THE FREE FORMS FRAUD IN ONLINE DIVORCE
By Ed West, NetDivorce, LLC
Divorce is hard enough already without having to be aware of and avoid small low-life tricks like the “free” forms scam in online divorce. The websites that participate in this fraud apparently cannot compete honestly and openly in their own chosen field, but instead have to insert themselves into the online divorce market to try to take advantage of people who want to get their uncontested divorces done without breaking the bank.
This article is the most recent in a series dealing with what new divorce consumers should consider and avoid when hiring an online divorce forms preparer to handle an uncontested divorce. The first article in the series discussed Lawyers vs Non-Lawyers in California Divorce. Then I moved on to Main-Street Divorce Paralegals vs. Online Divorce Providers. Then I further narrowed it down to How to Hire an Online Divorce Website. This and the next article will highlight specific scams being used to trick you, the divorce consumer.
The “free” forms scam deserved its own article. The “free” forms scam falls into two distinct categories of websites. We’ll call them Kit Providers and Bait and Switchers.
Kit Providers: I touched on these briefly in the prior articles in this series. Kit Providers offer blank downloadable divorce forms, i.e. forms not completed with your personal information. Divorce forms obviously need to be completed before they can be filed at court to begin your divorce.
Blank forms are provided by Kit Providers on the basis that you will be able to complete them using their provided instructions and then, again using their written instructions, to file your case at court and then complete your divorce free of charge (other than any court filing fee, which can be waived if you have low income).
Therefore, what is offered by Kit Providers is a compelling possibility for those trying to save money in their uncontested divorce cases, i.e. everyone. They provide the free forms and the written instructions. You provide your personal data. No wonder so many get duped.
All that is missing is the knowledge of how to complete whichever forms apply to your case, what to do with those completed forms and when to do it. It can’t be too difficult to figure out that last part, can it?
I regret to advise you to forget it. In divorce, strangely like everything else any of us has ever experienced in life, nothing of any value is free. If there is value, there is always a cost hiding somewhere. If there is no value, then there is no value.
There is no value in downloading blank free divorce forms. Downloading free blank forms will never, with any amount of un-personalized written instruction, get you divorced in a clean smooth process, if at all. If you attempt it, I can virtually guarantee you that it will not go well. When you fail to complete your case, you will then encounter the cost you tried to avoid – and then some!
I have seen the quality of several sets of written instructions that come with downloadable forms. They are all only several pages of very thin, vague and sketchy instructions that will not help you in any practical sense to get your specific case filed or completed without getting your documents rejected repeatedly by the court. Such instructions could not possibly contain enough specific personalized information to enable you to complete your specific case in your particular local court.
The problem is that unlike after you have hired a lawyer ($600-$800 for an uncontested) or an experienced high-quality online divorce service ($129-$300), Kit Providers will not know anything about you, your case or your local court at the time you download their kit and instructions. Such instructions would literally need to be hundreds of pages long to instruct you on all reasonable possibilities. In fact, they would have to be so long and complex that no one would ever read them to try to find the few pages that apply to her case.
You will still need to figure out how to complete which forms in the circumstances of your case and what to do with them and when.
One well-established and well-known major California Kit Provider will sell you a 250-page book for $22 that purports to tell you how to fill in their “free” forms and what to do with them. You might think that is not a bad deal and could save you some money.
Yet the $22 book also fails the practical test, and they have been selling that book, updated every year, since 1972. There is no doubt that this book is well-written by well-intentioned experienced people who are trying to assist you – up to a certain point. But the last time that book actually worked to tell someone how to complete and file divorce forms from start to finish was around 1972. Divorce is just too complex these days – too many different forms, procedures and multiple complex life issues that inevitably bleed through into your specific case.
The $22 book (which also comes with a CD) tells you itself that it doesn’t work. On page 18, they tell you that you will need to hire a lawyer (or one of the 100 Legal Document Assistants who pay to get listed in the book) if your division of property and debt is not equal (so that’s about 90% of uncontested divorce cases right there) or if either of you earns over $30,000 a year, if you have joint credit cards or have been married more than 5 years (so that’s the other 10% of uncontested divorces). You just paid a Kit Provider $22 for the best set of instructions available for a kit and those instructions tell you, after you plow through the first 18 pages, not to use them! What a deal!!
There is no honest reason for a Kit Provider to offer “free” forms with instructions, whether literally free or for $22. All divorce forms are public documents. You can download all state and county blank divorce forms FREE from your state’s judicial website, from the website of your county’s local Superior or Circuit (or whatever your state’s divorce courts are called) Court or sometimes from the local Legal Aid Society website.
You might think, “So what’s the problem with a website offering free what is also available free somewhere else?” Your clue to what is wrong is that the government and Legal Aid Society sites will not ask for your email address before you download.
That’s right. There’s a hook. Kit Providers are either fronts for law firms or are lead generators for law firms. Lead generators are like lawyer referral services without the referral. They will have sold your zip code to a dozen or more lawyers or law firms.
Because lawyers are not allowed to solicit your business directly, the lawyer cannot email you directly, but the Kit Provider is not a lawyer. They know that there is virtually no way you will be able to figure out how to complete their kit of blank forms, and they’ve got your email address. They have generated you as a lead to be sold. And you stumbled right in because you wanted to save money and you thought that you could figure this out yourself. The Kit Providers can solicit you all they want until such time as you get confused enough about the forms and give up. They will then “rescue” you. You and your case are assigned to the next law firm entitled to a lead in your zip code.
