If you're looking for ways to keep costs down and make your divorce less stressful, finding an alternative to the traditional court process is crucial. And, for many people, paying a lawyer thousands of dollars to handle the process is simply out of the question. If you want to get a cheap divorce, you have some options. One of the easiest is online divorce.
In many (but not all) states, the court system has a website with downloadable versions of the forms you need to file for divorce in that state. If you can't find the forms you need on the state court's site, you can try searching for the website of the local court or court clerk's office in the county where you'll be filing the divorce paperwork.
But even when your state courts provide free online self-help information, navigating the process and figuring out which forms to use can still be frustrating and confusing for some people. You'll need to figure out which forms apply to your situation, and you may need to choose between different types of divorce. Also, some county courts have their own forms, which you'll need to track down as well.
Fortunately, there's an easier stress-saving option with a level of assistance that falls between having to DIY your divorce and hiring an attorney: online divorce services.
An online divorce is one where you use an online service to walk you through steps in your divorce, such as preparing the divorce papers, drafting a divorce settlement agreement (more on that below), and filing the paperwork with the court. These services take the guesswork out of your divorce. Based on your responses to an online interview or questionnaire, the service will fill out the paperwork you need for your situation and tell you where to file it (or how to e-file it in some counties). Some online divorce services even file the forms for you at an additional cost.
Online divorce is appropriate for "uncontested" divorces. An uncontested divorce is one where both spouses want to end their marriage and agree on all the issues in their divorce, including:
Once you and your spouse have agreed about all of these issues, you should put all the details in a written divorce settlement agreement (also known as a "marital settlement agreement" or a "marital separation agreement"). Many online divorce services will help you put together the agreement as part of a divorce package or for an additional fee.
With an uncontested online divorce, you'll also need to choose a "no-fault ground" (legal reason) for the divorce, such as "irreconcilable differences" or "irretrievable breakdown of marriage." Online divorce services don't allow you to accuse your spouse of adultery, substance abuse, or abandonment, or another "fault ground."
Online divorce is not for you if:
Also, some online divorce services will not handle your divorce if you can't locate your spouse.
If you're concerned about whether online divorce is legitimate or valid, rest assured that it's completely legal to have a service complete the divorce paperwork for you. Once you sign the documents and they're filed with the court, they're legally binding. A judge will review your paperwork and issue a final divorce (or "dissolution of marriage") decree just like in any other divorce.
Of course, some services might be more reliable than others. When you're comparing them and reading reviews (more on that below), look for how long the service has been around and what reviewers have to say about the level of service they provide if you run into problems.
You'll need to find an online service that handles divorce in your state. As online divorce becomes more common, more services have expanded their services nationwide. But before you get too attached to a particular service, confirm that it handles divorces in your state.
Once you've found a few options, you can dig deeper to find the best match for your needs. Most online divorce services have informative websites where you'll find detailed information about what they can and can't do for you, as well as a description of how the process works and what costs and fees you can expect.
Look for services that explain their process clearly and thoroughly, since this is a strong indicator that the service will continue to provide similar clarity once you've signed up. Check out any demos on the website. Just in case the service doesn't live up to your expectations, find out if there's a guarantee or warranty. You might also consider whether the service has good security measure on its website, since you'll be providing a lot of confidential information.
Online divorce services charge $199 to $2,500, and you can split the fee with your spouse. Even at the higher end of the range, that's a big savings compared to the typical cost of divorce when both spouses hire lawyers. These charges don't usually include court filing fees, notarization fees, or service of process fees, which can amount to a few hundred dollars.
Some services have a subscription-type model where you pay monthly for as long as it takes to finalize your divorce. But if you're wary of getting stuck in a recurring subscription, look for a service that offers a one-time flat fee.
Once you and your spouse have decided to divorce and agree to use an online divorce service, the steps in your divorce typically proceed as follows.
With any online divorce service, you'll be asked to create a user account that's password protected. You'll need to answer a few basic questions about yourself and your spouse to get started and confirm that you're eligible to use the service.
Once you're signed up, it's time to enter in the information needed to complete your divorce paperwork, such as details about your financial situation, property, and any children. Typically, entering the information into the online service's application takes about an hour, but you might need more time to research and gather everything you need.
Note that even when you and your spouse agree on how to handle your financial issues and child custody and support, the court will require you to make detailed disclosures about these topics in your paperwork.
You will have the opportunity to review and edit all of the answers you provided to the interview or questionnaire you filled out.
After you've double-checked the information you've provided, the service will generate completed versions of all the forms you need to file, which should include a marital settlement agreement. You might need to fill in additional information on some of the forms, such as your case number or updated income information.
With most services, you can download and print as many copies of these forms as you want, or you can have the service to mail paper copies to you. You'll need to sign the documents before submitting them to the court—the service will let you know where to sign, how to sign (either by electronic signature or pen-and-ink signature), and whether you'll need to have anything notarized.
If you'll be filing the paperwork yourself, the service you're working with should give you instructions on where and how to file. In some states, the court will want you to file an initial set of forms at the outset, including the main divorce "petition" or "complaint," followed by a second set of documents later. The divorce service you choose should provide instructions about which forms to file first.
Depending on where you live, you'll probably need to "serve" your spouse with the paperwork. Some states allow couples with uncontested divorces to file joint divorce paperwork. When that's the case, just make sure that both of you have copies of the documents.
In most states, one spouse files the initial divorce papers and then "serves" the other spouse with the documents. However, many states allow you to ask your spouse to sign a waiver of service form instead. If your state doesn't allow that, or your spouse won't sign it, you might need to hire a process server. (If the service you're working with files your paperwork with the court, you'll just need to make sure you've submitted complete and signed copies to the service.)
A judge will need to review your divorce papers and approve them before signing your final divorce judgment or decree. You may or may not need to appear in court for this review. Some states don't require a final hearing, although you might have to submit a request or affidavit to avoid a hearing.
Most online services do a good job with filling out the proper paperwork for you—the chances of the court rejecting it are slim. But the court might notify you that you need to correct or complete something in your paperwork. And it's not uncommon for a courthouse to ask you to fill out a different version of a form or a new cover sheet required by that courthouse. Check to see if the online divorce service provides a money-back guarantee or some other assistance if your paperwork is rejected.
Most states have a mandatory waiting period before you can schedule your final hearing or get your divorce papers reviewed by a judge. Depending on where you live, the waiting period might be within a month or two of filing, or it might take as long as a year. For example, California requires a wait of six months after the petition is filed before the judge can finalize the divorce, while Texas requires only 60 days.
Even in states with very short or no mandatory waiting periods, the amount of time it will actually take to finalize your divorce can depend on backlogs on your local court and whether you've met any interim requirements in your state (such as completing courses for divorcing parents).
The online divorce service you work with should be able to provide you with an estimate of how long it will take for your divorce to be final. Be sure to get a copy of the final divorce decree for your records.
There are plenty of online divorce services, but not all are equal. Your best bet is to find a service that has been around for at least a few years and has positive online reviews. Trustpilot is an excellent source for trustworthy reviews of online divorce services. (DivorceNet's online divorce service also goes by "3StepDivorce" in many reviews.) You might also consider checking out blogs that are focused on the divorce process, many of which provide descriptions of various services by actual users (but check to make sure the descriptions aren't paid endorsements).
Because they're usually so affordable, there's little downside to trying out an online divorce service when you're planning to file an uncontested divorce. If you ultimately decide that a DIY service isn't right for you—for example, you change your mind about getting divorced or find you need to hire a lawyer after all—you won't feel like you've broken the bank.