by Myra Chack Fleischer, CFL-S, Fleischer & Ravreby
As we start a new year, it is natural to take stock of your life and look for ways to improve your situation. Sometimes, this means facing the reality that a divorce is necessary for your emotional and sometimes financial health. January is the month with the most new divorce filings all year.
When a person makes the decision to get divorced, there are a lot of questions and concerns. Some are practical: Will the legal business be a nightmare? Will it cost me a fortune? Some are more personal: How will I ever get through it without breaking down?
Divorce is the most common legal matter that people try to handle by themselves, also referred to as “pro per.” A 2013 study found nearly three-quarters of all people getting divorced in the U.S. do so without an attorney.
Why does this happen? Many people think hiring a lawyer will be expensive, or stressful. They don’t anticipate any big arguments, and the paperwork looks simple enough. Just fill it out, pay the fee and you are done, right?
Not exactly. Often, people get started and discover a divorce involves a whole lot more than just legal paperwork. Court cutbacks in many states means less personnel to help you work your case through the system if anything is confusing or unclear. Mistakes can delay getting the divorce finalized for months while you are in limbo.
Divorce is never simple. It involves complex financial decisions that can affect you and your children for years to come. It involves emotional turmoil for most people: Anger. Grief. Fear. Anxiety. It makes the rest of every day life that much tougher.
Perhaps you think it’s self-serving for a family law attorney to advise people to hire a lawyer to handle your divorce. You should not stop there. For many divorces and any with children or significant financial assets, you need three key experts looking out for you.
First, find a family law attorney with expertise in divorce cases. Your attorney should hold family law specialty certification in your state. In California, look for the initials “CFL-S” for “Certified Family Law Specialist.”
After you have checked legal qualification, ask direct questions about his or her fees and how they work. You are entering a business agreement and you are hiring someone to work for you. Yes, it may get emotional, but this part should be handled as matter-of-factly as you can. Be honest and open about your finances. It will make things easier on everyone.
Attorneys aren’t quite as individual as snowflakes, but you may need to interview several before you find a good fit for your circumstances. Find out your attorney’s amount of experiences. Does your attorney tend to go to court or does he or she settle most cases outside of court? Some attorneys are better negotiators that litigators. Does the attorney represent mainly husbands or wives, or both equally? If you have a same sex marriage, find out how comfortable and experienced your attorney is with these new types of divorce cases. How much of your case will he or she handle personally? Meet any other professionals such as junior attorneys or paralegals and feel comfortable with them as well.
Next, it’s crucial to seek the services of a divorce financial planner. You may not be able to rely on your regular CPA or financial advisor. Find one specifically qualified to advise you on key aspects of the divorce process and how this will affect your assets. Look for a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) certification. This person will work with your attorney to oversee critical financial tasks outside a lawyer’s area of expertise. This individual will review the impact of your legal choices in the divorce on your financial and tax situation, especially in regard to a divorce settlement offer. This will strengthen your attorney’s ability to negotiate from a position of strength on your behalf.
Finally, don’t neglect your mental health needs. Long after the divorce is over from a legal and financial standpoint, you and your children will be feeling the effects of the emotional fallout. It is wise to bring in a mental health professional with training in family counseling. Divorce is an emotional experience unfolding in the midst of what is essentially a business deal. It can overwhelm you while you are struggling to focus on practical decisions about legal and financial issues. A therapist or divorce “coach” can help you cope with strong feelings while the divorce process unfolds and provide a safe place to express yourself. This allows you to avoid drama with your attorney and your financial planner.
What about the cost? It’s true hiring three professionals is more expensive than filing the paperwork on your own. But consider the risks you face on many levels. If you have any children or property, you can end up making mistakes or bad decisions that have a negative impact for the rest of your life. You could end up paying an attorney or other professionals down the road to fix the problems you created after the fact. Your kids could suffer emotional damage later that could seriously effect their future. Consider it an investment in yourself and your children for the long term. What is more important than this?
With the expertise of highly qualified, experienced legal, financial, and psychological professionals on your side, you will have all of the help you need to get through your divorce with a bright, secure future ahead of you and your family.
One way to find this kind of team to work with you is to consider the Collaborative Divorce method. Collaborative divorce is an alternative dispute resolution process to the typical adversarial divorce. A divorcing couple agrees that they will work together with family law attorneys, financial specialists, divorce coaches and child and family therapy specialists as a team outside the court system to resolve their differences. This team will help guide you through a divorce. These professionals often work together on a regular basis and can rely on each other’s specific expertise. You can still have significant disagreements with your spouse when you start this process, as long as you pledge to keep working and remain civil as much as you can until your situation is resolved.
The Collaborative Divorce process depends on the level of cooperation between the parties, their willingness and ability to commit to a healthy divorce, and the complexity (emotional and financial) of the case. It takes work. But it preserves the well-being, diginity and relationships of parents to children and even extended family. Collateral damage is minimized.
Copyright © 2014 by Fleischer & Ravreby, Attorneys at Law