I read an online post by one mother asking another mother why
she needed to pay an attorney to draft her estate plan when she could do it
herself for a few hundred dollars from an online service. I thought,
“Because it goes into effect at death, so you won’t be
able to fix a mistake.”
Then I remembered other statements I heard from clients in my own family law practice who have used document preparation services:
- “I thought I was divorced.”
- “I didn’t realize that she wasn’t supposed to get half of
my personal injury proceeds.”
- “I didn’t think about my start-up company, our credit card
accounts, my ex moving to another state with our children. . .(or numerous
Many internet legal services and preparation centers say they
can help people with their divorce in “uncontested matters” (i.e. the “easy”
cases, when two people agree to amicably dissolve their marriage).
Their job is to prepare the forms, not give legal advice. However,
in marriage and in divorce, nothing is ever "easy". Even when spouses
get along, their situation is unique and requires legal input.
For example, a child custody schedule that works for one
family will not work for another family because of different work schedules,
activity schedules, children’s ages, holidays that are important to a parent,
etc. Cookie cutter forms from a document prep service can’t possibly take all
of these factors into account.
Additionally, the schedule needs to be clearly written to
avoid miscommunications and disputes. I also find that even when a couple is
able to agree upon nearly every issue, there is usually one item that they need
help resolving. It is extraordinary for divorcing couples to completely agree
Protect Yourself: Divorce
Terms Should be Clearly Defined
A document preparer is very different from a lawyer
knowledgeable in divorce matters. In order to draft an agreement that will
protect the parties, the drafter needs to understand what the parties are
worried about (e.g. the other parent will not reliably pay the bills), what the
law is, and what will happen if the parties’ cannot agree (i.e. how a court
would resolve the matter).
Attorneys employ a complicated mathematical formula to determine
spousal and child support responsibilities – it’s never as cut and dried as
"S/He gets half." You may need a forensic accountant to determine the
costs and profits of running your business, your child may be more comfortable
spending time with your ex if there’s a qualified, supervised
visitation monitor around, and there is a whole host of other issues to
consider regarding your family and your money.
Document preparers are not qualified to handle such issues.
Family Law Forms Can be
For many people getting divorced, it is their first time
seeing the family law court forms, which can be intimidating. If there is no
frame of reference, it is hard to know how to proceed, which is why most people
need legal advice at the end of the day.
Many people shy away from attorneys because of the cost. But
most attorneys are willing to work out arrangements whereby they may serve as
consultants and answer questions, simply review forms, or provide guidance to
clients who want to do their own divorce.
If a couple is willing to work together (i.e. everything will
be uncontested), I encourage them to mediate
their divorce with an experienced family law attorney. The mediator will protect
both from future litigation (including collection matters from third party
creditors), explain the meaning of the agreement and its legal effect, and
obtain a court order dissolving the couple’s marriage that is complete and
Mediation involves an attorney meeting with the parties to try
to help them come to a divorce agreement. The attorney is neutral and does not
represent either spouse. Most attorneys, my office included, require a smaller
retainer for mediation clients.
In the end, the cost of having a complete and accurate marital
settlement agreement outweighs the risk of having to litigate the issues in the
future (e.g. litigation may result from issues that were not addressed in the
agreement, not clearly addressed in the agreement, or when one side has a
change of heart and wants to set aside the agreement).
You may end up with a poor result from a document preparation
service. Some consequences include:
- Being told you are divorced when you are not,
- Getting incorrect legal advice,
- Ending up with an agreement that does not make
sense, an agreement that has conflicting paragraphs, or an agreement that is
There is not much that can be done since document preparers
are not regulated by a licensing body the way attorneys are. In other words,
there is little, if any, accountability.
Attorneys are paid to give you legal advice tailored to your
specific situation. Even if you chose to handle your own divorce, you should
have your document reviewed by a divorce attorney before signing it so that you
understand what you are doing, and make any necessary changes before it is
finalized. Your divorce judgment should clearly reflect your intentions when it
is submitted to the court for the judge’s signature.
Vanessa Soto Nellis is a San Fernando Valley Divorce
Attorney at Lewitt Hackman. If you have any questions, her contact
information is available at www.lewitthackman.com.
Why Document Preparation Services and internet legal services can’t fully protect you, whether you’re starting a business, planning your estate or gettting a divorce. The dangers of using cookie-cutter forms and how they could cost you much more in the long run.