Divorce is costly, in more ways than just money.
Generally speaking, the higher the conflict and the more broken the communication and trust, the more expensive your divorce will be. But, with a little planning there are ways you can reduce the overall “cost” of your divorce.
There are 5 main cost factors in a divorce:
- Family and relationships: the impact on your children, extended family members, friends, and even on your relationship with your soon-to-be ex (as parents, business partners, co-workers, etc.);
- Privacy: Any document filed in divorce court is public record. With very few exceptions, court hearings are also open to the public;
- Time and duration: The time you lose from family and work while at court or at your lawyer’s office and the time it takes to complete your divorce process;
- Personal health: Certain processes either bring out the best in you, or the worst. Certain processes increase anxiety, thereby decreasing focus and productivity, be it at work or at home. Many people also report an increase illness, depression, self-medication (alcohol or other substance), and high blood pressure during a contested divorce;
- Money: Legal, expert, and court fees, time lost from work, mistakes at work because you were distracted… the list goes on.
How much your divorce costs you depends on your situation?
Based on a study conducted by the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, the top indicators that a case will be difficult or very difficult, less likely to resolve in a Collaborative Process (and frankly, in any process), and more costly to resolve, are:
- Either or both spouses made unilateral decisions;
- Either or both spouses had unrealistic expectations as to process;
- Either or both spouses had unrealistic expectations as to outcome;
- Either or both spouses had a mental health or personality disorders;
- Either or both spouses retained professionals who were very adversarial.
In a Collaborative Divorce process, couples work together on resolving questions like:
- When and how do we file for divorce?
- What upcoming events or expenses do we need to plan for right away?
- How do we tell the kids that we are divorcing?
- What documents do we need to gather and by when will we exchange them?
- What house-sharing rules/boundaries will work for us in the short run?
- What do we need to do to prepare for one spouse to move into a separate home, and how do we manage expenses related to both homes?
In a similar but contested “litigated” case the decision to file is done unilaterally.
The other spouse often is not aware of the filing until they are served with the papers, at work or other public venue. The papers are prepared by the lawyer, sometimes without much explanation as to legal meaning of the documents to the filing spouse, and certainly without explanation to the other spouse, leaving him/her with a document that reads, in bold letters, “You have been sued”, and you have 30 days to respond. What would be your reaction? There is typically no plan for working on temporary financial arrangements. This is usually handled by requesting a court hearing. There is no plan for telling the kids and no plan for working on financial disclosures together. The law requires service of the petitioner’s preliminary financial disclosures within 60 days of filing the petition and of the respondents within 60 days of filing a response. These are often bare-bones, with no supporting financial documents. The financial hide-the-ball game begins, or people make assumptions about their soon-to-be-ex that they’re hiding assets and income. Suspicion increases, as does the conflict.
The Collaborative process formally starts with a full team planning meeting in which goals and process are outlined, target dates are set for specific tasks, and, in many cases, a target end/completion date is also scheduled. By working with Collaborative trained lawyers, as part of the team, Collaborative Divorce participants receive full legal information – the good, the bad, and the practical. In the end, if the law doesn’t get you where you want to be, for yourself and your family, the collaborative lawyers will educate you on the practical impact in your life, today and moving forward. The neutral financial specialist will often take the solution ideas each spouse has and create projections so that each can see (privately) how those ideas would affect them and the other spouse today and over the next several years, taking into account tax implication as well. So, no surprises there either and all final decisions are well-informed.
In litigation, each spouse speaks only to his/her lawyer.
That lawyer, operating on the information provided by that spouse, gives preliminary legal advice, often siding with that spouse with phrases like, “you can get $5,000 in alimony if you don’t get a job” or “if you get him to hit you I can get you full custody”. These are actual quotes from perspective clients – I’m not making this up. Most of the time, the statements are not so extreme, falling more along the lines of “you’ve dealt with so much, you deserve to keep the house” or “as the primary parent, you should get the majority of the time with the kids”. In other words, “you’re right and it’s the other spouse’s fault.”
Mental Health and Personality Disorders
While there may not be a history of mental health or personality disorders, these can show up when a person is in the midst of a high conflict or traumatic situation, like divorce. The collaborative divorce process includes mental health professionals as part of the team. During the process, they work with both spouses in managing the emotions and improving communication. There are no mental health professionals in a litigated process, which often results in violated court orders and a process that can take years because the struggling spouse keeps firing and hiring new lawyers. The reality is that most people struggling with such disorders rarely see the benefit of working with such professionals. In short, you may do better cutting your losses and accepting an early agreement if you can.
Many compassionate professionals in divorce find it difficult to separate their client’s fears and pain from their own. We often “over-identify” with our own clients. Having this kind of a “yes-person” in your corner serves to corner you into being locked into one outcome. Imagine if you both did this. Collaborative professionals tend to train, extensively, in self-regulating and self-management. In law school, lawyers are trained to be adversarial: argue for the win. So, lawyers tend to have a harder time adjusting to a collaborative process, where the focus is empowering couples to make the best decisions based on personal and family goals. When each spouse hires a collaborative trained lawyer, their chances for reducing the costs of their divorce increases dramatically.
So how can you reduce your divorce “costs” before you even file?
- Do a reality check about your situation. Are you dealing with someone who has a mental health or personality disorder? What process will fit your financial circumstances? Can you both work together, even though you have different ideas as to outcome?
- Attend a Divorce Options program. This will give you both information about the roles of each professional and the benefits and risks of each process. You can attend together to hear the same information at the same time, or you can attend separate programs, allowing you each to ask questions without fear of upsetting the other.
- Create a list of values and priorities – what’s most important to you?
- Research local professionals who practice in Collaborative Divorce and interview a few; get a feel for who they are and what they do.
- Stay transparent and communicate, if it is safe to do so. Remember, as painful as this is for you, it will be for your spouse as well. In such a situation, “telling” your spouse how s/he should feel, what they should think, or what they should do will likely increase the conflict. Always invite: “I know this is hard, and I found some information that I found helpful to me. I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.”