Divorce is an industry unto itself, and has many constituents, including attorneys, judges, court administrators, counselors, therapists, mediators and others. Divorce is also a process, requiring the completion of certain steps to achieve the final goal. Those steps are accomplished with the help of many of the industry’s professionals, and an understanding of the actual process is critical to minimizing the necessary costs. Unfortunately, even the most amicable divorces can be fraught with roller coaster emotions, and when disputes get out of control, significant financial drain results. Avoid some of the following common errors:
Common Error #1: Using your attorney as a therapist. Don’t confuse “Counselors-at-law” with the kind of counsel you receive with your therapist. Every call you make, every late-night-text and weekend-email you send are being logged and billed at hourly rates. At the outset of your divorce, identify a divorce coach or therapist, and schedule routine visits to work through the emotional issues that arise during your divorce. Make lists of issues as they arise, so that your coach or therapist can address each issue, and when necessary, consult with your attorney.
Common Error #2: Asking Family Members and/or Friends for Legal Advice. Seeking the emotional support from your family and friends is often a necessity to surviving one of the most challenging times of your life. However, seeking legal advice from that same support network often has the opposite effect. All divorces are unique. And while the issues of each divorce (e.g., spousal support, child support, equitable distribution, etc.) are similar, every situation is different. What worked for your brother’s divorce may not work for yours. Well-meaning friends and well-intentioned family members often make matters worse by offering their own opinions and advice that is emotionally-driven, rarely neutral, and often not in your best interests. When looking for legal guidance, seek the advice of the professionals on your legal team, including your attorneys, parenting coordinator, mediator, divorce coach and others.
Common Error #3: Failing to really know the attorney you hire. Who you engage can set the tone for your entire divorce process. The attorney’s reputation in the legal community, how he/she approaches each case, and the office support staff can determine the flow of your case. For example, an overly-aggressive attorney may over-work your case, resulting in unnecessary delays, increased legal costs, and a protraction of the process. In contrast, an easy-going attorney may be viewed as a pushover by his peers, and do your case an injustice by underestimating the opponent. If your spouse is willing, you may want to both interview and engage collaborative-minded attorneys, who will work together to cooperatively reach a settlement.
Common Error #4: Waiting to mediate. Mediation is available to pro se clients (clients who represent themselves without lawyers), as well as to clients who are represented by legal counsel. Recognizing the significant financial and time-savings mediation brings, many states now require mediation prior to setting a trial date. If your state is one of those states, why wait until you’ve spent considerable money in litigation before considering mediation? If your spouse is cooperative and agreeable to working towards a fair settlement, mediation can save thousands of dollars in legal fees. Mediation also provides the opportunity for the parties to draft the terms of their own settlement, rather than have terms imposed upon them by the court. Mediating early in the process eliminates significant costs incurred during the litigation process.
Common Error #5: Forgetting to consult with a financial planner. If you underestimate your budget, you will underestimate your financial picture. This information is critical when determining support needs. Consult with a professional financial planner, who will be able to project all of your expenses and help you prepare an accurate budget and financial picture.
Common Error #6: Failing to pick your battles. Do you really want to fight about everything? Are there some things you can “give” on and others you can’t? Create a list of the things you want … a piece of artwork, a piece of furniture, a set of golf clubs … and prioritize them in terms of intrinsic value. How hard are you willing to fight for them? Can you even afford to keep them? Use your list during your negotiations with your spouse, establishing your own form of currency to trade. Remember that equitable distribution doesn’t necessary mean 50/50, and it’s okay to trade something for lesser value to get something you really want.
Divorce should be approached soberly and strategically. Taking the time to think through the actual process of divorce, the costs involved, and the realities in your own life will help you make well-informed, practical decisions and avoid costly mistakes.
Diane Danois, J.D.