Going through a divorce can be a stressful, expensive, and time-consuming process. In an attempt to minimize some of these burdens, more and more companies are offering online divorce services, touting the process as quicker, cheaper, and less anxiety-ridden than using a divorce lawyer.
While this may sound tempting, online divorce services are not equivalent to having knowledgeable attorneys. Completing your divorce quicker, cheaper, or with less anxiety in the short term is of no value if the result in the long term is loss of assets, income, or parenting rights that cannot be reclaimed or corrected later.
Therefore, before making a decision, take some time to understand how online divorce services work, whether you are an appropriate candidate for an online divorce, and what the pros and cons of online divorce are.
How do online divorces work?
Divorcing in Washington state requires that you or your spouse file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. To facilitate the process, there are services that can assist you with going through the process online.
The level of service provided by such companies varies; some offer little to no guidance while others offer a detailed explanation about each question, and still others offer some legal supervision. Cost also varies. It is important to note that online divorces are not free. In addition to paying for the service itself, you may still be responsible for paying court filing fees directly to the court if not already included in that particular service’s fee structure.
In Washington, the legislature and courts have adopted “forms” to help make access to justice easier for divorcing couples. These forms feature boxes that can be checked off and spaces in which one can add information unique to their case. It is a mistake, however, to equate the ability to fill out forms as evidence that an experienced family law attorney is not needed for your case.
Non-lawyers (laypeople) tend to apply their everyday understanding to words, and in law, a word can have a specific meaning or implication. Similarly, choosing between boxes to check may sound straightforward, but the circumstances of your case may actually indicate a selection you think does not apply to you. Finally, while the forms appear detailed, there is a vast ocean of provisions that are critical to add in certain situations.
No two divorces are the same. Some involve children. Children can vary in age, health, and needs. Some divorces involve complex debt or IRS issues. Some involved immigration implications. There are separate legal principles for short-term marriages and long-term marriages. There are different rules concerning assets acquired in part or in whole prior to marriage, after separation, by gift, or by inheritance. There may be domestic violence and countless other contingencies.
Because of the variations among divorces, it would be impossible to create forms that addressed with checkboxes all potential issues and all possible solutions for every future case. The forms are there merely to address issues that apply to divorces generally.
What types of cases are not appropriate for online divorce services?
At a minimum, if your case involves any of the following issues, using an online divorce instead of competent counsel is unlikely to be in your best interests:
- If you or your spouse own a home or other real estate.
- If you will need financial support (spousal maintenance) from the other spouse after the divorce.
- If custody or residential time of the children is a question, including if you or the other spouse may want to move.
- If you have children with special needs, whether physical, mental, educational, exceptional sports, or academic involvement.
- If there is domestic violence in the marriage.
- If there are substance abuse issues, including alcohol, street drugs, prescription drug abuse, or marijuana.
- Addictions are present, including gambling and pornography.
- You or your spouse own a business or have a family business.
- If you or your spouse are artists or creators or receive royalties.
- If there are complex debt issues, unpaid taxes, or unfiled tax returns.
- Aging spouses.
- Long-term marriages, which would include marriages of 20 years or longer.
- Marriages one or both spouses brought property into, or there were inheritances or gifts during the marriage, the disposition or intent of which is now in dispute.
- If a spouse’s immigration status may be impacted by the divorce.
- Either or both of the spouses are in the military, especially if military retirements exist for either spouse.
- Cases in which either spouse has a pension, retirement accounts, or other deferred income assets.
Even if your situation involves none of the situations listed above, the unique circumstance of your family and marital estate may necessitate the assistance of experienced family law counsel in order to protect your interests and children.
As for the type of case most appropriate for online divorce services? The answer is uncontested divorces with no children, no real estate, and few assets. The caveat is that even in an uncontested divorce, unforeseen issues can come up.
Potential benefits of an online divorce
What are the potential benefits of online divorce if your case is a match for one? For starters, cost. Though the price can vary depending on the program you use, services generally cost between $150 and $400. The lower price tag of online divorce can be attractive for those looking to save money as they transition into their new life and budget as a single person.
Another potential allure of online divorce is the speed at which you can complete the process. For example, you do not have to wait for an appointment with a lawyer to file for divorce, which could take time, especially for a law firm that is in high demand. The initial online divorce process can be completed from start to finish in as little as two days.
