HOW TO HIRE AN ONLINE DIVORCE WEBSITE
By Ed West, NetDivorce, LLC
This third article in the series tackles a number of diversions, considerations, instances of pricing nonsense and slight dishonesties facing uncontested divorce consumers online when they have decided to hire an online divorce forms preparation service. Your intrepid divorce reporter has the expert scoop to guide you through the minefield.
The first article in this sequence dealt with the choice facing new divorce consumers between hiring a lawyer and hiring a non-lawyer to provide uncontested divorce services. Assuming the question had been answered in favor of the non-lawyer option, the second article in the sequence addressed the next choice: that between a traditional Main-Street or “bricks-and-mortar” paralegal and an online divorce forms preparer.
This third article in the sequence assumes that the second question was answered in favor of the online option. It would not be my greatest prediction ever to tell you that the online divorce forms preparation option is the path that more uncontested divorces will be taking in the future. Online is where the greatest cost savings and some pretty cool software advances are already available. It’s where the non-lawyer divorce industry is going. Any business, not just divorce, that can go online, will.
How to drill down further now into the choices facing divorce consumers who have decided to hire an online divorce provider? There aren’t any more industry dichotomies to guide the analysis. So drilling down further, to provide additional guidance for the divorce consumer, inevitably must broaden into an analysis of the quality and integrity of the top 10 nationwide websites offering online divorce form preparation plus an unknown number of local or regional online providers across the country.
That is what this and the next article in this series will do.
I’ll continue to use the format of the prior two articles to address issues one at a time. Separating the issues enables the individual divorce consumer to attach her own significance to each issue. However, don’t think for a moment that the issues highlighted separately below and in the fourth article in this sequence will each hit you separately. They can and will be mixed and matched in almost any blend on any site offering online divorce forms preparation.
Feel-Good vs. Actual Divorce Form Preparation Sites: This is not to be disrespectful to feel-good sites. They provide a valuable service to some, but they do not provide divorce form preparation services. They provide access to divorce articles, divorce coaches, counselors, divorce books, divorce discussion groups and blogs. Some branch out to mediators and divorce lawyers. Some sell blank forms or provide “free” forms (more on that scam in the next article in the sequence).
There is nothing wrong with these sites, beyond any such scams, as long as you recognize these sites for what they are and realize that while they may provide some valuable services, they won’t prepare your divorce papers for you. There is a lot of these sites. It’s easy to recognize them because they don’t prominently display pricing for divorce document preparation.
My Advice: Avoid these sites unless you alone determine that you need them. Don’t get emotionally enticed into services you neither want or need. Be careful about providing personal info or an email address on feel-good sites. Some of these sites are lead generators for lawyers or legal services plans that will try to sign you up for such plans that cost $20 or $50 per month on a credit card auto-billing basis. If you want to hire a lawyer or sign up for a legal services plan, do it yourself. Don’t get duped in and bait-and-switched while you’re looking for divorce forms preparation.
Claimed Experience Level: Almost all of the top 10 nationwide online divorce forms preparers have been around since the late 1990’s or early 2000’s – no surprise there – the Internet boom. They are well experienced. You definitely want to hire experience even if it costs a little more.
My Advice: Try to find evidence about how long the online provider has been in existence. The gems to be found in this consideration are the smaller local or regional online divorce providers who have experience of pre-Internet divorce through a “bricks and mortar” company in your area. I would not make a strong argument that someone with 30 years’ experience in uncontested divorce is substantially better than someone with “only” 8-10 years, but it is a minor consideration.
Regional vs. National: Some online divorce forms preparers are nationwide. Others have remained local or regional. My opinion is that local or regional providers will be better for you just because they are closer to you and handle cases from a smaller catchment area and are more likely to know the quirks of your local court.
For example, it is unlikely that a large national online divorce forms preparer in Maryland will know that in Ventura County, California, there is very precise wording required (beyond that required by state law) in a Marital Settlement Agreement for a marriage over 10 years when there is a waiver of spousal support by either party. The Maryland outfit will only discover that when you tell them your papers have just been rejected after a two month processing delay at the court. No doubt, that Maryland divorce provider will then recover and correct the problem. You will then re-submit your divorce papers and wait another two months for the result of that submission. This is called crisis management. All online divorce form preparers employ crisis management to some extent. Many courts are different. A few are difficult. All change constantly, and most think that only they know the law. However, the smaller and more local your online divorce forms preparer, the more local knowledge they will have, the faster they will acquire it and the less likely is your case to get caught up and delayed in such adjustments.
