Divorce online: faster, cheaper, and lawyer-free

Until a few months ago, business cards were the only thing Valentino Agundez had bought online. But in March, she decided to use the Internet to purchase something more permanent: a divorce.

The kindergarten teacher and her husband were already separated, but had put off making their split official because of the legal fees. Then a friend suggested a website that offered to prepare the paperwork for $249.

"I kind of felt weird about it, because it was over the Internet. But when I went online, it was really easy," says Ms. Agundez, who is in her early 20s and lives in Hollywood, Calif.

Agundez is one of a growing number of Americans who use the Internet to help with their divorces, bypassing attorneys to prepare documents on their own.

Many go online to save money and forgo the emotional clashes that can play out in lawyers' offices. But as states move toward allowing divorces to be actually filed online, critics say it could make the process of breaking up as easy as ordering movie tickets - and push up the already high number of divorces in the United States.

"People are going to enter into marriage much more casually with something like this available," says Jan LaRue, chief counsel of the conservative group Concerned Women for America. "The idea of [divorce] becoming faster and cheaper - to me, that doesn't help the idea of marriage."

It may be a year or more before filing for divorce online is truly possible, but using the Internet to help with the process has already caught on - pushed ahead by two other trends: more people representing themselves in legal matters and growing comfort with handling paperwork, such as taxes, online.

For Agundez, who used a site called LegalZoom.com, the Internet changed her perception of how much time and drama were involved in the divorce process. "The Internet responds to you right away, and that's not the way I pictured divorce," she says.

LegalZoom and CompleteCase.com, another national site that helps with uncontested divorces, say that since they launched in 2001, they've served approximately 30,000 and 20,000 divorce customers respectively.

In May, the number of divorce packages sold by LegalZoom - which also handles other legal documents, like wills - was up by 43 percent over May of 2002, according to the company's CEO, Brian Liu. CompleteCase, which only handles divorces, has also grown significantly - and has spawned a bevy of copycats.

Do-it-yourself divorcing may be a boon for online companies - which offer document preparation and services that range from under $50 to $1,000 or more - but it can complicate things for state and local courts, which is one reason so many of them have also entered the Internet fray.

By offering online access to information and forms, courts in states such as California, Arizona, Utah, and Maryland hope to cut down on the backlog created by do-it-yourselfers who file incorrect paperwork and to better serve low-income users. A few include programs that walk people through the forms, similar to the way online tax-preparer TurboTax does.

"Our real goal is to make sure that people do a good job of self-diagnosing their problem," says Ayn Crawley, director of the Maryland Legal Assistance Network in Baltimore.

She notes that people often set out to represent themselves, not realizing they should ask a few more questions. "People may trade off pension rights for custody, and you should know what you're giving up," she says.

In California's San Mateo County, almost 10,000 people dealing with family-law matters have completed their forms online in the past 12 months. The county's next big project, to be completed next year, will allow people to file their completed paperwork directly to the court online.

That, say marriage advocates, is a bad idea. If online filing catches on, they argue, it could give the perception that getting unhitched is as easy as clicking a mouse.

Already alarmed by the rise in divorces from the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s, a number of family-values groups are opposed to measures that diminish the seriousness of divorce.

"The message from online filing ... is that marriage really is just a piece of paper," says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

She is less concerned about using online services to save money on legal fees, but worries that the number of unnecessary divorces will grow if people can impulsively file for divorce in the middle of the night. "If there's an online divorce [available], and you're in the mood, you can go ahead and file," she says.

For now, instant divorce is still a ways off - and may never be quite that simple. State laws vary, but many require couples to appear in court and file further paperwork after the initial filing.

Those who have gone the online route say the Internet didn't simplify their decision, only the mechanics of carrying it out.

"It really doesn't take away all the emotional issues. But it does make the process easier," says Al Hernandez, a salesman from Concord, Calif., who spent about $500 for his divorce.

The California-only provider he used, DivorceWizards.com, both helped him prepare his documents and took them to court and filed them for him in 2001. He tried to reconcile with his wife for a year after his initial filing, but eventually continued the process. He went the online route both to keep costs down - simply retaining a lawyer would have cost him between $1,500 and $3,500 - and to keep things as amicable as possible.

Like many Americans, he chose to leave lawyers out of it. "I really think it creates more animosity between the parties," he says. "It ends up making you bicker over little things."

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