If your case is a fit for an online divorce, it might not only save you time but also possibly allow you the flexibility that working with a law firm might not. You can, for instance, complete your documents and file for your divorce outside of normal business hours, which means you won’t have to potentially take time off of work or out of your busy schedule to speak with a lawyer.
Finally, because online divorces are best suited to uncontested divorces, you might not have to appear in court. A further explanation of uncontested divorces in relation to online divorce follows.
Who qualifies for an online divorce and who does not.
There are no barriers to entry for getting an online divorce in Washington state versus retaining a lawyer. That said, it doesn’t mean seeking an online divorce is a good idea.
As discussed above, online divorce is realistic only in limited types of cases, and when there are no disagreements about any issue between the divorcing spouses. Today, we refer to these types of divorces as uncontested, but the use of the term uncontested can be confusing.
Historically, couples could not simply decide they wanted to divorce. The laws provided that there had to be a valid reason for the state to grant a couple a divorce. One spouse could prevent a divorce from going through by contesting it. Some states in the U.S. still have such laws, but since the last century, the state of Washington has allowed couples to divorce merely by showing the marriage is “irretrievably broken.”
It is not necessary to establish a reason why the marriage fell apart or affix blame. Thus, in Washington, uncontested no longer means that one spouse agrees that the other spouse may have a divorce. Instead, it refers to whether there are any issues in dispute. As long as there is even one issue on which the divorcing couple is not in agreement, the case is considered a contested divorce.
To file for an uncontested divorce, you and your partner must come to an agreement on the following issues:
- Child support payments, what other child-related expenses will be shared, and whether and how post-secondary education will be an expense shared by the parents (if there are children).
- Spousal support, including how much each month and for how long (if applicable).
- Parenting time, how decision-making will be handled with the children, and which parent will be identified as the custodial parent for federal or other state purposes (if there are children).
- Division of all debts, both marital and separate.
- Division of all assets, marital and separate, regardless of in whose name the asset is titled.
- Any other issue the divorcing couple wants to be addressed in the divorce.
In addition, Washington state has a jurisdiction requirement for filing for divorce. Jurisdiction means there must be a basis for the Washington court to rule on your case issues. This applies to contested and uncontested divorces. There are a number of ways to establish jurisdiction, but the most common are:
- You and your spouse married in Washington state.
- You and your spouse resided in Washington state during the marriage.
- You and your spouse reside in Washington state currently.
Drawbacks of an online divorce
Although online divorce can be a fast and relatively inexpensive means of preparing the documents required to dissolve a marriage in Washington state, it still doesn’t mean it is the best course of action since an uncontested divorce is not necessarily synonymous with you receiving the best possible settlement given your circumstances.
The same holds for parenting time and the issues surrounding it. Despite the seeming allure of online divorce, it is important to understand why the advice and guidance from a skilled and experienced family law attorney can lead you to a better result in your divorce.
1. Contested divorces can be complicated.
No matter how straightforward your separation may appear at the outset, complications are bound to arise. Retaining legal counsel puts you in the competent hands of skilled and experienced professionals, who can field issues as they come up. This can save you time and money in the long run.
2. You may miss relevant information.
Your attorney will be able to guide you about what information you need to produce during the discovery process. Without legal advice, you will most likely not know what document requests are allowed within the scope of discovery.
A divorce lawyer will also be able to help you in obtaining access to information that your spouse and their legal team may not be forthcoming with. A lawyer can subpoena such information on your behalf, saving you the time and frustration of going through this process yourself.
3. Filing deadlines can be difficult to keep track of.
Missing deadlines can carry serious consequences. Having a team of legal experts in your corner will ensure that you know when the necessary paperwork must be filed, giving you the best chance of reaching a fair settlement.
Without a legal team, it is unlikely you will know when you must file certain documents with the court, although, in King County, the court will provide a partial list of deadlines to parties in a document called the “Case Schedule.” Still, it may not reflect all deadlines pertaining to your case. Further, even if you figure out what paperwork needs to be filed and when, it is easy to forget or lose track of time, which could compromise your case.
4. You are essentially representing yourself in your divorce.
Though representing yourself in divorce may sound appealing, it comes with a major hazard. Without a formal legal education, you are both vulnerable to countless potential technical pitfalls and, unless you yourself have years of legal experience in domestic relations law, it is unlikely you will know even the basics of family law, much less the complexities and legal nuances that can have lifetime impacts.
