Over the last few years, financial struggles have caused many people to look to online services for help in resolving their divorce issues. These services typically provide low cost form separation agreements that can be purchased, downloaded and then completed by a couple. These forms can typically contain provisions for property distribution, alimony, post-separation support, child custody, child support and separation.
I strongly support the movement to help people resolve divorce issues and reach separation agreements at a reasonable cost. However, there are significant risks with using these online divorce agreements.
In this series of articles, I’ll address some of the issues that need to be considered before choosing to use online divorce forms and separation agreements.
Perhaps the biggest issue with these online divorce forms is that the companies specifically state on their websites that the forms are not a substitute for solid legal counsel. For instance, LegalZoom.com states the following on the front page of its website (albeit at the bottom in a smaller and lighter font):
“Please note that LegalZoom is not a law firm, does not act as your attorney and is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Rather, it helps you represent yourself in your own legal matters. If you seek representation, are involved in litigation or have complex legal issues that cannot be resolved on your own, we recommend that you hire an attorney”.
Further, the online documents I have seen from clients contain a similar disclaimer in bold print on the front page of the form.
Specifically, the phrase “complex legal issues” presents a problem. How exactly is someone who is not an expert on North Carolina family law supposed to know whether they have a complex legal issue? How do you know whether this online legal form is going to be legally sufficient for your particular case?
One specific issue that I have seen is this: Many clients use these online forms and believe that the matters in the agreement are forever settled. Then something changes and the other party files a lawsuit that would alter some part of the agreement. They typically tell me “I would not have agreed to this agreement if I had known that it could have been changed later by a court.” Any North Carolina family law attorney could have warned about that issue up front. That is the kind of information that people need to know before they sign any agreements.
In my mind, using an online separation agreement form is not necessarily a bad decision. But, using an online separation agreement without at least reviewing it with a family law attorney may well cost you more in legal problems down the road then you are ever likely to save by avoiding the limited expense of some up-front advice by a knowledgeable lawyer.
In the next post, I will discuss some privacy issues with online separation agreements.
Randolph (Tré) Morgan III is an experienced family law attorney accepting cases in Raleigh, Cary, Apex, Garner, Fuquay-Varina, Clayton, Smithfield, Wake Forest, RTP, Durham, Chapel Hill, Holly Springs and surrounding areas. He focuses his practice in divorce, child custody, alimony, child support, equitable distribution, property division, alienation of affection, criminal conversation, parentage, guardianship and other family related matters. He is skilled in litigation, mediation, collaborative divorce, arbitration and traditional negotiation.