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4 Ways DIY Divorces Can Lead to Disaster

December 12, 2016
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By Ann Levin

The number of websites offering “do-it-yourself” divorces has exploded in recent years, with many sites advertising services for less than $200. While these sites may be useful for informational purposes, relying solely on these services to complete a divorce can create costly consequences for both parties.

DIY projects often allow individuals to save time and money on a wide variety of tasks. However, the stakes are much higher when ending a marriage. Even the slightest oversight could cost someone dearly and result in years of additional legal wrangling to rectify the mistake. Talking to an attorney and paying a few dollars more on the front end will frequently prevent the need for many couples to pay a whole lot more in the long run.

That is not to say that all web-based divorce services are useless. Some websites can meet the needs of couples who fall within a very specific set of circumstances, such as recently married, childless couples in which both partners have similar incomes and possess few assets that must be divided. However, a couple who owns a home, retirement accounts or other high-priced assets could pay severe consequences for trying to save a little time and effort through a quickie internet divorce.

Here are four ways that relying on internet DIY divorce services can backfire:

1. Division of retirement assets

Retirement accounts and plans are among the most important assets that must be divvied up in a divorce, but many online divorce services fail to account for the complexities associated with this process. Even defining what constitutes a retirement asset can be challenging.

For example, a sizable annuity may or may not be properly identified as a retirement fund, causing one party in the divorce to lose the entire asset. The problem becomes even more complicated when one partner contemplates a withdrawal from a retirement account, such as a pension, and learns too late that withdrawals are not immediately permitted by the plan rules. Even in cases that are not overly contentious, dividing up retirement assets is a minefield that is best navigated by an attorney.

2. No provisions for non-compliance

It is not uncommon in divorce proceedings for one or both parties to fail to carry out some provision of the agreement. If a couple owns a home, any divorce agreement should stipulate which partner gets to keep the property. However, does it also address what happens if one partner lingers for months or even years because they cannot find a suitable living arrangement? What are the consequences if there is a missed mortgage payment while both names remain on the loan, pending a refinance? What if the partner who keeps the home is unable to refinance and cannot make the monthly payments?

In any of these cases, one partner could experience serious discomfort through no fault of his/her own. Divorce documents need to spell out clear and reasonable timelines for every scenario, as well as consequences should either party fails to meet his or her obligations.

3. Contradictory language

The language used by attorneys is trending toward being simpler and clearer. However, many sites offering DIY divorce forms may include outdated, contradictory language about a wide variety of assets. For example, an agreement might award “any and all” assets in one category to one partner, while language in another part of the document awards a particular asset (for example, a vehicle or joint bank account) that falls within that same category to the other partner.

Those three simple words – “any and all” – might lead to a convoluted and extended legal battle that ultimately deprives one party of an asset he/she never meant to give up.

4. Costly modifications to alimony or child support

While most DIY sites allow both partners to agree on the level of child and/or spousal support, those agreements often fail to account for the fact that support generally does not last forever. For example, it is possible to modify or eliminate payment amounts following a significant life change, such as a new job or a new marriage. However, the situation can be uncomfortable (and expensive) when there is no language in their signed agreement regarding how a modification should be calculated. In these cases, the resulting legal battles can end up being far more costly and time-consuming than the cost of consulting an attorney and hashing out the details ahead of time.

Although there are plenty of reasons why couples should not rely entirely on DIY divorce services, exploring these kinds of sites before consulting an attorney may provide some useful background information. The divorce process is much simpler when couples can communicate about issues like child custody and division of assets ahead of time. However, it is critical for both partners to avoid signing or initialing documents they find through a Google search before consulting an attorney and understanding the potential legal ramifications.

Ending a marriage is often an extremely stressful and emotionally draining experience. Ensuring this process is completed accurately and comprehensively by meeting with a qualified and experienced attorney is the best way for both parties to move forward and avoid costly, prolonged legal clashes in the future.

Ann V. Levin is an attorney at McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC and has been practicing family law in Central Pennsylvania since 1995. She can be reached at 717.237.5403 or alevin@mcneeslaw.com.

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Ann V. Levin

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Family and Collaborative Law