“If you had to give divorce advice to your best friend, what would you say?” The question intrigued me. As someone who has been a divorce lawyer for decades, I’ve given my share of divorce advice. But what was my best stuff? If my brother, or my best friend, was getting divorced, what would I tell them?
When I considered that question, I realized that oftentimes, lawyers don’t give their clients all of their best divorce advice. It’s not that we are holding back. (Okay. Maybe some lawyers are!) It’s mostly that we are busy. We don’t think about it. We don’t remember.
So here, now is the divorce advice your attorney may – or may not – ever tell you.
My Best Divorce Advice
1. Make sure your marriage is over before you start pursuing a divorce.
It doesn’t matter how often you threatened to get divorced in the past. Once you actually take steps to get divorced, everything changes. You cross a line that can’t be “un-crossed.” Before you do that, make absolutely sure it is what you want to do.
2. Get a therapist.
Now. You are going to be a train wreck for a while. Unless and until you deal with your emotions, you are not going to be able to make good decisions in your divorce. The problem is: that divorce is filled with huge life decisions. You need someone who can help you deal with those emotions so you can think clearly. A therapist or a divorce coach can keep your emotions from over-running your brain. That way, you will be able to make better decisions.
3. Educate yourself.
Divorce is the most counter-intuitive process on the planet. If you don’t know how the divorce system works, you are much more likely to make mistakes that you will later regret. Having a lawyer, a therapist, and a financial adviser on your divorce team is great. But no one will care more about your life than you will.
4. Put your kids first.
Yes, everyone says they will do that. But very few people actually do. Be one of those who is a good enough parent, and a mature enough person, to really do what is best for the kids, even if it hurts you.
5. Set goals and make a plan.
If you don’t know what your goals are, and you don’t have a plan to get them, you will end up with whatever you end up with once your divorce is over. You have to put in the time and effort to decide what you want and make a plan for how to get it. That doesn’t guarantee you will get it, but at least you will have a better chance.
6. Don’t try to go it alone.
Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to deal with divorce. You need legal advice. Getting a divorce without it can cause you problems for decades to come. You also need emotional support. Even if you’ve never gone to therapy before, go now! You also need financial and tax guidance. Not knowing the tax consequences of your divorce can cost you thousands! Trying to do everything yourself, just to save money, will cost you more money in the long run.
7. Get copies of all of your financial documents as soon as possible.
If your divorce is amicable, you may be able to get your documents at any time. But, when divorce gets ugly, financial documents tend to go missing. Since it is impossible to know in advance whether your divorce will go smoothly (even if you want it to do so) the wisest thing you can do is to get copies of all of the financial documents you will need for your divorce as soon as possible.
8. Don’t file for divorce until you have considered how you want to divorce.
Starting your divorce by going to court sets you up for a long and costly battle. Consider using mediation or collaborative divorce. Try settling your case before you ever go to court. Explore all of your alternative dispute resolution options before you go to court.
9. Get good legal advice.
Whether you choose to retain a lawyer for full-blown representation or not, you need legal advice. If you have to pay for a consultation, do it. Trying to handle your divorce yourself, without getting appropriate legal advice, is like traveling alone in the Middle East without a map. You don’t know where you are going, you don’t understand the language, and if you take a wrong turn somewhere you can end up in a world of hurt.
10. The more you and your spouse can talk and negotiate your own settlement, the more time and money you will save in your divorce.
Lawyers charge by the hour. The court system is notoriously slow. You don’t have to like your ex. You don’t have to agree with your ex. But the more you can talk to your ex and hammer out your own deal, the quicker, cheaper, and easier your divorce will be.
11. Remember who you are.
You are much more than your divorce. While no one is at their best while they are going through a divorce, you don’t have to be at your worst either. How much is your integrity worth? What kind of role model do you want to be for your kids? If you spend your divorce doing things that you will regret, you will carry those regrets around with you for the rest of your life.
12. Safeguard your irreplaceable items.
There are some things that money can not buy. Pictures of your great grandparents, jewelry, and family heirlooms can all become painful collateral damage of your divorce. While you may want to believe that your spouse would never purposely damage, destroy or hide the things that you hold so dear, divorce often brings out the worst in people.
13. Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint.
No matter how much you want your divorce to be done quickly, 99.9999% of the time, it’s not going to happen. As my colleague, divorce coach Kate Van Dyke, says: “Divorce only goes as fast as the slowest person.” You will be much better off if you try to go with the flow, than if you give yourself an anxiety attack over how long your divorce is dragging on.
14. Focus on the big picture.
Identify what matters most to you in your divorce as soon as you possibly can. Then keep your eye on the goal. Focus on what matters. Let go of what does not.
15. Find a lawyer who is on the same page with you.
The biggest problem people have with their lawyer is hiring someone who has an entirely different approach to divorce than the one they want to – or needs to – take. If you want to try to resolve your divorce amicably, the last thing you need is an attorney who is a pit bull. On the other hand, if your spouse is abusive and has no problem self-destructing if it means taking you down with him or her, you need the pit bull!
16. Don’t fight. It’s not worth it.
It will cost you more time, money, and emotional energy than you could ever imagine. Unless your spouse is either being completely unreasonable, or won’t settle until s/he literally gets a pound of your flesh (and there are some people who are that psychotic) do whatever you have to in order to settle your case amicably.
17. The court system will never give you emotional justice.
A judge’s job is to follow the law and decide your case. Period. While you may be interested in proving what a jerk your spouse is, I guarantee you, the judge doesn’t care. Most divorces are granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences. Unless your spouse’s bad behavior is legally relevant (and most of it isn’t) you will never even be able to talk about it in court.
18. The cost of divorce is measured in more than just money.
Obviously, you don’t want to get taken advantage of in your divorce. But insisting that you get every last penny that you are “due” is not worth it if it costs you years of your life, and impacts your job, your health, and your relationship with your kids.
19. Spouses divorce. Parents are parents forever.
It will be extraordinarily difficult to sit next to your ex at your child’s graduation if your attorney has just ripped him apart in court. The uglier your divorce, the harder it will be to co-parent after your divorce. Keep that in mind before you start World War III.
20. Be careful who you listen to.
Getting divorce advice from your friends, your family, or your neighbor who got divorced two years ago, is a really bad idea. None of those people are divorce experts (even if they have been through a divorce themselves). They are not objective. Yes, you definitely want to lean on your friends and family for support while you go through your divorce. Just don’t rely on them to give you legitimate divorce advice.