As Ohio family law attorneys, we are often asked if the process of terminating a marriage can ever be made easier. Litigants complain because they see simple issues — “Why can’t we just equally divide our things and go our separate ways?” — become complex ones in the hands of their attorneys. Cases which “should” be easy to resolve are dragged out, and parties end up spending far more than they thought they would in legal fees. “I could represent myself for free and keep this simple,” they say.
Or so they’d have you believe. The truth is that not every divorce is the same. Some cases are indeed easily resolved, and some aren’t. What appears simple on the surface may hide a host of legal issues that the parties themselves aren’t immediately aware of, and when even one issue becomes more complicated than the parties expected, the costs to conclude the matter will necessarily rise.
Nevertheless, “I can do this myself for less” is a common refrain for individuals involved in legal matters who find the prospect of hiring an Ohio family law attorney uncomfortable. The idea that someone can handle their legal matter on their own without going into debt is an attractive one. The rise of the Internet has seen a contemporaneous rise in the number of DIY services catering to such individuals, such as income tax preparation software and sites like TurboTax and H&R Block, and legal document preparation via legalzoom.com, Robert Shapiro’s self-help website specializing in small business formation and simple wills and trusts.
It was probably inevitable, then, that the movement would reach the area of family law. Enter separate.us, a California Web startup introduced this week at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, which aims to provide TurboTax-like service online for divorcing couples. According to founder Sandro Tuzzo, separate.us would charge clients $99 to file their divorce, and would aim to keep costs to a base price of $1,500. Cases too complicated to be completed online would be referred out to an attorney. The service is currently in a private beta and is only applicable to the state of California.
All of which sounds great in theory. Tuzzo, a domestic relations attorney himself, obviously understands that automating the forms that many courts utilize is an excellent way to help clarify the early stages of a process that is often murky and confusing, especially for couples in a difficult and emotional time. (It’s a position that the Ohio Supreme Court shares in part; the Court has now provided standardized domestic relations forms acceptable for filing in each county court.) He also acknowledges that such a simple service isn’t for everyone, and that some cases will need more detailed legal assistance than separate.us will be able to provide. Separate.us is careful to make it clear that it is not providing legal advice, and if you read the fine print at the bottom of the site, there’s also no attorney-client privilege for any of the client’s information.
It’s that distinction that makes consulting with an experienced attorney important. Not every case needs a straightforward/one-size-fits-all/divide-everything-down-the-middle solution. Babbitt & Dahlberg may be able to spot the hidden tax implications of allocating a particular asset, or help you to balance and judge the tradeoffs between various forms of child or spousal support. Unless you and your spouse have already reached an agreement about parenting time and custody, an attorney will be able to help you make decisions about what’s best for your child that a website’s algorithm can’t.
The bottom line is that it’s important to realize when you need help. It’s true that there are many jobs you can do yourself, and handling your own divorce via an online service might seem easy, but it’s still a major legal transaction and can have significant and long-lasting implications for your life, your family and your finances. Even if you ultimately decide you can do it on your own, a consultation with an Ohio family law attorney — and not just a self-help website — might save you a lot of time, money and heartache down the road.