A startup company in California will soon bring the possibility of getting a divorce online to the masses (in California for the time being, with plans to expand nationally). The website Separate.us was developed by an attorney that wanted to make divorce available through the internet at a low cost.
While similar services are offered by companies like Legal Zoom, the distinguishing characteristics of Separate.us are yet to be determined. One possible unique benefit is the ease of use, whereby the user answers simple questions that are then translated and input into the court-required forms for divorce or legal separation. The concept may be ideal for many consumers that want to obtain a divorce without the cost and difficulties of retaining a family law lawyer.
But will the system actually work? The answer is
The primary benefit of putting through a divorce online is obvious: you won’t have much, if any, human interaction. We love clicking a button to buy something on Amazon.com that arrives at our home in a day or two, search for local restaurants in our area, pay bills or transfer money, and all the other betterments of daily life that the internet brings. The emotional toll of going through a divorce could be significantly reduced or eliminated if you don’t have to see your spouse in person at any time through the process. With a click of a button, you could be divorced.
Notably, in California, Family Code Section 2336 allows parties to obtain a divorce by declaration, which means that neither party needs to appear in court to finalize the divorce. However, in states like Massachusetts, a personal appearance in court is almost always required regardless if you have a complete agreement on all issues to resolve your case. Thus, face-to-face contact with your spouse will still be inevitable in many jurisdictions.
In cases where there is a history of domestic violence, services like Separate.us are extremely useful to keep parties completely apart from each other.
Another huge benefit is the cost savings. Not having to pay an attorney for their services could save thousands of dollars. The average retainer deposit for a divorce lawyer in the United States is around $3,000. Unless the attorney charges a flat fee, which is rare, nobody can ever determine the total cost in advance.
Finally, websites like Separate.us have streamlined the very difficult process of filling out complicated forms. Many people become confused and frustrated with the forms, which the court clerk will scrutinize every detail until every form is entirely accurate. Having a system that translates easy questions into data that will automatically be inputted into the appropriate forms is wonderfully helpful.
In reality, if you have few assets, no children and have a complete agreement to resolve your divorce case, services like Separate.us can be extremely useful.
The initial stumbling block to obtaining a divorce online is when only one party agrees to use the system, or the parties do not have a complete and final agreement to resolve all the issues in their case. It takes two to tango, and if both parties aren’t willing participants or a full agreement is not reached in advance, systems like Separate.us will not work.
For the majority of family court litigants, websites like Separate.us or Legal Zoom are far too unsophisticated to work in their case.
Most cases are resolved when both parties sign a separation or marital settlement agreement. Separation agreements are extremely important documents that carry significant legal weight. Many states require very specific language for agreements resolving certain issues like child support, alimony or child custody. If not done properly, litigants risk having their agreement rejected by the court, or worse, they may suffer unintended future consequences resulting from a poorly drafted agreement.
We recommend that everyone have their separate agreement reviewed by a lawyer who specializes in divorce law, no matter how “simple” the case seems.
Here are several situations where services like Separate.us are not recommended:
- Where either party owns a business
- Where the parties own real property
- Where the parties have minor children
- Where one party’s income is not easily determined
- Where the parties own rental property
- Where either or both parties have an interest in a retirement or pension
- Where one party is not absolutely certain about all assets or debts.
Many consumers looking at services like Separate.us and believe that they will save a ton of money and hassle by using such a service to complete their divorce paperwork. However, the reality is that in nearly every family law firm, a legal assistant or paralegal will complete the forms necessary to file in a very short period of time (usually in less than an hour at a cost of $75-$150 on average). Nearly all firms specializing in family law are extremely efficient in completing these forms. Financial statements and disclosures are also extremely important and must be completed accurately, and most often those forms do not take much time to complete for a firm specializing in divorce.
The real benefit of hiring an attorney to assist with a divorce is the expertise that such a firm will bring to ensure that a case is complete quickly and efficiently, and the right way to protect a client’s interests.
Some family lawyers have already identified the need for a hybrid solution for obtaining a divorce through the internet while also obtaining legal assistance from an expert in the field. Our firm offers mediation services online in both California and Massachusetts. Mediation is a process by which a neutral expert in divorce helps divorcing spouses reach a compromise through education and discussion. In simple cases, less than an hour of online settlement discussions could lead to a complete resolution.
Finally, another useful alternative to services like Separate.us is hiring an attorney for a “limited scope” representation. Many attorneys offer specific services, such as reviewing separation agreements, helping draft pleadings and forms, and other tasks.