This fall, I attended a meeting of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, where one of the keynote speakers was Donna Hicks, PhD. Throughout Donna’s academic and professional career she has written books about the power of dignity and, specifically, its importance in negotiations of all kinds. Her past clients have included the United States Navy, several large healthcare systems and corporations, and various governments around the world.
One of the weaknesses of litigated divorce is that it encourages rigid thinking that stands in the way of compromise.
Choosing your battles wisely is an important strategy in all areas of life, including if you are in the process of divorce. Unfortunately, traditional divorce attorneys often neglect to give their clients this advice, encouraging them to fight for everything they say they want, regardless of how impractical, impossible or destructive it may be. And when the other spouse inevitably takes opposite positions on those same issues, there’s nowhere to go but to the courthouse where both parties will be subjected to the slow-moving and very public litigation process.
Before marriage was made available to every American, same-sex couples struggled with issues that married couples could take for granted – like hospital visitation rights, after-death services and inheritance rights.
In order to achieve that same peace of mind that married couples enjoy, gays and lesbians came up with some brilliant solutions to bridge the dire straits in which they found themselves. In New York City, the government began a Domestic Partnership registry which granted hospital visitation, health insurance coverage and the inheritance of rent-controlled apartments, among other things. But because those provisions only applied to government-run agencies, lesbians and gays took matters into their own hands to protect themselves and their partners in the private sector through the use of wills, healthcare proxies and burial instructions. Continue reading
A high-net-worth couple going through a divorce can benefit greatly by staying out of court.
Couples with considerable assets (which I will define here as more than $5 million) are often lead to believe that their divorce will be a “no holds barred,” brutal, lengthy process with astronomical legal bills and complicated offers and counter-offers. Because of this belief, many high-net-worth couples assume that mediation or the collaborative law process will not work for them.
They couldn’t be more mistaken. In my experience, the opposite is true; high-net-worth families have more to gain by keeping things civil and private. Unfortunately, many attorneys who practice litigation harbor a killer instinct that grows along with their clients’ assets, and they see a litigated divorce as the only way to satisfy that instinct.
I was recently sitting at my desk when I received a text message from a phone number I didn’t recognize. In rapid succession I received the following missives:
- “I don’t respect people who hit children.”
- “You belong in jail for the rest of your life!”
- “Where you can hit a woman!”
- “LMAO, who’s not on parole!”
- “How pathetic what a cheater you are too.”
This person, who was obviously in distress around a family law matter and possibly even dealing with domestic violence, was exhibiting a habit I see often with my clients: Talking to a spouse or partner directly becomes so emotionally difficult, they start using text messages as their main source of communication. While it can feel easier or safer to express difficult feelings by text or email, separating and divorcing couples should use these methods of communication only if they are careful about what they are writing before hitting the send button.
Something I have been seeing more and more in my practice as a mediator and collaborative attorney are couples living apart for long periods of time, without being legally separated.
For various reasons, many married couples decide to separate for years without having any legal agreements in place. They don’t realize until years later when one of them is seeking a divorce that the legal, financial and emotional issues caused by the years of separation can become very difficult to resolve.
Below are just some of the pitfalls that people encounter when they separate unofficially:
- When two spouses start living separately, the clock starts ticking on a new status-quo. Eventually, the lifestyle maintained by the lower-earning spouse during the separation can become the standard for the amount of spousal support that is required in the future.
- Non-legal separations do not necessarily end the legal financial union between spouses. That means all the money earned – or debts being incurred – by either spouse may still be considered part of the shared marital estate.
- The higher earning spouse is not necessarily going to get credit under the law for the amount of support they’ve been providing.
- Once a couple moves into separate residences, communication between them can break down even more than it was while they were living together, which makes negotiating a separation agreement even harder than it has to be.
- If either spouse starts a new relationship and spends money on the new partner, it can be considered a “waste of marital assets,” which can result in complicated requests for repayment (financially as well as emotionally).
The feeling of or ability to be in control can be an elusive concept to many, and the lack of control can be a source of anxiety to those who crave it. When it comes to personal matters, like divorce, the need for control may be even greater. The feeling like one is not in control of his or her own future or relationship is a common frustration expressed by divorcing couples who are litigating and at the mercy of the court system. Luckily, there are alternative options for couples wishing to seize control of their divorces.
Mediation and collaborative law are private processes. These processes keep everything between just you, your attorneys and any other professionals who you invite into your case.
Besides offering privacy and dignity, the mediation and collaborative law processes also provide a degree of control that is absent from the court system:
Working outside of the court system allows divorcing parents of the boomerang generation to consider, discuss and plan for when their adult children return home.
In the New York Times Magazine, there was recently an article about the boomerang generation. Kids are coming out of college and moving back home with their parents, perhaps after unsuccessfully trying to live on their own.
Regardless of whether this is a savvy way for kids to save money without sacrificing a certain lifestyle, or a sign that they are just not able to take care of themselves in this economy, the fact is that these boomerang kids aren’t a temporary phenomenon. They appear to represent a new life stage. The article states:
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have made the news lately with their “conscious uncoupling” – a new term for a mindful divorce that is an excellent example for separating couples to learn from.
Like most people, I had never heard of this term until it was talked about in the media. As it turns out, whether I knew the term for it or not, the philosophy behind conscious uncoupling is exactly why I encourage my clients to use the collaborative law process or mediation when they are ending their marriages. It is also the reason why I use these non-adversarial processes to help couples enter into prenuptial agreements; it’s what I call conscious coupling.
Conscious coupling – as opposed to Paltrow’s and Martin’s uncoupling – is best embodied in a well thought-out and fair prenuptial agreement. Instead of focusing on keeping as much of a party’s income and assets out of the hands of the other spouse in the event of divorce, a prenuptial agreement that is entered into consciously will focus more on:
When a couple divorces, it is usually the case that neither party gets everything he or she wants. Understanding and accepting this fact before you start the divorce process can help make the process less costly – both financially and emotionally.
One of the many things I have learned from my family law clients over the past 20+ years is that when they strive for an outcome (whether via agreement or court order) that provides them with everything they want, they are inevitably disappointed. Perfection is not achievable in life and it’s certainly not achievable in divorce. Instead, I encourage my clients to think about what a “good enough” outcome would look like.
For example, if we’re talking about spousal support – How much money per month do you really need or can you afford to pay? What are the most realistic options that are available to you now that there will be two households instead of one? Many times sketching the financial picture makes people cringe – especially if they’re being told things that they don’t want to hear, such as “You have too much debt,” or “You’re going to have to return to work.” But sometimes there is no way around these facts. It’s better to accept reality and work within those parameters, rather than to strive for an outcome that may look perfect to you but will leave your soon-to-be ex (and perhaps the children) suffering terribly.