Googling, using YouTube, or self-study are not substitutes for attending law school, acquiring sufficient knowledge to pass the state bar, honing skills and knowledge through years of practice, and compliance for the remainder of one’s career with continuing legal education due to constant changes in the law. Your cousin’s divorce is not just like yours nor is it as easy as simply showing up to tell the judge your side of the story and assuming all will be resolved as you believe fair.
There are complex laws regarding the division of property, income, debt, and parenting. There are also rules concerning the evidence required to establish your points and when that evidence must be entered to be considered. Choosing to go through an online divorce subjects you to these same risks because you are essentially representing yourself.
5. You may not recognize what a fair settlement is.
Divorce is typically complicated. Without legal counsel, you might inadvertently agree to an unfair settlement that could hurt you financially or create problems after the case has concluded. While there are circumstances under which child support may be later modified, and in extreme instances sometimes even final parenting plans, mistakes in property and debt awards in divorces are not likely to be undone. In other words, there are no “do-overs.” If you agree to an unworkable financial settlement because you lacked advice of counsel, that is not a legal basis for the divorce to be relitigated or renegotiated.
Should you forego legal representation, you risk agreeing to a settlement that appears favorable initially, but ultimately is not. You also risk losing out on valuable assets to which you and your children might be legally entitled.
Remember, an online divorce is just as legally binding as a divorce in which you were properly represented. A court will enforce the terms of your divorce agreement. Better to get it right the first time.
6. Online documents are general, and no two divorces are the same.
An online divorce service provides information and resources that are far too general and, therefore, do not apply well to individual cases. As helpful as online resources are, there is no replacement for legal counsel who can provide you with individualized advice.
7. You lack perspective because you are too close to the issues.
It is incredibly difficult to maintain the level of emotional detachment necessary to represent your interests and view your case impartially. If you are unable to contain feelings of anger or frustration, you can undermine your case and make irrational decisions. By acquiring proper legal representation, you place a professional at your side who is there to advocate for you with objectivity.
Experienced family law attorneys commonly have negotiated and settled hundreds of cases. They have experience and training, as well as the benefit of not being emotionally compromised by sensitive issues in the case. Your spouse may have skills at controlling discussions and decisions during the marriage, and perhaps even securing outcomes they want using manipulation or bullying. Such tactics don’t work on professional negotiators and litigators.
10. An amicable divorce can quickly become a high-conflict divorce.
No matter how amicable the split is between you and your spouse, the divorce process is bound to stir up conflict. With the assistance of skilled legal counsel, especially counsel with conflict resolution training, you will better be able to navigate and resolve such conflicts.
Perhaps you and your ex always had a tumultuous relationship, or maybe the divorce process has brought to the forefront behaviors you never realized that they were capable of or had directed at you. Regardless of the circumstance, working through issues pertaining to your divorce with a high-conflict personality can be a challenge.
Whether you need to field false allegations from them, navigate their attempts to argue for the sake of it, work around their lack of interest in the family’s success, or address emergency situations, a skilled family law attorney can help. Without one, you may find yourself making concessions you would not have if you had legal representation.
11. You may still wind up in court.
Although you might be able to, in very limited circumstances, make a modification to your divorce agreement at a later date, this is not a process you should rely on as there is no guarantee a court will rule in your favor. Also, the process can take a long time, become costly, and cause you an incredible amount of aggravation.
Another risk is that critical deadlines will have passed during the time you were representing yourself. Those deadlines may not seem relevant or important when you believe you and your spouse would resolve all issues by agreement. But if you realize late into the case that settlement is no longer guaranteed, some of the missed deadlines may mean you have severely limited your options.
The better decision is to have an experienced divorce lawyer advocating on your behalf throughout your case. An experienced attorney will attend to your case deadlines and understands that until there is agreement on everything, the case is “contested,” and all deadlines still apply.
Final thoughts …
The primary goal in your divorce should be to walk away with an equitable settlement and, if applicable, a workable parenting plan — for you, your ex, and your children. The idea is to emerge from your divorce on solid ground so you can begin your post-divorce life from a position of strength and stability.
At Elise Buie Family Law, our skilled and experienced Seattle family lawyers understand the issues that can arise during even the most amicable divorces. We treat every case individually because every divorce is unique. We are here to listen and help. Call our office today.