As a family lawyer and a keen football fan, I was particularly interested in a report in the media last year which brought into focus a very 21st Century phenomenon, along with online dating, shopping and beyond – online divorce services. Former footballer and Match of the Day host, Gary Lineker sought a divorce after the breakdown of his marriage and subsequently used an online divorce company at the cost of a few hundred pounds, reportedly. Despite his inaccurate protestations about how lawyers try to deepen the division between separating couples (in fact, the complete opposite is usually the case but you cannot make a couple settle amicably who really do not want to!) I found this surprising. The assets of the Lineker marriage, I should imagine, are considerable and I started to wonder who advised them, if anyone, regarding the fairness or otherwise of reaching a financial settlement.
Obtaining a divorce usually covers two processes; the divorce process which results in your marriage being dissolved and it is very much an administrative process. Running alongside the divorce process is settling the finances of the marriage, and this is where using online divorce services can be problematic. I cover law clinics around the Surrey area advising members of the local community on various family law matters, and I was alerted to the possible pitfalls of online divorce services when I was informed that someone had paid £400 for such a service. When I enquired about the procedure for the finances part of the divorce, I was informed that the parties were required to complete an online form listing their assets and liabilities and then as if by magic with no further checks, this would produce a draft Consent Order (a legal agreement between the parties as to how their finances will be shared upon divorce).
An important part of reaching a financial settlement is the parties exchanging full and frank financial disclosure. This involves exchanging details of all their assets including, amongst other things providing pay slips, details of property, pensions, life insurance policies, along with any liabilities. It is only once this disclosure has taken place that the matrimonial ‘pot’ can be ascertained.
It is at this stage that a lawyer would be able to advise his or her client on the fairness of any settlement taking into account factors contained in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Without this disclosure, there could be numerous pitfalls ahead. For example, an incorrectly drafted Consent Order or one which has not taken into account fully all the assets of the marriage may leave one of the parties open to future financial claims from their ex. A further consideration is that the more complex the finances of the marriage, and the more assets there are, the more the requirement for experts in the field, such as pension actuaries, to determine what a fair settlement may be.
Turning to the divorce process itself, although it is more of an administrative procedure, there are still problems that may be encountered along the way such as service of the documents on the other side and where the whereabouts of the other side are unknown. In such circumstances, the requisite application will have to be made to Court in order to progress the divorce, something which online divorce services cannot provide.
Regarding Lineker’s divorce and the use of online divorce services, I imagine that Mr Lineker and his former wife could afford and would have sought the best financial advisers to advise them on their various assets before proceeding.
My advice would be to tread carefully before considering using an online divorce service particularly if you have no transparency over your partner’s financial affairs. The only way to get full peace of mind is through the knowledge that you have sought proper legal advice in obtaining your divorce and subsequently reaching a fair financial settlement with no squirrelling away or attempted concealment of assets. Having a Consent Order drafted based on minimal information and scrutiny that then magically appears in your email inbox can have damaging long-term consequences on your future prosperity and happiness.
rhw Solicitors LLP