Legal Zoom and Divorce: Can I do it myself?

Posted on Feb 1, 2016 by Katie Carter

These days, there are more and more do it yourself divorce services available than ever before. There are tons of resources available online, and we have an unprecedented amount of access to them. Most everyone has access to the internet, and is savvy enough to do a quick Google search for the forms or information that they need.
To top it all off, there’s a bias against attorneys these days, too. Attorneys, in general, are regarded as being unhelpful, expensive, and difficult to work with. Rather than paying a bunch of money to work with an attorney, people are tempted to turn to other methods to resolve their disputes. Divorce is no exception.
More and more people ask me about Legal Zoom and other similar sites all the time. Even though Legal Zoom doesn’t have a divorce package in Virginia, there are plenty of forms, divorce documents, and draft custody and visitation arrangements available online.
You know the saying—“just enough to be dangerous”? That’s often how I feel about the information that is widely available on the internet. And it’s not just because I’m a divorce attorney, either! I can understand that you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a divorce—especially when you can see that, in some states, Legal Zoom offers divorce packages beginning at just $299! Still, you have to know, deep down, that you get what you pay for.
That doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t room for do it yourself divorce resources in the marketplace, or even that there is some kind of problem with wanting to look for an alternative to traditional divorce. There’s not! And you’re smart to be thinking outside of the box, especially if you know that there’s no reason to spend so much money fighting. (Why not cut your expenses in half, or even less, and put the rest in your retirement account, or your kid’s college fund?)
I’m here to tell you that there are lots of ways to get divorced, and it doesn’t have to mean hiring an attorney to represent you. (Go ahead, gasp. That’s right, an attorney is telling you that you CAN do it without her help.) Even though Legal Zoom really isn’t an option for you (at least, not if you’re planning on a divorce in the Commonwealth of Virginia), that doesn’t mean you’ll have to pay to retain an attorney.

I want to do it myself. What should I do first?

Great! Good for you. There are lots of resources out there to help you do it on your own but, before you go crazy Googling, I want to give you a couple words of caution.

1. Make sure what you’re planning on using is Virginia-specific.

Divorce law is one of those areas of the law that is super state specific. What someone used in California or Texas or Oklahoma is not going to be what you need in Virginia. Each state has specific statutes and rules that have to be followed and, if you’re using something from another state (or if you just can’t tell where it came from), you’re setting yourself up for problems later on.
Why waste time on something that won’t work anyway? You need to use a forms and draft agreements that use Virginia law. Period. No exceptions.

2. Make sure what you’re planning on using is up to date.

It can be hard to tell when it comes to internet information, but you’ll also want to make sure that what you’re planning on using was written recently. Every year, there are changes to the law on July 1st—and you’ll want to make sure that your source has been updated since then, or else you risk using something that is no longer valid.
The updates in the law could be beneficial to you—don’t you want to make sure?

3. Make sure you know what you’re planning on using was actually written by a lawyer.

Don’t trust so much to a nameless, faceless internet source. Make sure, before you rely on something, that it comes from a trustworthy place.
You don’t want to use something that your Uncle Elmer’s friend Sylvia, who is a professional dog walker, randomly posted on the internet, do you? No! You want to be sure that, if you’re relying on something that affects so much of your financial future, it actually came from someone who is super knowledgeable about the laws in Virginia.

4. Make sure what you’re planning on using helps clue you in about your rights and entitlements under Virginia law—so you don’t wind up writing a worse agreement for yourself than your husband’s attorney would write.

As you can probably imagine, a fill in the blank type agreement is pretty limited in its usefulness. You already know that you’re going to have to come up with a custody and visitation arrangement and divide your retirement accounts—but, without some guidance, how on earth will you know what to put in your agreement? What does the law already give you, and what’s a negotiating point? You don’t want to give away something that a judge would automatically give you!
How does child support work? Do you qualify for spousal support? If so, how much, and for how long? What your marital share of the retirement? What are you going to do with the marital home? If you don’t already know what the law would award you on those points, you’re not ready for a fill in the blank agreement.

5. Make sure you know how to get your uncontested divorce AFTER you’ve written your agreement!

Drafting the agreement is only one part of actually getting a divorce. After you’ve got it drafted, there’s still the not so small matter of actually getting an uncontested divorce granted in the circuit court. That requires a lot more work!
In fact, the whole going to court part is where most people run into trouble. If the site you’re looking at doesn’t provide you any assistance in this department, you’re likely to have trouble just when you expect to be finished. If you can’t get your divorce granted, you haven’t done yourself any favors at all.
So, what should your first step be? If you’re considering doing it on your own, you should gather as much information as you can first. A great idea is for you to attend one of our monthly divorce seminars—that’s where you can learn all about the divorce process in Virginia, including what your rights and entitlements might be under Virginia law. Each seminar is taught by one of our attorneys, and you’re encouraged to ask questions.
The seminar, “What Every Virginia Woman Needs to Know About Divorce,” lasts an hour and a half and covers all the basics about divorce in Virginia that you need to know, especially if you’re planning on doing it on your own. The cost to attend is just $40 if you pre-register, or $50 at the door. The best part? You can come as many times as you want! That’s right, once you pay, you’re welcome to attend and re-attend as many times as you need. Why? Well, we’ve found that lots of the women we see come and have their questions answered, only to run into some kind of trouble later on. This way, we keep the door open, so that you can come back again and again.

Just kidding. I don’t want to do it myself. What do I need to know if I’m actually considering hiring an attorney to handle my divorce?

Do it yourself divorce isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay! If you’re considering hiring an attorney instead, you’re in good company.
You don’t want to run all around town meeting with attorneys, though. Most divorce attorneys charge consultation fees, so that could get expensive. You want to do the research beforehand, to make sure that you’re as prepared as possible BEFORE you set foot in an attorney’s office. Good for you!
A great place to start is with our newest book (in fact, my first book), “The Woman’s Guide to Selecting an Outstanding Family Law Attorney.” It’ll fill you in on lawyer advertisements, lawyer ranking services (like Martindale Hubbell and Avvo), what questions you should be asking in an initial consultation, and more. At the end, we even provide you with a scoresheet that you can use to take to your consultations.
The book is free. In fact, we’ll send you a free copy of the e-book as soon as you finish filling out the form. If you live in our immediate area, we’ll also send you a hard copy. (Don’t worry, though; we’ll send it out in a plain, white unmarked envelope, so no one will know what’s inside.)
It’s a great place to get started! And, in fact, I think you’re in a pretty good place, just because you’re asking these questions. So, attend Second Saturday and request a free copy of my book. You’ll be in a better, stronger, smarter position than 99% of people preparing for divorce. And then you can begin to make the decisions you need to make to move your case forward.
For more information, to register for Second Saturday or to request a copy of my book, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.