Often described as one of life’s most difficult experiences, divorce disrupts families and finances, and if the process is complicated with hostility and anger, it becomes even harder for everyone involved. Family law attorneys, familiar with the intense emotions that most often accompany the dissolution of a marriage, have advice for couples facing this challenge.
“The biggest mistake people make is letting their emotions overtake their good judgment,” says Joyce Capshaw of Carmody MacDonald. “A divorce is the breakup of a partnership. It doesn’t feel like a business deal to the couple, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s two partners going their separate ways and they must determine how they are going to split everything up.” Although that is the most prudent approach, Capshaw acknowledges that it can be a significant challenge. “The level of difficulty will be measured by the reasons for the divorce, and how high that ‘emotional thermometer’ is.”
Above all, Capshaw advises, a parent with children must be very careful not to involve kids in negative conversations about the other parent. “Keep the kids out of the fray,” she cautions. “I tell my clients, You chose this person to be the mother or father of your children, and you must support that choice now. It’s important to remember that kids love both of their parents, and the kids aren’t the ones getting a divorce.”
And although it’s easier said than done, resisting the urge to act on those angry emotions is critical. “It’s common when clients come in for the first time,” says Justin Cordonnnier of Green Cordonnier & House. “The hard part is getting them to calm down. They’re angry and they ask What nasty things can we do to get even? But it’s important to start slowly. Later on, if we need to manage the case more aggressively to get the other side’s attention, we can do that.”
Like Capshaw, Cordonnier emphasizes the importance of protecting the children. “Don’t use the kids as the vehicle for getting even with your spouse,” he cautions. “If you expect them to make judgments about ‘who’s the bad guy,’ you are forcing them to choose between you.”
Another frequent mistake is an effort to hide marital assets. “First of all, if your client tells you that they’re hiding something, they’ve created an ethical violation for you as their attorney,” Cordonnier explains. “And the division of marital property is a matter of discretion with the court, so if the judge believes that someone is not being forthcoming, that person is going to be penalized.”
The initial visit to an attorney may seem like the first step, but there are decisions to be made before you walk through the law office doors. “Some people come in and they are very focused—they have made up their mind and they want a divorce,” says Susan Hais of Hais, Hais, Goldberger, & Coyne. “But people are often focused on superficial things, especially initial costs. It’s sort of a shame, because some lawyers want to attract the client, and they don’t tell them honestly just how expensive a litigation can be.”
Because of financial concerns, some couples try to live in the same household during the divorce process, but Hais cautions against this. “It’s a disaster. Most judges feel that parties should be separated, because there’s nothing but conflict,” she says. “Ultimately there must be two households, so it only makes sense to figure that out ahead of time.” LN