All too often I hear from clients about how they should end up with a specific result in their case because their friends went through divorces of their own and ended up with that desired result, or something similar. I can certainly sympathize with a client who want to talk to their loved ones and other people who have gone through what they are going through to not only make sure that they are getting a fair result, but also for the simple purpose of comfort during a stressful time.
It is critical, however, for each litigant to understand that every case is different and rests on its own facts and circumstances. Each set of parties are also different from case to case, and as a result, each outcome is different. It is always important that a client understands this to be the case as we explain to them the divorce process, what the law is and how it is applied, and what reasonable expectation he or she should have as to how the results received by others.
For instance, I learned from another contributor to this blog that whenever a client asks how long their case is going to take, the answer is generally “it depends.” It depends on you. It depends on your spouse. It depends on the facts of your case. While matrimonial attorneys often have a preliminary sense as to what alimony or equitable distribution may be based on prior experience, no one can look into the future to see exactly what will happen. Most clients want the divorce process to be as short and amicable as possible, and, from what they have seen or heard, expect only the longest and most acrimonious divorce imaginable. Thus, from the very start the client must be made aware that the length and outcome of a case depends, in large part upon the parties themselves.
There is, perhaps, no better example of when this occurs than with the issue of alimony. This is likely because it is generally a “hot button” issue, especially in New Jersey where alimony reform has been the subject of extensive recent discussion and attempted legislative change. Also, unlike child support, which is generally based on the formulaic child support guidelines (unless further analysis is required where the parties’ collective net incomes exceed the guidelines’ limit), and unlike equitable distribution, which is generally a 50/50 split of marital assets (except with the distribution of the marital interest in a business), alimony is, perhaps, subject to greater shades of gray.
One of the first questions that I am always asked when it comes to alimony is for how long the alimony will be. The question is then usually followed by the client stating how long the marriage was and what their understanding is from other people as to when permanent alimony comes into play. Interestingly, while the length of the marriage is certainly an important factor, litigants often seem to treat it like the only factor, despite the alimony statute listing no less than fifteen factors for consideration.
While there are certainly some predictors and practices to help advise a client in determining what alimony may be, there is no set of alimony guidelines or formula for calculation. Rather, there are the factors I reference above, each of which is applied to the specific facts of a given case. Thus, while the comfort afforded to a client in speaking with their loved ones is a strong draw, we as matrimonial attorneys must instill in them the notion that no result will ever be the same (nor should it be), especially in the context of settlement, where there is commonly a give-and-take between the issues of alimony and equitable distribution.
Thus, while getting by with a little help from friends is often essential to providing comfort, advice, and compassion in a time of need, it is the matrimonial attorney who possesses the level of expertise upon which clients rely to take them through the divorce process and achieve a desired result under the circumstances of their specific case.