need to detail these items in their Property Settlement Agreement and Child Care Plan (if they have minor children.)

We'll give more detail regarding this common misconception in a future article, but this misconception needs to be thoroughly debunked.  Generally, anything that was accumulated during the marriage and all child care decisions need to be included in the Agreement.  Otherwise, if there were to be a dispute after the divorce, the Court would have no record of the item(s) in question.

Once the divorce documents are completed, they should be signed and notarized (if they call for a notary signature.)  Usually, your local bank will notarize documents at no charge if you are a bank customer.

We recommend that each spouse using an online divorce site have separate attorneys review their Agreement to make sure it is in each person's best interest.  We believe this is cheap "insurance" to make sure what you are about to sign is truly in your best interest. Many attorneys will be happy to provide an hour or so of pure legal advice if requested.  When seeking this service, be sure you clearly state that you have been through mediation (online divorce is a form of self-guided mediation) and that you would like to engage the attorney strictly for the purpose of reviewing your Agreement prior to filing.  Make it clear that you have the filing documents and that you are not asking him or her to represent outside of this limited function.  We are not aware of this being a legal requirement in any state but we urge you to do so to protect yourself in what may be one of the largest financial transactions of your life. We will speak to this issue in greater detail in a future article.

Once you have signed the Agreement and have gotten a legal review (if you chose to do so), you are now ready to file your divorce papers.  We recommend that you take 2-3 copies of all documents to the clerk's office of the divorce court in your county.  This court is named differently by state, but if you go into any county courthouse and ask for the court that handles divorces, you will be directed to the correct one.

We recommend that you DO NOT take your documents to be filed first thing on Monday mornings, right before lunch or closing time in the afternoons - especially late on Friday afternoons or late afternoon the day before a holiday.  Court clerks are human and they are usually overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.  Choosing the ideal time can go a long way towards making your filing experience more pleasant and smooth.  Be cordial but firm with the clerk.  Act like you own the place (because you do! ;).  Your tax money and filing fees keep the office open and operating.

Do not expect the clerk to give you legal advice - or much of any advice for that matter.  They operate under strict rules that prevent them from advising you.  They should be courteous to you and should answer direct questions about the process.  But you should not expect them to be overly helpful.  Please express appreciation and maybe even give their supervisor a positive review of your service, if the clerk goes out of their way for you.

Expect the clerk to take some of your documents and to ask you to keep others until the waiting period is over.  This will vary by state.  Some courts will have a data sheet they will ask you to complete while you are there filing your other documents.

You will pay a filing fee at the time of filing.  This averages $150 nationally, and varies significantly by state.  Filing fees are usually only accepted in the form of a check, cash or money orders.  Some courts are beginning to accept credit cards.

The clerk will tell you whether the judge in your case requires a hearing to complete your divorce.  If so, she/he will tell you when that will be or how you will be notified.  If the Court does not require a hearing, you will be notified by mail if/when the Court finalizes your divorce.

There are other steps and considerations of course, but we have outlined the major steps of the divorce process when using an online divorce site such as OurDivorceAgreement.com. 

For more information, contact mark.stein@OurDivorceAgreement.com or +1 502 897 3020.

(Nothing in this article is intended to be considered "legal advice."  An online divorce site can give you the tools to complete your divorce but, there is no substitute for sound legal advice from a lawyer from your jurisdiction looking at your situation strictly from your point of view when seeking a divorce.)


What are the basic elements of a divorce?

(In this article, we will cover the basic elements of any divorce, including when using an online divorce product such as OurDivorceAgreement.com.)

No matter how one goes about the divorce process, there are three basic elements that make up any divorce:

1) A property settlement agreement (and child care plan, if minor children are present) is the core of any divorce. In this document, you tell the judge who is getting what from the marriage and how you plan to share the care and responsibilities of your minor children (if you have them.)

In an online divorce product such as OurDivorceAgreement.com, you enter your property and child information in a series of online forms. That information is transferred to your Property Settlement Agreement and Child Care Plan. 

Other common names for this document include divorce agreement and separation agreement.

2) The second major component of any divorce is the financial disclosure document.  The purpose of financial disclosure documents is to tell the Court what the two of you have in the way of assets and debts and to disclose your income and expenses.  Both parties complete financial disclosure documents and sign and notarize them.  This represents your sworn statement to the court that the information you disclose is complete and accurate.

One of the main reasons a Court requires financial disclosure documents is to make sure the parties are completely and accurately disclosing their asset and debt information to each other and to the Court.  If a person misrepresents or fails to disclose something to the Court in the financial disclosure documents, penalties could be imposed.

In an online divorce product such as OurDivorceAgreement.com, you enter your combined assets and debts in your financial forms and your income and expenses in the budget form.  This data is automatically transferred to your financial disclosure documents to be printed, signed, notarized and filed.

3) The final major element of any divorce is the filing forms.  The filing forms are state/province specific in the US and Canada.  In Australia, there are two sets of filing forms - one for Western Australia and another for the rest of the country.  Other countries vary as to whether they have a state system of divorce filing or a national one.

In an online divorce site, such as OurDivorceAgreement.com, a system is in place to minimize the number of entries needed to complete the filing forms.

A divorcing couple signs all of the documents from the online divorce site and submits them to the divorce court in their jurisdiction.  In most cases this will be the divorce court within the county of residence. 

In the next installment in this series, we will cover the major steps involved in getting a divorce. 

For questions, contact the author at mark.stein@OurDivorceAgreement.com or +1 502 897 3020.

(Nothing in this article is intended to be considered "legal advice."  An online divorce site can give you the tools to complete your divorce but, there is no substitute for sound legal advice from a lawyer from your jurisdiction looking at your situation strictly from your point of view when seeking a divorce.)