Would you get an online divorce?

If you type 'quick divorce' into Google, a series of adverts for quickie online divorce sites pop up. One says it can offer a quick divorce from £37, another for £45.

With solicitors' bills running from between £100 and £200 an hour - and legal aid largely no longer available for family law cases - thousands of people are logging on for DIY divorces.

But don't be fooled by the cheap prices. The bare bones of the legal process will cost you £410 and that's just for the court fees.

Plus, you have to pay up whether you use a website to sort out your divorce or a solicitor.

What do the websites offer?

The service you receive depends on the price plan you go for, and there's usually a choice of three. The cheapest typically includes a download of all the legal documents and some advice or a guide to filling them in. This costs £37 with Quickie-divorce.com. However, these forms are available free of charge from your local court.

The next step up is a managed service, where a 'caseworker' will fill in the forms and return them to court for you. This costs £45 at Divorce Online and £67 at Quickie Divorce.

The bells and whistles plans tend to include a managed service that comes with a 'clean break order'. This is an order for a one-off payment, which relieves both parties of any future financial obligation to the other - as opposed to ongoing maintenance payments. Such a service costs £167 with Quickie Divorce and £199 with Divorce Online - whose website states: "This same service with a high street solicitor can cost between £2,500 and £3,000 excluding VAT."

However, divorce lawyer Marilyn Stowe, senior partner at Stowe Family Law, takes issue with the websites for placing too much emphasis on clean break orders "in which financial affairs are dealt with at a single point in time and which make no provision for ongoing support".

She explains: "Divorce can change lives and so a clean break isn't appropriate for everyone. Those who are sick, on a low income or who don't work at all, or who are getting old may need support."

She warns anyone considering a DIY divorce that going for "a clean break through a cheapy website can prove a false economy".

So is a DIY divorce ever sensible?

The 2,355 satisfied customers who divorced using Quickie Divorce and were happy enough to leave testimonials seem to suggest so. Elaine Warwick, a hairdresser from Orpington in Kent, tells Moneywise she couldn't be happier with the service she received when she decided to go down the online route after ruling out the expense of a solicitor. After doing some research into the costs, Elaine decided to use Quickie Divorce's managed service to legally end her marriage last year. It cost her £325 on top of the court fees and took around five months.

"It was the easiest-to-navigate website of its type I had come across and the service I received was fantastic. If I ever had any queries, I just went on to the website's instant messaging service and either got the answers I needed then and there or someone would email me back, having looked into the matter for me. I couldn't fault it."

In fact, the South Wales-based company, which processed 15,000 online divorces last year, states that 98.6% of its customers recommend it.

However, the DIY route is only suitable for people in straightforward domestic and financial situations.

"Divorce isn't an overly complicated process, assuming there is goodwill on both sides," says Marilyn Stowe. "What complicates things are children and finances."

Anyone with children under the age of 18, significant assets or other complicated financial affairs, would be best off seeking the help of a legal professional, she says.

Quickie Divorce spokesperson Jay Williams agrees, adding: "Our services are not suitable if both parties do not agree to a divorce and individuals should seek legal advice under these circumstances.

"Individuals should also seek legal advice if they and their spouse are unable to agree on how their joint assets - such as property and savings - should be divided or if they are in any way concerned with any agreement that they and their spouse have reached and their implications."

He says that only when couples are able to agree such matters, can DIY divorce websites such as Quickie Divorce provide an appropriate service. And by bringing about a 'quick' divorce, they can help to discourage acrimony between both parties, "something that, in our opinion, is certain to benefit the parties and also any children who may be involved in this process," he adds.

However, while Stowe admits that it is entirely possible for people who have a simple case to manage the divorce process themselves, she advises them to do so independently, rather than paying for the services offered by divorce websites.

"For example, a young couple who have similar wealth and haven't bought a home would do better to act alone by going to collect forms from the court, filling them in themselves and then they would only need to pay court costs," she says.

Unregulated websites

Stowe also points to several specific examples of why it can be "risky" to employ the services of an online divorce service that is managed by non-legal professionals.

"First, while there are lots of websites promising quick and cheap divorces, I've only found one that's got professional indemnity insurance. These companies are also unregulated. That means should anything go wrong, you will have no formal way of claiming redress," she explains.

"And on the whole, with these websites, it's difficult to know who exactly you're dealing with. You may have contact with several different 'advisers', and it's not clear what training they've received."

While Quickie Divorce's Jay Williams insists that the company employs several qualified and highly experienced case managers, "each of whom has received full and extensive training concerning uncontested divorces and related matters", this isn't good enough for Stowe.

"I would urge anyone about to file for divorce to remember that getting divorced is a legal process and I would not advise anyone to embark on such a process without first seeking legal advice," she says.

Williams concedes that using a solicitor will never be as cheap as the quickie websites but she suggests there are plenty of ways to get proper legal advice for free, such as reading the specialist blogs of family lawyers, or visiting the 'divorce surgeries' practices often run to help people who cannot afford a lawyer.

"Divorce should be taken seriously. I think about it the same way I would an operation. You wouldn't hop online and look for the cheapest deal for that would you?"

Top tips for a smooth divorce

The process of obtaining an online divorce is far simpler when both parties are able to communicate with one another - which is easier said than done.

However, this will allow them to agree who will file for the divorce (known as the Petitioner) and who will receive the documents from the court (known as the Respondent). It will also allow the individuals to agree to the reasons for their divorce before proceedings get under way, which can help to identify precisely what will be required of each party throughout the process.

Marilyn Stowe of Stowe Family Law advises:

  • Don't rush and be too quick to settle. Some clients are so fixated on getting the divorce brought about quickly that they don't think through some of the things they propose. Slow down.
  • But don't delay either. Keeping your spouse waiting can affect their behaviour and any action they take - such as spending - may prejudice yourself. Stay pragmatic.
  • Be commercial - don't be emotional. Establish a good working relationship with your lawyer and your ex-partner if you possibly can. It's not always easy but that's what your lawyer is there to help you with and to ensure you make informed decisions.
  • Don't go after every last penny. Stand back and be fair.
  • Don't be too modest about your needs, either. Moving house is expensive. What will your utility bills be like? What about childcare costs?

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