A divorce can be one of the most difficult ordeals individuals experience in their lives. A family is being torn in two. Parents are separated from their children. Financial stability is undermined. Unfettered access to money and family is replaced by state involvement and court orders mandating when individuals can see their children and what they must pay an ex-spouse each month for support. Marital Settlement Agreements included in divorce judgments are contracts according to which parents must live their lives for their foreseeable futures. Negotiating or litigating a workable, advantageous agreement is essential to future financial security and emotional harmony.
There are a variety of key factors for successfully navigating a divorce. Having a complete understanding of the financial estate, each party’s income and expenses, and the dynamics of family decision-making and child care history are all important. Having effective counsel to accumulate information and execute a plan is essential. But those factors are logistical in nature, and an effective attorney will guide a litigant through that process and direct attention where it is most required.
What each divorcing parent personally needs to generate in order to emerge from a divorce with a workable and advantageous agreement is a set of goals, identified as early as possible, that can be worked toward throughout the divorce. Remember that attorneys act at the client’s direction. They will advise clients of their options and act on their instructions, but they will not set goals or make decisions for a client. Therefore, a client without identifiable goals will experience a longer divorce, higher costs, and ultimately a worse outcome.
Set your goals for your attorney as early as possible in the process and you will give your attorney something tangible to fight for. The following considerations will help a litigant identify and secure their goals:
• What is important to you? Specificity is essential to success. “My children are important to me” is not a sufficient answer. “I want custody of my children” is no better. Avoid legalese and think practically. How often do you want to see your children? How near do you want your ex-spouse to live? What sort of decisions do you want to make, or be involved with? Educational? Medical? Religious? All of the above? Is coaching a team important you? Do you want to travel internationally to visit family every winter? Are there specific holidays or events that are more important to you than to your spouse? The more specifically you can identify what is important to you as a parent, the sooner your counsel can start building your case to secure those goals.
• Prioritize your goals. After completing step one above, you will have a long list of important considerations. Now rank them. Is making decisions on educational issues more important than religious decisions? If you don’t expect to be the primary residential parent, is it more important to see your children every day for a shorter period, or for long periods of time less often? In an ideal situation you will get everything you want out of your divorce negotiations, but more realistically there will come times when you will have to make hard choices, and it is very important for you to know beforehand what’s most important to you so that your attorney can secure those considerations above all others.
• What is important to your spouse? Divorce is a confrontation between two opposing points of view, and the better you know the motivations and goals of the other side, the more effective you will be in securing your own goals. You know your spouse far better than anyone else involved with your divorce ever will. Your insight is therefore essential in effectively securing the best outcome. Put your cynicism aside and place yourself in your spouse’s mindset. Then recreate steps one and two above for your spouse. What is most important to him/her? Which of your goals can you achieve without a fight, and conversely what will your spouse never compromise on? Where are the areas in which the two of you can work together? Knowledge is power. Use it to your advantage.
• Remember your goals and stick to them. Your divorce is going to get messy. It usually does. Inevitably tempers will flare and personal attacks, vendettas and the deep-seeded issues that gave rise to the divorce will see the light of day. None of that matters. Remember why you are there. Remember your list. Don’t get caught up in who wins, who loses, who gets the last word, or who makes the final concession. You entered this process with goals you wanted to accomplish. Secure them and get out.
Above all else, remember that you are the in charge of your divorce. Your attorney acts at your direction. So give your attorney the necessary direction to succeed. Understand your priorities, set your goals and stick to them. The process will still be difficult. But if you know where you want to end up, it is much easier to get there.