You’ve heard the horror stories about people who spend their retirement and college funds getting divorced. And you don’t want to be that person.
But maybe you haven’t heard the other kind of horror story: the people who, out of fear, refuse to get essential professional help—even though they can afford it-- when making major decisions that will shape the rest of their own lives and the lives of their kids. Nothing costs more than going it alone when you shouldn't. Help from the right professionals at the right time could steer you away from costly mistakes and conflict, and guide you toward peaceful resolution.
Bottom line: you and your spouse have probably saved money for a rainy day, as and when you could. When you're divorcing, it's raining.
Here are five smart, easy ways to make sure that every dollar you pay your professional helpers brings you value and leads toward resolution. Follow these five rules, and you can be pretty certain that you spent your hard-earned money for services that help you through your divorce in the best possible way.
Get the help you need, and get it early. Divorce lawyers and their colleagues know stuff that you don’t. Always remember: when divorce happens, for many people the weather forecast is going to be, "cloudy with a high likelihood of showers or thunderstorms." That’s because even the most reasonable, cooperative divorcing partners often run into challenging issues that have no easy, quick fixes. If you’ve got kids, if one of you needs support from the other, if there are pensions and houses to be valued and divided, the truth is you’re both likely to come out of the divorce healthier and wealthier if you retain a great team of professional helpers to advise both of you early on, before the inevitable showers and storms hit. Nothing is costlier in a divorce than dealing with crises and emergencies without good helpers already in place to keep both of you calm and on course when the going gets rough.
Choose your lawyer at least as carefully as you’d choose a new car. It’s obvious that the cheapest car isn’t necessarily the safest, or the most fuel efficient, or the most comfortable. Choosing your divorce professional(s) by seeking the lowest hourly rate is an even worse strategy. Your lawyer is going to be your guide, support person, wise counselor, advocate, strategist, and much more, during one of the most challenging life passages you’ll ever go through. Look for experience, wisdom, empathy, and rapport, because if these qualities aren’t there in abundance then you can’t possibly get value for money. Finding the right person will ensure that you make the best possible decisions for the future and that you avoid pointless conflicts with your ex.
Take advice and horror stories from friends and relatives with a big spoonful of salt. Your best friend or your brother-in-law the litigator are inevitably going to align with you, and may think that they are helping you by telling you they always knew your spouse was no good. They often want you to smash your ex into the dust as punishment for hurting you. And they usually aren't the most reliable sources for finding the right divorce lawyer--the lawyer who understands that a big part of the job is helping YOU calm down and recover equanimity before making major life decisions. The one who knows that Snow White rarely marries Hitler--that most divorcing couples are ordinary flawed human beings who make mistakes and can aspire, with the right help, to do a better job in the divorce than they did in the marriage. There's truth in the old saying that criminal lawyers see bad people at their best and divorce lawyers see good people at their worst. The wisest family law judge I ever encountered started his morning law and motions calendar by saying, "If anyone leaves my courtroom happy, I've made a dreadful mistake." What he meant is, hardly ever are there pure heroes and villains in divorce court, and the real task is not to choose between good and evil but rather to ensure that people emerge from their divorces with reasonable outcomes. So, when your friends and relatives try to support you by badmouthing your ex and advising you to come out fighting, tell them it's not helpful and you'd rather they bought you a day at the spa.
Choose a warrior and you'll get a war. Choose a peacemaker and you'll get peace. Nothing is costlier than litigation. Nothing. And nobody benefits except the lawyers, who earn more by going to court than in any other divorce-related activity. Did you know that when people take their issues to court, they are still almost certain to end up with a settlement rather than a trial...but the settlement negotiations often don't even begin until the money has nearly run out and the lawyers suddenly change the focus from all-out war to making a deal. This is what I learned from decades as a highly successful family law litigator: forget winning, and--crazy as this may sound--forget fairness. Instead, aim for a civilized, consensual, out of court process in which you and your ex are helped to really listen to one another, information is treated as a shared resource rather than a weapon, and the goal is a "good enough" resolution that is acceptable to both of you in light of the available resources. A peacemaker lawyer is not a pushover; a peacemaker lawyer is realistic and honest about the terrible cost-benefit to most people of taking their divorce issues to court. The best divorce lawyers--like almost all family law judges--know that almost no issue requires a judge's decision where there is a commitment to reasonable negotiations aimed at results that are acceptable to both parties. People who choose that kind of legal advisor don't spend their money on pointless battles that drain the bank account and leave the entire family scarred. Instead, they generally emerge from their divorces able to co-parent their children together and able to get on with life, rather than holding onto anger and living life glued to the rear view mirror.
Look for lawyers who know how to work in interdisciplinary collaborative teams. Even the very best settlement-oriented lawyers are expert in one thing: negotiations and advocacy aimed at a successful resolution of all divorce-related legal issues. Here's the catch: most divorcing couples care about much more than the kind of legal issues that lawyers know how to resolve--for instance, how to pay for the kids' college (did you know judges in California have no power to make orders about that?), or how to do creative tax planning so that complex assets are divided in ways that can result in more after tax dollars for both you and your spouse, or how to take care of aged, needy parents. Neutral collaborative financial specialists can streamline the mandatory financial disclosure process required by law in a divorce, and also help your lawyers craft sophisticated financial results on any issue that you and your spouse care about, in ways that are both superior to and more cost effective than what lawyers alone can generally offer. Furthermore, although both you and your spouse may want a civilized, respectful out of court settlement process for your divorce, let's face it: nobody is at their emotional best when a marriage or long-term relationship is breaking up. Strong emotions well up at the most inconvenient times and feelings get hurt. Even worse, research in recent years has shown that strong upsurges of the negative emotions that are commonplace during divorce will completely shut down the most logical, creative, and far-seeing part of your brain and send you deep down into primitive fight/flight/play dead. That is a condition in which you are biologically incapable of making good decisions, no matter how smart you are. And that's how high conflict divorces build up steam, because lawyers have no training or skill in helping you get back to your best logical self. That's why many of the best divorce lawyers now are choosing to work collaboratively on teams that include specially trained mental health professionals working in a coaching model to help ensure that you show up for negotiations thinking smart, in control of your feelings, and able to listen as well as talk. You may be thinking that lawyers are costly and adding a financial neutral and mental health coaching to the professional team will break the bank, but surprisingly, the opposite is true. A wise psychologist once said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems will resemble nails." With only lawyers, a lot of hammering gets done, but with a full toolbox that includes financial and coaching resources when the situation calls for them, you'll save time, money, and emotional resources too. This is the most advanced method available for helping couples and families do their divorces well.
If you may be facing a divorce, you owe it to yourself and those you care about to find out more about interdisciplinary collaborative teams and peacemaking lawyers. Information is power: www.collaborativepracticemarin.org
Pauline H. Tesler is a family law attorney in San Francisco and Marin.
Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.