Originally created 03/12/06

Do-it-yourself divorces get easier



NEW YORK - Nicole Christie's divorce was $450 and took about three months to complete - that's about 3 percent the cost of her wedding and one-third the time it took to plan it.

Instead of hiring lawyers, she and her then-husband agreed to simply split their assets down the middle and fill out the divorce papers on a Web site.

"It's really great if you're divorcing amicably," said 33-year-old Christie, a writer, who filed in Washington state and now lives in New York.

"It was so easy, I still question if it's legitimate," she added with a laugh.

To save money, time and energy, more couples have been turning to do-it-yourself divorces - filing to split without lawyers. It's been an option for years, but it's gotten easier and more widespread as more online resources have become available.

"There's no question that there's been a trend towards do-it-yourself divorces, and do-it-yourself law in general, in the past decade," said attorney Alan Kopit, chairman of the American Bar Association's division for public education and partner at Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP in Cleveland. "More people are turning to the Internet - many sites have very complete forms."

Divorce filing costs, rules and practices vary greatly by state. But divorce attorney Sharyn Sooho said in Middlesex County, Mass., where she practices, about a third of all divorcing couples are now doing so without lawyers.

The main reason is cost, she said. When you cut out legal expenses, most do-it-yourself divorces cost just a few hundred dollars.

"In a more typical case...you'll save $3,000 to $4,000 per spouse. So for the family, that's quite a bit of money," said Sooho, who runs the Internet divorce resource site divorcenet.com.

Today, attorney fees range from about $1,500 for simple divorces to tens of thousands of dollars - sometimes reaching above $100,000 - for more complex divorces.

Saving money was a big benefit for Keith Bowermaster and his high-school sweetheart when they filed for divorce on their own to end their 11-year marriage. Instead of turning to lawyers, they picked up forms from the Dade County, Fla., courthouse and filed them themselves.

"$270 was the total cost. Most lawyers charge that for an hour," said Bowermaster, who works at a small public relations agency in Florida. "At the time, we just wanted to get this over with, move on with our lives, and not get everything dragged out with lawyers."

Of course, some divorces can be messy, and even in the most amicable splits are rarely cut-and-dry. So how should a divorcing couple decide whether to hire attorneys?

First, if there's any disagreement over assets or doubt that a spouse is being forthcoming, a lawyer will most likely be necessary.

Also, even a couple that's splitting amicably should take a look at their shared property, experts say. If a couple owns a home, a family business, or any other big or hard-to-value asset, an attorney may need to intervene to help decide how to allocate it, Kopit said.

And most importantly, if a couple has a child, a do-it-yourself divorce is only feasible if you agree with your spouse on custody, visitation and guardianship issues. Even so, it's helpful to at least seek the advice of a lawyer.

Filing online "is not the same as drawing on someone with 25 years of experience in the divorce field," Kopit said.

Bowermaster admits it may have been helpful to have spent an hour or two consulting a lawyer because he and his then-wife had a house and a son, now seven years old. Situations arise, such as after-school care and Boy Scouts, that you just don't think about ahead of time, he said.

Still, because the divorce was amicable, he said the do-it-yourself divorce was ultimately the best choice.

"It's a great option for couples who do agree on the conditions of the divorce... but all the t's need to be crossed and all the i's need to be dotted," Bowermaster said.

There are a few routes to take - Web sites, books, workshops, or combinations of these.

Sooho said there are numerous online resources out there, but she's seen particular success with uslegalforms.com if you're confident about creating your own agreement with your spouse. The forms usually cost between $25 and $50.

If you want something more instructive, Sooho recommends complete case.com, which costs $250. Christie used this interactive online document preparation program, and said it took only about 20 minutes to fill out the forms.

Another option is legalzoom.com, said John Chung, 36, who works in office furniture sales in Pasadena, Calif. He used the Web site's divorce program, which cost less than $100, after discovering it a few years earlier when preparing his own will.

Experts recommend buying a state-specific divorce instruction book rather than a general, national one, since different states have different laws, especially regarding child support.

Courtney Newman found success with the $30 book "How To Do Your Divorce in California" by Nolo Press, which comes with a CD with the necessary documents.

"I think certainly, if you're organized and willing to take the time to read the book first, it's doable," said Newman, whose total divorce came out to $295, which her ex-husband paid since she did all the paperwork.

Its hard to say if the trend toward do-it-yourself divorces will continue or plateau, said Sooho, since a lot depends on each state's divorce laws and court procedures.

"It should be as simple as filling out a form for your driver's license," Sooho said, referring to divorces in which both parties agree on the terms. "I don't know why it's so complicated."

But until state laws make divorce a simpler procedure, do-it-yourself divorces are a quick, cheap, and for many, more cordial way to handle a divorce.

Justin Massey and his ex-wife filed for divorce a year and a half ago in Washington state, with the help of a workshop in his neighborhood.

"It's comforting to me that it wasn't (dragged) through the proverbial divorce courthouse mud," Massey said. "If you want to maintain that respect for your marriage, it's a great path for that."