Company caused ‘unnecessary additional stress in seeking a divorce,' Miller alleges
DES MOINES — About 200 Iowans are eligible to receive refunds from an online divorce website that is accused of fraudulent advertising and billing by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
Online Divorce Technologies, or ODT, of Newark, Del., and its owner, Andriy Bogdonov of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, agreed to a consent judgment that was signed by Polk County District Judge David Nelmark. Under the settlement agreement, the defendants will pay $11,253 in refunds to all Iowans who purchased ODT’s services and $15,000 to the state Consumer Education and Litigation Fund.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller had accused the company of violating the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act and the Iowa Buying Club Memberships law.
ODT sells access to an online computer program that consumers can use to fill out legal forms required to get a divorce. Miller began investigating the company after his Office’s Consumer Protection Division received a complaint regarding an Iowa consumer who said he paid the company hundreds of dollars for assistance completing free Iowa divorce forms.
ODT allegedly incorrectly instructed consumers to file legal forms in paper format, even though the Iowa court system switched to electronic filing years ago. A page on its website, titled “How to get divorce in Iowa [sic],” had read that the “last step after filing you [sic] forms you need to have 3 copy [sic] of each document . . . and file all this documents [sic] to the court.”
ODT advertises an unqualified “100% guarantee of court approval or your money back” on the front page of its website, https://www.onlinedivorce.com/. Miller’s investigation alleged that ODT failed to abide by its promise.
Miller also alleged that ODT’s website represented that it would assist consumers to “choose … appropriate divorce forms” that “correspond” to their “particular situation,” and was therefore “advertising merchandise that could be the result of the unlicensed practice of law.”
Further, Miller’s investigation revealed that ODT enrolled Iowa consumers into a recurring $19 monthly fee, allegedly without giving required notices, which Miller said violated the Iowa Buying Club Memberships law. The front page of ODT’s website asserted that its services entailed a “single flat fee for accessing all documents online for both spouses.” However, many Iowa consumers interviewed by the Attorney General’s Office alleged that they were unaware they would be subject to repeated monthly charges for accessing ODT’s program to fill in legal forms.
Other Iowa consumers interviewed by the AG’s Office alleged they would not have paid ODT if they had known the Iowa divorce forms are freely available for download on the Iowa Judicial Branch’s website.
ODT’s practices had the potential of “prejudicing consumers’ legal rights and remedies and causing them unnecessary additional stress in seeking a divorce,” according to Miller.
ODT denied all of the allegations but agreed to the consent judgment. It agreed to credit $30 to every Iowa consumer who purchased its products on or after Jan. 1, 2014, and who have not already been provided a refund. It also agreed to reimburse every recurring $19 monthly fee to all Iowans who paid it. ODT agreed to make refunds directly to affected consumers’ credit or debit cards within two weeks of the order.
In addition to paying refunds, the company agreed to cease billing Iowa consumers recurring monthly fees in future sales of its services and not falsely imply that its services include the assistance of live attorneys if they do not. As a result of the agreement, ODT now includes a prominent disclaimer on its website that says, in part: “Online Divorce is not a law firm and its services, website and forms are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Online Divorce provides access to computer-aided self-help services at your specific direction. Online Divorce’s website and written instructions provide general information about the divorce process only; we cannot give you any specific advice, opinions or recommendations as to your selection or completion of forms or your particular legal rights, remedies or options.”
The AG’s office reminds Iowans that divorce and other legal forms, as well as a guide for people seeking a divorce without the assistance of attorneys, are available for free on the Iowa Judicial Branch website at https://www.iowacourts.gov/for-the-public/court-forms/