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5/29/2003

Cheaper, simpler online divorce grows in popularity

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Offering a simpler and cheaper path to divorce, an ever-growing array of dot-coms, computer-savvy lawyers and state court officials are encouraging unhappily married Americans to arrange their breakups online.

For fees ranging from $50 to $300 — a small fraction of what most lawyers charge even for an uncontested divorce — couples are being provided with the appropriate forms and varying degrees of help completing them.

Rival firms CompleteCase.com and LegalZoom.com each say they have served 20,000 clients nationwide in less than three years of operation. Hits on the divorce section of the California court system’s do-it-youself Web site soared from 6,800 in May 2002 to about 15,000 last month.

“It’s similar to the growth of online travel services and online stock trading,” said Brian Lee, president of Los Angeles-based LegalZoom. “People are learning they don’t need a travel agent or a stockbroker or a lawyer — they can do it themselves.”

Many clients may still have to appear in court, but — in theory, at least — they will have all required paperwork with them and will be able to represent themselves.

“For me, it was a purely economic decision,” said John Chang, 33, of South Pasadena, Calif., who paid LegalZoom $300 to help him obtain an uncontested divorce last year.

“I filled out the forms in the course of a night — it took three hours — and saved $2,000,” he said.

Reactions to the trend vary. Some religious leaders are dismayed that divorce can be made even easier. The American Bar Association wants to ensure that dot-coms don’t engage in the unauthorized practice of law, and is studying how its members can serve divorcing couples without high fees.