For a successful divorce—oxymoron, I know—decide with all the self-awareness you can muster the least damaging path, emotionally and financially, for you, your spouse, and children, if applicable, to reach the end of this road as healthy and whole as possible. This can look vastly different for different families and that indeed is the point.
1) Process before particulars.
Often clients come in intent on hashing out who gets the silverware or picks up the kids after school. They want to talk 401K and whether they should sell the house or consider joint custody. It’s not that these aren’t central items worthy of extensive discussion, but the first decision lies in the how. The process is key.
It used to be that when you walked into a divorce lawyer’s office, the choice regarding the process was made for you: one option, litigation. As time went on, a choice arose through the ashes on the courtroom floor: mediation. A step in the right direction. Still, the divorce court carnage continued, especially for couples with children, even utilizing mediation measures. Out of this stark reality emerged a new, less combative, more evolved alternative in the early eighties: collaborative divorce.
The collaborative has gained significant traction in the last decade, with Texas leading the way. Collaborative divorce is a “team-based” approach that involves a lawyer for each client, as well as mental health and a financial professional—both neutral participants with the goal of helping clients, along with their attorneys, reach agreements that stick. The decree is ultimately crafted through joint meetings with all parties without entering a courtroom. A judge does not hand down a ruling. Both parties agree to the terms of the settlement. The process is private. It’s not for everyone, but anyone considering divorce should know about it.
Appreciate in the beginning the very distinct choices regarding the process—that there is indeed a choice—and choose to bear in mind how it will likely affect the players in your situation. Select honestly what will serve your family best in the long run.
And be realistic: if your soon to be ex is incapable of listening or compromising (or if you are), acknowledge it and determine workability; collaboration may be viable. Regardless of which you choose, determine the process first.
2) Professionals help.
Get the amount of assistance you need. No more, no less. This is no time for pride or penny-pinching.
Convinced you can have a quick do-it-yourself divorce and save a bundle—negotiate without the aid of an attorney—create with your soon to be ex an equitable settlement you both find acceptable? Maybe you are that couple. It’s possible. But not likely.
Considering the financial situation or parenting plan becomes infinitely harder when you’re stuck in the middle. Subjectivity is unavoidable. An objective professional such as an attorney, financial planner, or therapist won’t be a miracle worker, but he or she will be impartial, trained, and experienced. Ironically, many couples come in believing that litigation will yield a better outcome. This is rarely true.
The enormous financial, emotional cost of a divorce played out in court is often unforeseeable and cannot be estimated until the damage is done. You are more likely to fare better—financially and otherwise—by trusting your best selves and paying the investment upfront. There’s no way around but through.
Acknowledging a mental health or substance issue that must be addressed can be grueling. Retainers are painful to pay, no question. But coming out on the other side of litigation without spending that same money or emotional equity you put up initially, usually exponentially more, is rare. You cannot do a divorce on layaway.
3) Communication and negotiation are key.
Even if you’ve hired the attorney and/or other professional(s) to walk you through, your ability to be direct, fair, and decent (regardless of perceived hurt caused to you or your children) is paramount.
Divorce does not end the relationship you have with your ex—especially if you have children—it just changes it.
Dream if you must, but you do not get to disappear into the sunset after the decree is signed and never deal with your ex again (not without significant repercussions; children have long memories). Therefore, why not do everything you can during these painful proceedings to become better skilled in negotiation and communication? You might surprise yourself.
You can choose to learn how to let these concepts work for instead of against you. Not only will it make moving forward after divorce less bleak, but it will also likely keep the time and cost down during divorce if you engage with your family’s ultimate welfare in mind.
4) Last Stop: Litigation.
In light of 1-3, if at all possible, avoid litigation. Suck it up. Turn the other cheek. Be a better person. Insert favorite metaphor.
The litigation model pits one side against the other, awards who can reveal most convincingly the ugliest, most shameful, dark mistakes in the light of a pitiless courtroom. Regardless of how badly you want to humiliate your lying cheating ex, know the judge has heard it all before and then some. What has shocked you to the core will not surprise anybody. It will not procure a win. It will keep you stuck.
And you will pay for indulging yourself. For every bit of discovery, response to an interrogatory, court hearing, ruling…for what? For your day in court, a judge who has seen it all before and will, all told, spend two to five hours tops deciding your family’s future.
A judge can at best get an outline of you and your situation—not because he or she is not competent, but because that is the litigation model in family law–so make sure it’s the only way.