The Fine Print – Are Online Legal Docs a Good Idea?
My wife and I are separated, and we have come to an agreement about how we want to handle everything from child support to our marital home. Neither of us want to pay a lawyer for what we can get on the internet for a much lower price. I have been researching the different websites that offer separation agreements and divorce forms to file at the courthouse, and they all pretty much look the same. Is there one you recommend in particular?” – Budget Conscious in Ballantyne
Dear Budget Conscious,
In response to your question, I reviewed multiple online self-help divorce websites. Most of the online sites offered vague or overly broad explanations of North Carolina family law. Several also contained content which was actually wrong. For example, some sites give a poorly worded or inaccurate statements about the North Carolina statutes governing how custody and child support are determined. Most also failed to contain any real discussion about the transfer of assets between the parties, which if drafted incorrectly or not done at a certain time may result in significant tax consequences, a document that is unenforceable, or a very expensive problem to correct. I also noticed the ‘Terms of Service’ for theses online sites are lengthy, full of legalese, and ultimately say if there is a mistake even if it’s on their end, you are on your own.
I understand your concern with cost and while the website documents are less expensive, there are some dangers to not having your separation agreement and divorce paperwork, at a minimum, reviewed by an attorney prior to filing for a divorce. On more than one occasion, I have met with a client after he/she downloaded and signed a ‘friendly separation agreement’ from one of these websites with a former spouse, who is now having trouble enforcing the agreement.
Generally, a review of the document reveals significant issues with the language which could have been avoided if a domestic lawyer had been consulted early on. Many of my clients are very capable, intelligent people who can understand the basics of separation and divorce and know what they would like to do. However, they are not lawyers and they may unwittingly waive some very important rights or fail to spell out terms clearly enough to prevent future litigation over enforcement of the agreement.
At a minimum, I recommend that each of you meet with an attorney to have your agreement reviewed for accuracy, completeness, and clarity. This includes making sure the agreement is going to do what you intend for it to do to. Some firms offer unbundled services for family law. Unbundled services enable you to retain an attorney for a limited service related to your separation, divorce, equitable distribution, custody or child support issue. The services can include, some or all, of the following services: drafting documents, reviewing documents, and preparation of court filings necessary to complete the transfers of assets and finalize the divorce.
The best use of your money is to have a lawyer review your agreement and/or your petition for divorce BEFORE you file it with the Court. It is well worth the time and expense to have the peace of mind that you and your former have a well drafted agreement each of you can rely upon in the future. This is in everyone’s best interest, including your wallet’s. Visit the self help center at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse or check out www.NCCourts.gov to learn about free alternatives.
Jennifer L. Fleet, Esq. practices domestic law and appellate law at Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law. To schedule a consultation with her, please call (704) 841-0760. The information contained in this article is general in nature and not to be taken as legal advice, nor to establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Jennifer L. Fleet or Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law.
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