Divorce finances can be messy... learn the facts before you pay up.
There's an old joke that goes something like this..
A man says to his wife of 20 years, "Honey, our anniversary is coming up and I would like to get you a Mercedes to celebrate the occasion." From there, the conversation goes like this:
Wife: I don’t want a Mercedes.
Husband: How about a Rolex watch?
Wife: I don’t want a Rolex.
Husband: A beautiful new ring or necklace might be nice.
Wife: I don’t want any new jewelry.
Husband: What do you want?
Wife: A divorce.
Husband: I wasn't planning to spend that much!
It's no laughing matter that the cost of divorce can add up — and quickly. It happens for a variety of reasons, but there are real steps you can take to save some money.
The first thing is to make sure you choose a process for divorce that makes sense for both you and your spouse. Often times, people facing divorce end up in a lawyer's office and hand the burden of how to move forward in their divorce over to that person. Contrary to popular belief, I believe that most lawyers who work in the family law field really do have their clients' best interests at heart — but not all lawyers are aware of or open to the various methods available to make the decisions that have to be made in a divorce.
Statistically speaking, wherever you live in the United States and Canada, divorcing people settle the issues between themselves before a judge hands down a decision after a trial. That means that chances are overwhelming that a judge will not make the decisions that impact the rest of your life; that's good news! The bad news is that people often settle because they are afraid of what will happen, they are running out of money to pay their lawyers, or the process of getting divorced is just too painful to go on one more day. As a client of mine once said, "Once you realize you're going to settle, it just becomes of matter of how you're going to settle, not whether or not you will." Exactly!
The first thing you should do when you know you are headed toward divorces is make a decision about how you will go about it. Essentially, you have three choices if you don't think you will be able to work it out yourselves. (And if you don't think you can, don't feel bad. Almost no one can. It's simply too fraught with emotional challenge mixed with legal requirements to navigate on your own). Those choices are:
- Traditional Litigation: Yes, this is Arnie Becker-style but contrary to that caricature, almost all lawyers will try to settle their cases at the same time that they must prepare for trial. This dual course — trial preparation and settlement talks — adds up on the bill. The settlement talks are not often transparent about what is truly important to each person and to their children, because a trial strategy is being prepared and protected. It is unusual for the spouses and their attorneys to sit in the same room and just hash it out. Lawyers do most of the talking (to each other) and consult with their clients on the side.
- Collaborative Divorce: In Collaborative Divorce, both spouses have lawyers, but the lawyers are disqualified from going litigating the matter. 100 percent of the lawyers' efforts are concentrated on settling rather than litigating. Meetings take place with lawyers and spouses together in a room talking about their situation and working through the issues. Collaborative lawyers often work in an interdisciplinary team so that appropriate professionals deal with the legal, financial, parenting and emotional elements of the divorce. This usually results in customized results that are based on what is important to the families involved and not on strategies designed for trials.
- Mediation: In family mediation spouses meet together with a mediator who facilitates the discussion between them. Their lawyers are usually outside the room and available on a consulting basis. The mediator identifies the topics that need to be resolved and helps the parties have those discussions.
Whatever method a divorcing couple chooses, it makes sense to think of the value they will get from each, not just the overall, cost. Just because feelings are hot, it does not mean that Collaborative Divorce and Mediation should be discounted. In fact, one of these might be the best choice so that money is not wasted in legal motions that won't solve the problem. In Collaborative Divorce and mediation, people often get the opportunity to work through the conflict and come to a more comfortable place on the other side — not just legally but emotionally as well.
Divorce is hard and the web of financial choices around it are confusing. The best way to navigate all of it is to be educated, calm and in prepared. You will get through it.
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