Sunday, May 05, 2002

Web site buffer for divorcing


Online service reduces expenses, rancor

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — It's divorce, dot-com style. Mark Stein, who has made a career of mediating divorces and other disputes, is taking his experience to the Internet. The result is an online service that offers parting couples a self-guided cyber split.

        Mr. Stein's creation is ourdivorceagreement.com. As the name implies, couples can use it to work out details of a divorce agreement — from child custody and visitation to division of property and debts.

        The service, which debuted April 26, is not for everyone, Mr. Stein said. It is designed for couples who can cooperatively set the terms of their parting. Feuding couples need not apply.

        For a $149 fee, couples get a series of self-guided forms on which to record all the decisions they need for divorce. “I give them the benefit of all the choices I have ever seen clients choose,” Mr. Stein, who runs a mediation service in Louisville, said in an interview.

        Once finished, agreements that include child and financial issues will average 16 pages. The Web site also will generate financial disclosure forms that will be submitted to court as well.

        Attorneys and mediators also can use the service to prepare documents for divorcing couples. Mr. Stein said he expects mixed reactions from divorce lawyers.

        “Attorneys who make their living on contentious divorce cases will not like this, just like they don't like mediation,” he said.

        “But attorneys who feel their job is to help their clients accomplish the goal in the least amount of time and with the least expense and in a cooperative manner, those attorneys will appreciate this site, just as they appreciate mediation,” Mr. Stein said.

        Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald, who presides over a family court in Jefferson County, said the online service is part of a national trend in which divorcing couples are encouraged to reach agreements before coming to court.

        “We have found that when people are a part of the resolution, they are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome and are less likely to litigate in the future,” she said.

        Mr. Stein said the service could help couples avoid thousands of dollars in legal and mediation fees, not to mention the hours spent in courtrooms or lawyers' offices.

        “This is the ultimate carrot for cooperation,” he said. Couples could work from the same computer. Or, they could man separate computers, walking through the form and communicating by phone. One would type in responses to each question.

        Before signing up, couples must agree to hire separate attorneys to review the agreement. An attorney would present the document to court for a judge's signature, Mr. Stein said.

        “This is not a substitute for sound legal advice before signing a divorce agreement,” he said. “And at no point do I give legal advice. In fact, I don't give advice at all — I offer choices.”

        The service will raise issues that divorcing couples might not even consider, Stein said. For example, how does a travel-happy couple divide frequent-flier miles, or divide a family health club membership?

        It also delves into obvious issues, such as who gets the children on holidays. The service will suggest a few options. Perhaps each parent could spend alternating holidays with the kids. Or the kids could split the day — or the entire weekend — with the parents. “If they don't like those, they can choose their own option,” Mr. Stein said.

        When they agree on a particular issue, the couple enters the choice into a form. If they can't agree, the issue is set aside to be hashed out later, perhaps with the help of a mediator or lawyers.

        Once they're done, the agreement will print out, along with a spreadsheet outlining their division of assets and liabilities.

        Mr. Stein said the service will apply anywhere in the English-speaking world. There are forms for each major religion so couples can work out agreements on child visitation during religious holidays, he said.

        The service also is available for non-married couples and same-sex couples, Mr. Stein said.

        Even after the divorce is finalized, ex-couples could tap back into the online site to revise agreements, Mr. Stein said.

        Walker FitzGerald, the judge, said the service would help couples who are unlikely to have thought about all the issues linked to their parting.

        “This gives them a logical progression of matters to consider so they can be better prepared when they do meet with their lawyer to present things in a more focused way,” she said.

        Tony Belak, director of the International Center for Dispute Resolution at Sullivan University in Louisville, predicted the online service would foster a calmer, more reasoned approach to divorce.

        Divorcing couples can't “go through histrionics” while plugged into a computer, he said. The service also gives couples a long-term view of the implications of the divorce process, and reduces petty bickering, he said.

       



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