The last decade has seen a virtual explosion of sites on the web providing legal information to the public. Sites are published by government agencies, private companies, educational institutions, non-profit institutions, individuals and law firms. Today you can even do for yourself what lawyers typically did for you — file a divorce, declare bankruptcy, or write an estate plan, all with the help of forms you can download (for a fee) from the Internet. But is this appropriate for you? Should you get a divorce without first talking to a lawyer?
The Internet as a substitute for a lawyer?
The Internet is a great source of general information, including legal information. The Internet provides efficient access to legal information, particularly for individuals of middle and lower incomes who may not be able to afford a lawyer, to help them understand their legal rights. And certainly everyone has an interest in promoting the public’s understanding of the law.
Downloading legal forms to file and process a divorce is a simple outgrowth of the old “how to” books and the forms that were purchased at office supply stores or courts. In the right circumstance, these forms may be completely acceptable, satisfying the needs of the parties. And, of course, they are far cheaper than hiring a lawyer to do basic tasks in uncontested or amicable situations.
The problem with these Web sites is that it is often difficult to determine whether your situation, while amicable, has inherent complexities that should be addressed by a trained professional with experience in divorce. In addition, it is often difficult for a non-lawyer to evaluate the quality of the legal information or form he or she is receiving. After all, there is a reason why someone goes to law school for three years and why people go to lawyers who have worked in dozens of situations from which to draw their experience. While a face-to-face meeting with a lawyer may not be necessary in every case, you need to be cautious so that a simple form does not take the place of a more reasoned and carefully crafted divorce agreement drafted by a lawyer when the situation warrants it.
The complexities of divorce
Issues Relating to Children
There are many issues involving children that on their face are simple, but which are terribly complex in reality. For example, a husband and wife may not have any dispute over child support payments, custody or visitation, but an agreement must provide for contingencies that may not be currently anticipated, but may arise in the future. Custody, visitation, schooling, healthcare, and child support are all serious issues requiring serious discussion. An experienced lawyer may be able to identify these issues and help you to address areas that the parties never even thought to consider.
Issues Relating to Property
Property issues can be very complex. For example, determining what is marital or community property and what is not can be quite difficult. Valuation issues can also be confusing. For example, a family-owned business may be very difficult to value, and without talking to a trained professional, one spouse or the other may not fully understand the complexity of valuation, and how it affects property division. Again, only by vetting these issues with a lawyer can satisfactory resolution be reached for both spouses.
Tax consequences can be significant in a divorce, and it is often difficult to understand the tax ramifications that may flow from a divorce settlement. Pension issues are also complex and have serious long term effects. Again, only by talking to a trained professional can these issues be thoroughly examined and analyzed.
While only a small percentage of people actually go to court to resolve these issues, they are the subject of serious negotiation which can often take many months. Forms that you download from the Internet may raise these issues and provide you with various alternatives, but only when both parties fully understand the issues will an equitable agreement be reached.
Other low-cost alternatives
As noted earlier, very few divorces are resolved in a courtroom. But there is one low-cost alternative which is finding acceptance among spouses. More and more people use mediation to settle their disputes in a divorce. In a mediation, a trained professional (the mediator) will meet with the parties and discuss many of the issues mentioned above. Lawyers can represent the parties in the mediation, but often, particularly in early stages of mediation, lawyers are not involved.
The importance of a mediator is that he or she will raise issues with the parties and help them to resolve them, answering questions along the way. The mediator will not, however, make decisions for the parties as a judge would in a divorce proceeding in court. Mediation can be used to resolve an entire divorce, or simply to resolve individual issues in a divorce. Despite reaching resolution, lawyers will generally review the agreements that are drafted to reflect the settlement.
Tips before using an Internet form
The following should be considered before using a form downloaded from the Internet:
Length of MarriageThe longer a marriage has lasted, the more complex the issues relating to divorce may be. Property issues become more complex and the issues of children may be more numerous. If you have only been married a few months, then a simple divorce may be a good alternative, and Internet forms may work well. But if you have been married for 10 years, issues may be more complex and using Internet forms may not be appropriate.
If you have children, think long and hard about using Internet forms to get divorced. So many issues flow from children that it may be difficult to consider all of them simply by reviewing checklists or answering the questions that the forms pose.
Extent of Income and Property
If your income is significant or if a large amount of property has been accumulated during the course of a marriage, it may be wise to avoid Internet forms in favor of a more traditional consultation with divorce attorneys. Spousal support issues are complex and need to be handled properly. Property division can also be difficult, and sometimes talking to a lawyer may be the best alternative and a wise investment.
Often it is difficult to value property. For example, it is often difficult to value a small business, which must be divided in a divorce. Lawyers can assist with these issues so that the property division is equitable.
Special circumstances in your family may require special treatment in a divorce settlement. For example, do you have a child with a disability who must be cared for?
Internet forms often cannot anticipate your special situation.
In the right circumstance, using the Internet to download divorce papers may be fine. It has the advantages of being fast, relatively inexpensive, and it is relatively private (although filing the papers will become part of the public record). On the other hand, there are so many complexities in any divorce that people need to be cautious and educate themselves thoroughly before using the Internet for a divorce. Take your time, educate yourself, talk to people who may have used an Internet source, and then make the decision that is best for you and your family.
Alan Kopit is a consumer attorney with the firm Hahn Loeser and Parks LLP in Cleveland, Ohio and a regular contributor to “Today.”