New clients sometimes ask me about ways in which they can help ensure a good result in their divorce and/or custody cases. Most lawyers are busy people and will be happy when clients help them prepare and settle the case. Below are some things that you can do to help your lawyer get a good result for you. As it happens, many of these things will help you save money as well.
Be prepared. When the writing is on the wall and you know that divorce is inevitable, you should gather documents and information about important issues, such as your finances. You may be the spouse who has handled finances, so you will know exactly what assets are owned by you and your spouse. Or, on the other hand, you may be the homemaker who has never handled the finances. You may help your lawyer uncover unknown assets or you may just have documents that show the existence and values of assets. Either way, if you are able to assemble documents and information for your lawyer, this will help save your lawyer time. This, in turn, will save you money in the attorney fees that result when your lawyer has to conduct pretrial discovery to find assets. This may be a second marriage for you and perhaps also for your spouse. Therefore, one or both of you may have assets that will be considered “separate property” by the Court. Having evidence of the existence and value of these assets as well as information about whether they have remained separate and are thus usually protected from division in a divorce will help your lawyer evaluate your case and assess the potential for distribution. Here’s a link to a list of the types of documents that you should assemble. Documents to bring to your first consultation.
Be flexible and prepared to accept change. A respected family court judge once said to some litigants in his courtroom: “Remember, when you cut that tablecloth in two, it’s not going to cover the same table.” When your family separates into two units, the resources that one family counted on will be severely stretched. Examine your short-term and long-term goals, and remain open to change. In almost every divorce, someone has to start over. Often, both parties find it difficult to manage financially. Accept the need to compromise. Remain open to the reality that your home may be smaller and you may need to cut back in other ways as well.
Be truthful with your attorney. Your lawyer can’t help you overcome setbacks that may arise if you fail to provide accurate and truthful information. Everything you tell your attorney is confidential.
Prepare to use specialists. Many family lawyers are specialists. If your case has any unusual factors, you’ll want to be sure to find a lawyer who doesn’t dabble in family law. Nevertheless, while that lawyer will help you with the law, facts and procedure that will apply to your case, he or she will often recommend other specialists to help. Your divorce can move faster and better if you use (as needed) a:
- Counselor/therapist, if you are sad or mad. Normally, these professionals charge less by the hour than your lawyer. Moreover, your lawyer is not trained as a therapist. Use your money wisely and don’t call your lawyer when you should call your counselor instead.
- Financial planner, if you don’t have much experience in finances.
- Business valuation expert for small businesses.
- CPA for taxation issues
- Child specialist to help find solutions for custody, parenting time, child support issues, living arrangements, etc.
Ask your lawyer for recommendations to a specialist. He or she is
likely familiar with the specialist who is most suited to help you with
the issues at hand.
The big picture. Divorce isn’t about “winning” or “losing.” In fact, many family law specialists will tell you that divorce is a “lose/lose” situation for all involved. If you avoid score-keeping and if you don’t let issues that don’t matter get in the way, you can make this a win/win situation—or at least you can make the best of a bad situation. If you find yourself faltering, step back, take a deep breath, go for a walk, cool off.
Mediation at the earliest opportunity, whether you and your spouse go alone or whether you each take your attorney with you is a great idea. It’s easier to compromise if both of you are not already polarized—if you haven’t backed into a corner (or feel as though you’ve been backed into a corner) and feel like you have to defend that position.
Make a list of the goals, needs and interests that are important to
you, ranking them in order of importance. Then focus on those and don’t
allow anyone to distract you.
Do a reality check. Ask your lawyer if your goals are realistic. If your lawyer tells you that no matter how much you want something, the judge is unlikely to award it to you, listen to your lawyer. Don’t spend half of your property settlement on attorney fees fighting for an unrealistic goal.
Be empathic to your spouse’s position. There are a number of reasons why empathy can help you. First, if you are parents, remember that you’ll be co-parents for the rest of your children’s lives. This means that you’ll want to remain civil to your spouse so that you can at least tolerate being in the same room for graduations, weddings, baptisms, and so forth.
About 90-95% of divorces settle out of court. Therefore, it’s important to keep all avenues of negotiation open. Success in negotiation means figuring out what the other person's goals are. Listening to your spouse's requests and offers—really listening—will help you figure out what will motivate him or her to settle. Think about what is available as a “trade-off.” What will he or she accept in exchange for something that means a lot to you? Remember, settlement involves thinking of all of the options. Creative solutions may be the key to resolving property settlements or settling issues revolving around parenting time, custody or support issues.
Reduce conflict. One of the questions that I always hear at the initial consultation is “How much will my divorce cost?” My answer is always the same. “I can’t give you an exact figure. The more you and your spouse fight, the more it costs.” Reducing conflict and working toward solutions is the best way to ensure that your divorce is not costly. Moreover, conflict consumes more than money. It consumes energy. It can disrupt your life. It can cause immeasurable harm for your children.
Remember, this isn't the end of the world. Facing the end of a marriage can be very frightening. And no one likes to feel like a failure. When you and your spouse married, you had high hopes for the future. Seeing those hopes dashed to the ground can be disillusioning at best. This is one of the most important reasons why you will benefit most from taking the high road, from giving a little more than you thought you would or should. At the end of the day, you want to be able to walk away, to take a break, and to start over. You want to be able to hold your head up, knowing that you weren't a cheat and you weren't disrespectful. You need to be a whole person to do that.
This last reminds me of a favorite quote from Edith Wharton, one I used to keep on my letter slide until I'd looked at it so many times, I'd finally memorized it:
In spite of illness, in spite even our arch-enemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways
Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
You'll find much more information about divorce, custody, property settlement and other issues on my website at www.traversecityfamilylaw.com.
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