It's hard to turn on your television or surf the internet these days without seeing an ad for LegalZoom or some other national "online" legal services provider. The ads are typically aimed at owners of small businesses to help them with their business formation paperwork, but we're now seeing an increase in ads aimed directly at couples who wish to divorce, but don't want to pay to hire local attorneys to help them with the process. In our opinion, these ads should come with DANGER signs to warn people of the trouble which could be waiting for them if they attempt to use these services to obtain their South Carolina divorce.
A Dollar Saved May Be Thousands Wasted
One of the pro's of these online services is that you don't have to pay an upfront retainer fee. Typically, the user pays a flat fee upfront to obtain the necessary documents required for the divorce in their state. Along with the forms, the user receives a packet of written instructions to follow and, depending on the service, some online interaction with a staff attorney who works for the service provider to answer common questions which may arise when the user is completing the forms. This seems like quite the deal, right?
That upfront savings, however, could cost you many thousands of dollars on the back-end. Most couples who are divorcing aren't aware of the intricate laws and requirements South Carolina has for dividing assets and debts. The biggest problems come into play when the parties (one or both) have retirement or investment accounts which need to be divided. It's not as simple as writing a paragraph in a pre-drafted document to say each party gets half. These accounts require a valuation process to be done on the front-end to determine the marital portion of the asset which will be divided and then the Final Order typically must be drafted with specific language added so that the investment or retirement company knows how to divide the agreed-upon amounts. To properly navigate these complexities, it is always better to have an attorney help you navigate these issues. The attorney will likely hire a financial expert to help in the valuation process. The amount of money you may lose over not using an attorney to value these types of accounts will far outweigh the costs saved in using a do-it-yourself divorce service.
Post-Divorce Actions Difficult to Enforce
Most of these online services use out-dated and "general" stock documents which are not drafted with any consideration about what to do if one party violates the Divorce Decree and the unlying agreement used to create it. For example, if the Divorce Decree states that the Wife shall have exclusive use and possession of the marital home and that Husband shall sign over the deed to her, these general documents typically do not specify a deadline for him to do so (how do you enforce it, if there is no deadline for compliance?).
Another problem, particularly important in South Carolina, is that these documents don't typically define terms to specifically line up with what our statutes allow. Take alimony, as an example. In South Carolina, we have specific types of alimony which can be ordered, all of which have particular rules about when (and if) they can be modified or terminated post-divorce. If the documents don't define what type of alimony is being paid by one party to the other, how will a future family court judge know what to do if a modification or termination action is later filed? Both parties will end up having to hire attorneys, and possibly financial experts, to sort through the mess later down the road, thus eliminating any cost-savings on the front-end. Is it really worth the added risk?
Children's Issues Vary from Family to Family
Many of these services will advise people that they should seek the advice of an attorney when determining child custody and support issues, however, they will also still sell you a child custody and support agreement to be completed by you and the other parent. What they ignore is that every family is different; every child is different, and every set of parents will co-parent (or not) in their own specific ways. There is no "one" document which can accommodate all the nuances of your own specific family or your children's specific needs. To attempt to use the cookie-cutter approach to define a co-parenting relationship for the next decade (or more) of your child's life is just dangerous.
A well-drafted child custody and support agreement will take into account all the particularities that make your family different from others. It will deal with issues of support that are specific to your child and will also spell out when support ends and what will constitute a change in circumstances that might trigger when the Family Court can modify the custody and/or support situation. Having these types of provisions in your Order will go far in protecting your future from the unintended consequences and dangers of the DIY divorce.
Experienced family law attorneys are very familiar with the provisions judges like to see in divorce and custody orders in order to approve them as "fair and equitable." Hiring an attorney who practices exclusively in family law is well-worth the investment to make sure your future and your child's future is protected going forward.
The Stevens Firm, P.A. - Family Law Center has provided exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout South Carolina for over two decades, handling all matters of family law, such as child custody, child support, and divorce. We are well-equipped to handle all divorce and family law matters, no matter your circumstances. Contact us at (864) 598-9172 or by clicking here to schedule an initial consultation.