And lo and behold, when you follow the links in the $22 book or on their Kit Provider site, you find that they are lawyers too. They’ll do your whole uncontested case for $2000 or just get it filed for $400. So they’re not even cheap lawyers.
You could have exercised your own judgment, talked to people you trust and picked your own local lawyer yourself for about $600-800 for an uncontested case. And you could have done so without the extra confusion, frustration, delay, difficulty and trickery. Don’t get hooked by a “free” Kit Provider or a $22 divorce book. The true cost will be the loss of your control over your own case.
Bait and Switchers: This group is different and more insidious because you actually get something at the end, but it’s not what you thought you would get and to get it, you have to disclose a lot of private data to someone you have not hired.
I should point out that my research for this article revealed one dominant Google-partially owned company. I found three websites that fit the description of this group, but minimal clicking brought me back always to the one dominant site. Just search for “free divorce documents.” One of this company’s three (that I found) affiliated websites will be listed first and second in the paid ads. The third website and the Kit Providers fill out the rest of the paid results.
What you get from Bait and Switchers (perhaps I should just say, “THE Bait and Switcher”) is an enticing advertisement for “free divorce documents,” a very good, low key, on-site call to action (you almost don’t know that you’ve started), the disclosure of your personal data to a Google-company without any contractual relationship between you, the eventual provision of an actual free completed “divorce document” and no closer at all to getting your uncontested divorce case actually prepared or filed at court.
In fact, the dominant Bait and Switcher does not offer ANY divorce forms preparation service, other than the single free document. Despite advertising which promises, “Print the forms you need free,” “Customizable divorce documents” and ”Free divorce documents –no credit card required,” you cannot get your divorce case prepared, filed or completed on the Bait and Switch site!
What enables the Bait and Switcher to offer “free divorce documents,” (note the plural) is that in a list of eight documents they call “divorce documents,” the Divorce Settlement Agreement is listed twice by two different names and the other six documents are so unlikely to be of any practical value to the vast majority of people, it is clear that they are in the list only to enable the site to claim that they offer multiple divorce documents.
The other six so-called “divorce” documents include a change of address letter, a demand letter for alimony, a demand letter for child support, a letter to the court asking for existing divorce records and something called a divorce worksheet. None of these documents are “divorce documents” in any legal sense. These are all form letters that took 2 or 3 minutes each to write. None of these are divorce documents that ever get filed at any court. Yet you were promised “free divorce documents.”
Unless you pick one of those non-divorce demand letters, the document you would receive is called a Divorce Settlement Agreement. It is the written agreement between you and your spouse that covers all aspects of your agreement with your spouse on all issues of your divorce. There is no doubt that it is the single most important document in your case. Yet it will not get your case filed or finalized without many other legal documents being prepared and filed. None of those legal documents are available at any price from the Bait and Switcher website.
But the reason you were promised “free divorce documents “in the first place is that in the mind of any reasonable person, that promise refers to multiple legal state divorce forms that get filed at court to begin your case. The Bait and Switcher knows that is what you will think.
Yet after you have completed the online interview (I would guess at 20-30 minutes of your time in an average case with 2 children and a house and a few other normal issues), you have disclosed a large amount of personally identifiable information without the existence of any contract to protect you.
You are then offered three options to proceed. Those are: (1) a free one-week membership; (2) a personal legal services plan for $20 per month on credit card auto-billing; or (3) a personal/business legal services plan for $50 per month on credit card auto-billing. If you select the free week, you are required to provide credit card data, and then unless you terminate during that week, you begin credit card auto-billing for one of the other two options.
If you scroll down to the very bottom of the screen, even below the orange continue button, you will also see a button that says, “No thanks, I will take my read only version.” “Read-only” means that you cannot edit or change your free document. It’s a done deal. You’re finished. The “read-only” document is the only option, after you’ve invested an average of 20-30 minutes and disclosed your private information to a Google-company, that does not require disclosure of your credit card data.
Is there any way to recover after you’ve been baited with “free divorce documents” and Switched to a single un-editable document that will not get your case filed or completed? Neither the $20 nor the $50 per month pre-paid legal services plans cover divorce, though each will enable you to talk to a local lawyer once free on the phone. Almost all divorce lawyers provide at least one free telephone consultation.
Anything more than one phone call will be billed to you at 40% of the lawyer’s standard rate or $125 per hour, whichever is greater. Remember the, “Free divorce documents – no credit card required?” Since then, they’ve tried to sell you a pre-paid legal services plan that doesn’t cover divorce. Finally, you discover that the Bait and Switchers, like so many Kit Providers, are nothing more than lead generators for lawyers. Once again, the next lawyer up in your zip code gets your case.
If you think that either a $20 or $50 per month pre-paid legal services plan on credit card auto-billing is a good deal, sign up for one. If you decide to hire a lawyer to handle your uncontested divorce, look around, talk to people you trust, get referrals and pick a lawyer yourself. Don’t get Baited and Switched into a lawyer that someone else selects for you.
The Free Forms Fraud in Online Divorce