Online divorce forms speed process

August 31, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

You can make airline, rental car and hotel reservations online. You can find a date, play chess, design a house, search for a vehicle, scour recipes, read the newspaper and reserve library books on the Web.

You can even start your own divorce online.

Digital technology has made ending marriages cheaper and easier than ever before - and thousands of unhappy spouses are taking advantage of online divorce services. A variety of Web sites offer state-specific marital settlement and divorce forms that do-it-yourselfers can complete online for a relatively low fee - between about $50 and $300 - before having the divorce finalized during a simple court appearance.

Legal advice is not part of the Internet service, which is targeted at divorcing spouses who are in agreement upon their terms of separation.


"Online divorce is designed for people who want to represent themselves in an uncontested, no-fault divorce without incurring thousands of dollars in legal fees," says Maryland attorney Richard Granat, founder of the pioneering legal information Web site, which owns and operates the Maryland Divorce Online Web site at and similar divorce-related Web sites in such other states as Pennsylvania and New York.

Granat says online divorce is inappropriate if:

  • there are complex property, pension or child custody or support issues.

  • a private business must be split between divorcing spouses.

  • there is a pattern of domestic violence.

  • one party is hiding assets from another.

California-based lawyer Brian Liu, co-founder and CEO of the LegalZoom Web site at, says online divorce seems to work best for couples without a long history together, children or substantial mutual property. And it's ideal for those without a big bank account.

"The best thing possible is to use an attorney," Liu says "Unfortunately, in our world, people can't always afford an attorney."

The average cost for a simple, uncontested divorce that's handled by a lawyer is about $1,500, he says. The cost skyrockets for contested divorces, for which attorneys basically are a must.

The law community at large hasn't raised an uproar about the online availability of divorce services - and thus the loss of income for divorce lawyers, says Liu, whose company has served about 20,000 divorcing clients since March 2001.

"I think a lot of attorneys realize that a lot of the people who come to use the online services wouldn't necessarily come to an attorney anyway," he says.

Do-it-yourself divorce isn't new.

Divorcing couples have long been able to represent themselves by using self-help law books and filling out standarized divorce forms from their county courthouses, Granat says. But wading through instruction booklets up to 100 pages long to fill out more than 20 forms is difficult for many people, adds Liu. They often turn to court clerks for help, thus clogging up the court system, he says.

Online divorce services can help relieve this court-system congestion with step-by-step instructions. The automated quality of online forms also saves users the hassle of typing in the same information over and over again, Liu says.

The state-specific forms that the myriad of divorce service Web sites generate are exactly the same, Granat says. However, divorce process rule and procedure inconsistencies among counties within states - including Pennsylvania and West Virginia - can cause problems for do-it-yourself divorcers, he says.

Divorcing couples in Franklin County, Pa., and Berkeley County, W.Va., have shown up at the courthouse with a variety of online divorce paperwork - some of which doesn't fulfill the counties' specific requirements for divorce, clerks say.

"We see all types," says Jean McKee, deputy prothonotary in Franklin County.

"They don't always fit our rules," concurs Ruth Brown, civil clerk in Berkeley County.

Granat says Maryland divorce procedures boast a "high degree of uniformity" among counties, but that residents of Maryland and other states should always contact county courts to find out if local forms are needed.

The American Bar Association has acknowledged the need for more affordable legal services - and for unbiased guidelines that encourage law-related Web site publishers to provide consumers with information, such as clear guarantee policies, that will help them determine the quality of the site's legal information, says Robin Rone, assistant director of writing services for the ABA.

The ABA's eLawyering Task Force, which "is dedicated to broadening access of legal services, particularly to people with low to moderate incomes," earlier this year developed a set of these "Guidelines for Best Practices for Legal Information Web Sites," Rone says.

Consumers can view the guidelines at on the Web.

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