My Advice: If you have the option (and sometimes you won’t), go with a smaller state-wide or regional online divorce forms preparer, but if the choice is between local/regional and inexperienced or nationwide and experienced, definitely go with the experience every time. Experience is a larger factor than location and local knowledge, but even 2-3 years of experience should be enough if you can find someone local.
Price Advertising Nonsense: Obviously you want to know the full and final price before you pay a dime. Almost all of the top 10 national sites are upfront and clear in their onsite pricing – so no problem there. But the problem is in the advertising of fees in text or banner ads on Google or similar advertisement distribution systems. These are the ads you will likely see that attract you to a particular site in the first place.
What to watch for here are phrases like, “from $150,” “starting at $200” or the popular, “start your case for $175.” You want either a full and clear advertisement of the all-inclusive price or no advertisement of price at all. Teasers or up-sellers are not helpful. Regrettably, this type of practice seems to be more pervasive in smaller local online divorce providers, no doubt because they are trying to become larger.
The reason that no advertisement of pricing is fine is that some online divorce providers still divide uncontested divorce fees into “with children” and “without children.” Some even add extra for a Marital Settlement Agreement, which most cases will need. There’s nothing wrong with such menu pricing, though in the age of divorce software, it should not be necessary. Make sure any menu pricing and up-selling possibilities are clearly indicated on-site.
Another troubling and developing piece of price nonsense that I’ve noticed recently is that a small group of regional sites in California has morphed to an higher price level, namely “starting at $349,” but conceals their pricing on-site in the obvious hope of getting you to begin their interview process before you find the actual price of your case. When you get to a site, if you cannot discover the stated complete all-inclusive price with one or fewer clicks, walk away.
The best indication you can get of no shenanigans in price is an online divorce form preparer that both advertises and quotes on-site a full unconditional all-inclusive flat price with no ups or extras. As far as I’m aware only one California regional site does that, though I’m sure there are other regional outfits around the country who play it dead straight on price. Most of the top 10 national sites offer straight-forward no-nonsense pricing on their sites, but do not mention price at all in their advertising. I deduce that is because they know they cannot compete with hungrier cheaper local competitors and think that their only chance is to get you onto their websites to find out what their pricing is like.
My Advice: Uncontested divorce pricing is not rocket science. This is an easy piece of misleading nonsense for an online divorce provider to avoid. They either say nothing about price in their advertising or their advertising tells you unconditionally what the price is. If an online provider has to play around with pricing, either in advertising or on-site, there’s more playing to come. Stay away.
Local County Forms: This is connected to the choice between national and local online divorce providers.
States are responsible for divorce laws, procedures and forms. You might think that would be the end of that consideration, but it is not. Over time, local judges and courts have developed their own local county forms to take care of small legal or procedural issues not covered by state law or to deal with issues that have been found, for some reason, to be problems at local level though not at state level. State judicial officials tend to let this happen as long as the local form does not detract from or interfere with any state law, rule or procedure. As a long-term result, almost all divorce filings will involve some local forms, as well as state ones.
It is tough to keep up with all of these local forms and all the changes that are constantly made to them, as well as keeping up with the bulk of state forms. For example, California has 58 counties, each with local divorce forms.
Larger national divorce providers will keep up with 50 sets of state forms, but they are not even going to try to keep up with 3000 sets of local county forms. Local online divorce providers might keep up with their local county forms if they have professional integrity. Again, as my 3o+ years of high volume divorce experience is all from within California, I must provide an example of what I know, though this occurs nationwide. Of the approximately 15 national or local online providers that control the California online divorce market, only two specifically state that they cover local forms and both of those are local online providers.
Look at the top of the site you’re thinking of hiring. The key words you are looking for to discover this problem are something like, “Our low fee covers all the state-approved forms your case will require.” Yes, that’s right. These are dishonest statements and you should wonder what else is being hidden. Such a company takes a deficiency in their service and dresses it up as what seems like a positive sales point. Sure they handle all state forms. Who doesn’t? But they decline to advise you that your case will almost certainly require local divorce forms and you are on your own if that is so.
How and why does this matter? Because when you go to court to file your divorce papers, the happy filing clerk will throw any missing local form at you and reject your filing. You then go home, call your online provider and ask “what the heck?" They will tell you quite accurately that they told you up front that they would only provide state-approved forms. I think this is dishonest.
My Advice: Once again, the takeaway here is an obvious no-brainer – avoid this problem altogether by hiring a local or regional online divorce forms preparer – not a larger national firm. Look on their site for a specific promise that both state and local or county forms are covered in their flat price.
I hope and trust that this has been informative and helpful to you in your considerations of how to proceed on your divorce case. The fourth article in this sequence will focus on the “free” divorce forms scam.
How To Hire An Online Divorce Website