‘Do-it-yourself’ divorce is a bad idea

Recently, a number of companies have been trying to persuade people that they can save money by handling their divorce on their own. These companies sell packets of generic forms in books or on the Internet, claiming that they were developed by “expert” attorneys and that they’re all you need.

Buyer beware!

These forms might be accepted by a divorce court, but they’re not tailored to your specific situation and the companies do not provide legal advice to protect you. Countless people who have used these forms have made mistakes that have cost them far more than they would ever have spent on a lawyer.

The sad irony is that the people who use these forms tend to be couples who are splitting up on reasonably good terms. They think they’re saving money – but the truth is that these types of uncontested divorces are the ones where attorney fees are low and where an attorney can provide the greatest “bang for the buck,” because all of the attorney’s time is spent protecting you rather than fighting with the other side.

If you know someone who’s thinking of a “do-it-yourself” divorce, ask them these questions:

  • Do you know if you’re entitled to a share of your spouse’s pension, IRA or 401(k) plan? If so, do you understand the highly technical requirements you must comply with as to your spouse’s employer or plan custodian? A “divorce kit” generally won’t help you with this.
  • If you’re splitting up property, are you aware of all the tax consequences? Many people have done it the wrong way, and been surprised later with a large and unnecessary capital gains or other tax bill. (A divorce kit won’t give you tax advice, either.)
  • How can you be sure that your spouse doesn’t have assets that he or she isn’t telling you about?
  • If your spouse promises to pay you money, and doesn’t follow through, how will you be protected? Or if you spouse promises to pay you money and later files for bankruptcy, how will you be protected?
  • Do you know how to re-title property in separate names in a way that provides legal safeguards? Do you know every type of beneficiary designation that need to be changed?
  • Are you entitled to a share of your spouse’s stock options? Do you know how to divide them in a way that’s legally effective?
  • Do you know what changes need to be made to your estate plan after the divorce?
  • Do you fully understand the effect of the divorce on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance, and other benefits?
  • If you have children, have you taken care of them in terms of visitation and support? Will they be fully protected if your circumstances change in the future, or if your spouse’s circumstances change?
  • What if your children incur large expenses in the future, such as for medical problems or college tuition? Does your divorce agreement deal with this in detail?
  • What if your spouse agrees to pay child support, but dies unexpectedly? Have you provided for this, such as through a legally mandated life insurance policy?

If your head is spinning, it should be. Because the legal and financial implications of even the most simple, uncontested divorce can be profound.

You get what you pay for, and the legal consequences of doing a divorce on the cheap with an online kit can be very costly indeed.