One of the questions I am often asked is: what is the number one piece of advice you would give to someone at the beginning of his or her divorce?
I once gave the answer: be prepared.
By that I mean, go right to the source. Talk to a divorce attorney now and start gathering information and thinking about your goals, before you start the process and, perhaps, before you break the news to your spouse.
When I gave that answer, the questioner was surprised. Maybe even put off. I realize it sounds opportunistic. Sneaky even. But think about it this way: Before you undergo a major surgery, wouldn’t you have a consultation with the surgeon so you know what to expect from the procedure? How to best prepare your body for it? What the recovery will look like? What your alternatives are to surgery? When it comes to your family and your finances that you’ve been building during your entire adult life, shouldn’t you take the same level of precaution if you can?
For many people going through this process, there is no way to be prepared. I’ve had clients sit across from me at their initial consultation, who have used all manner of terms to describe their surprise at the fact that they needed a divorce attorney: “shocked,” “blindsided,” “confused.” I have had clients who are, quite understandably, immobilized by this feeling.
But sometimes, you can be prepared. Maybe you are the spouse who wants a divorce and, in that sense, you hold all the cards. Maybe you don’t want a divorce, but you see the writing on the wall. Maybe you’ve learned a hard truth about your spouse – for example, you’ve uncovered an affair, or you learned of a substance abuse problem – and you want to know your options. Maybe you just suspect that your spouse is unhappy and is thinking about a divorce. In these situations, you can be prepared. You can talk to a family lawyer before you tell your spouse that you want a divorce and find out what the process entails, what information you are going to need to disclose and/or have a handle on, and what to expect as a range of possible outcomes.
Why is this valuable? Many reasons, but here are a few:
- If you don’t know much about your family’s finances, it will give you time to start to gather this information. Having a handle on what assets and debts exist is crucial in a divorce, because we need to know what exists so that we can determine how to fairly divide marital assets and debts to each spouse, a concept known as “equitable distribution.” Knowing about the family finances will also help us determine our objectives for alimony and, in some cases, child support.
- If you have a child or children, a divorce attorney will explain to you what you can expect your day to day will probably look like in the future in terms of your obligation to communicate with your ex about the children, possible parenting time schedules, and decision-making for the kids both big and small. In this way, you can start thinking about your objectives with regard to custody and parenting time.
- Having an initial consultation with a divorce attorney can help you to “issue spot.” While the issues in most divorce cases are the same – alimony, equitable distribution, child support, custody and parenting time, division of responsibility for higher education expenses, division of responsibility for litigation expenses, etc. – every case is different because every couple is different. Maybe there is a prenuptial agreement that needs to be addressed. Maybe one spouse is claiming that certain assets are exempt. Maybe a child has special needs that require a unique parenting plan.
- You can learn about your options for how to proceed with a divorce. Will you litigate? Mediate? Arbitrate? Try to resolve the issues without either the court or a neutral third party, but instead trade settlement proposals and come to an agreement? A divorce attorney will explain all of the options and recommend a way to go based on the level of acrimony between you and your spouse as well as other issues.
- You can decide whether you trust the attorney you’ve chosen to consult with, and maybe even whether you like him or her. This is important. I once had a former client tell me that I knew her in a way nobody else knew her, after handling her divorce. With so much that is personal to the client at stake and, sometimes, at the heart of the issues in a divorce case, the divorce attorney-client relationship can be an intimate one. And it is always one that requires the client to have trust in the attorney. If you walk away from the initial meeting with your divorce attorney and have anything less than 100% confidence in them, then that isn’t the attorney for you and it’s time to look for someone else who you do trust and who supports your objectives.
This is the first blog post in a series I will be sharing called Be Prepared For Your Divorce. Here, I’ll share my best advice for preparing to embark on this major life change (starting with: Talk to A Divorce Attorney first). I’ll also be asking former clients the question, “what do you wish you knew before you started the divorce process?,” sharing their responses anonymously, and tackling what they had to say. Stay tuned for more.