The “Free” Forms Trap in Online Divorce

This article is the fourth and final part of a series dealing with what new divorce consumers should consider and avoid when hiring an online divorce forms preparer to handle an uncontested divorce. The “free” forms scam deserved its own article.

The “free” forms scam falls into two distinct categories of websites. We’ll call them Kit Providers and Bait and Switchers.

Kit Providers: Kit Providers offer blank downloadable divorce forms, i.e. forms not completed with your personal information. Divorce forms need to be completed before they can be filed at court to begin your divorce.

Blank forms are provided by Kit Providers on the basis that you will be able to complete them using their provided instructions and then, again using their written instructions, to file your case at court and then complete your divorce free of charge (other than any court filing fee, which can be waived if you have low income).

Therefore, what is offered by Kit Providers is a compelling possibility for those trying to save money in their uncontested divorce cases, i.e. everyone. They provide the free forms. You provide your personal data. All that is missing is the knowledge of how to complete whichever forms apply to your case, what to do with those completed forms and when to do it. It can’t be too difficult to figure out that last part, can it?

I regret to advise you to forget it. In divorce, strangely like everything else any of us has ever experienced in life, nothing of any value is free. There is always a cost hiding somewhere. Downloading free blank forms will never, with any amount of un-personalized written instruction, get you divorced in a clean smooth process, if at all. If you attempt it, I can virtually guarantee you that it will not go well. You will encounter the cost you tried to avoid – and then some!

I have seen the quality of several sets of written instructions that come with downloadable forms. They are all only several pages of very thin, vague and sketchy instructions that will not help you in any practical sense to get your specific case filed or completed without great difficulty. Such instructions could not possibly contain enough specific personalized information to enable you to complete your case.

The problem is that unlike after you have hired a lawyer ($600-$800 for an uncontested) or an experienced high-quality online divorce service ($100-$300), Kit Providers will not know anything about you, your case or your local court at the time you download their kit and instructions. Such instructions would literally need to be hundreds of pages long to instruct you on all reasonable possibilities. In fact, they would have to be so long and complex that no one would ever read them to try to find the few pages that apply to her case.

You will still need to figure out how to complete which forms in the circumstances of your case and what to do with them and when.

One major California Kit Provider will sell you a 250-page book for $22 that purports to tell you how to fill in their “free” forms and what to do with them. You might think that is not a bad deal and could save you some money.

Yet the $22 book also fails the practical test, and they have been selling that book, updated every year, since 1972. There is no doubt that this book is well-written by well-intentioned experienced people who are trying to assist you – up to a certain point. But the last time that book actually worked to tell someone how to complete and file divorce forms from start to finish was around 1972. Divorce is just too complex these days – too many different forms, procedures and multiple complex life issues that inevitably bleed through into your specific case.

The $22 book (which also comes with a CD) tells you itself that it doesn’t work. On page 18, they tell you that you will need to hire a lawyer (or one of the 100 Legal Document Assistants who pay to get listed in the book) if your division of property and debt is not equal (so that’s about 90% of uncontested divorce cases right there) or if either of you earns over $30,000 a year, if you have joint credit cards or have been married more than 5 years (so that’s the other 10% of uncontested divorces). You just paid a Kit Provider $22 for the best set of instructions available for a kit and the instructions tell you not to use them!

There is no honest reason for a Kit Provider to offer “free” forms with instructions, whether literally free or for $22. All divorce forms are public documents. You can download all state and county blank divorce forms FREE from your state’s judicial website, from the website of your county’s local Superior or Circuit (or whatever your state’s divorce courts are called) Court or sometimes from the local Legal Aid Society website.

You might think, “So what’s the problem with a website offering 離婚 free what is also available free somewhere else?” Your clue to what is wrong is that the government and Legal Aid Society sites will not ask for your email address before you download.

That’s right. There’s a hook. Kit Providers are either fronts for law firms or are lead generators for law firms. Lead generators are like lawyer referral services without the referral. They will have sold your zip code to one or more lawyers or law firms.

Because lawyers are not allowed to solicit business, the lawyer cannot email you directly, but the Kit Provider is not a lawyer. They know that there is virtually no way you will be able to figure out how to complete their kit of blank forms, and they’ve got your email address. They have generated you as a lead to be sold. They can solicit you all they want until such time as you get confused enough about the forms and give up. They will then “rescue” you. You and your case are assigned to the next law firm entitled to a lead in your zip code.

And lo and behold, when you follow the links in the $22 book or on their Kit Provider site, you find that they are lawyers too. They’ll do your whole uncontested case for $2000 or just get it filed for $400. So they’re not even cheap lawyers.

You could have exercised your own judgment, talked to people you trust and picked your own local lawyer yourself for about $800 for an uncontested case. And you could have done so without the extra confusion, delay, difficulty and trickery. Don’t get hooked by a “free” Kit Provider or a $22 divorce book. The true cost will be the loss of your control over your own case.

Bait and Switchers: This group is different and more insidious because you actually get something at the end, but it’s not what you thought you would get and to get it, you have to disclose a lot of private data to someone you have not hired.