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Divorce: Legal and Procedural Coping

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

divorce buttonThe emotional aspects of divorce do not concern the more mechanical, legal aspects of divorce which must be executed in proper order regardless of how divorcing couples feel. The approach couples take towards these procedures and steps of their divorce process determines in part how difficult and painful their divorce ends up becoming. Following the advice recommended below can help to make the procedural aspects of divorce run more smoothly, and thus less stressfully.

  • Educate yourself. Marriage and divorce both are governed by state laws. In preparing for a successful divorce, it is wise to educate one's self with regard to the rules, precedents and laws governing divorce in one's state of residence. Some information will be available via books and other reference materials available at local libraries and through bookstores. Other information will be available via the Internet. Still other good information and advice may be learned by talking with people who have recently been divorced in your state, or through divorce education workshops and programs that may be available in one's community. Use judgment in sorting through what is learned, giving credence to more reputable and more recent sources; Not all sources are equally solid, accurate, or up-to-date.
  • Find proper representation. Divorce is a formal legal process, and as such, people going through divorce are wise to hire a legal professional, specifically, a state-licensed lawyer specialized in divorce, to represent themselves. While lawyers' services are not inexpensive, lawyers are in the best position, by virtue of their training and experience, to advise divorcing people as to how best to navigate the divorce process while assertively advocating for their rights. A lawyer will know what typical settlements look like and how they are best arrived at. A lawyer, as a third party, can also help divorcing parties to reality test so as to know whether their ex-spouse's property and custody requests are reasonable.

    Hiring a lawyer doesn't necessitate doing everything he or she recommends. Within reasonable bounds, and with due respect to legitimate qualifications, it is okay to question a lawyer's counsel when it doesn't seem correct, to get a second opinion, or even to fire a lawyer and hire another if that seems to be the wisest course.

  • Do your homework. Divorce requires division of property, debts and other responsibilities. Get a jump-start on the process by beginning to assemble documentation of marriage, property, debts and the like (marriage certificate, deeds, titles, bank, investment and retirement account statements, credit card documents, loan papers, etc.) as soon as divorce is imminent. Real estate and other valuable property (jewelry, automobiles, boats, art, etc.) should be professionally appraised. Store copies of this documentation in a safe and secure place where one's soon-to-be-ex-spouse cannot get to it. This documentation may prove critical if one's spouse denies that property exists, or attempts to devalue its worth.

    Similarly, keep a record of all divorce related correspondence involving one's lawyer and one's spouse. Print out emails and copy letters and documents. Note phone calls and face-to-face meetings, recording when the contact occurred, and what was discussed. Such a record may prove helpful in documenting negotiations and agreements should a court process become unavoidable.

  • Create a specific plan. When working with one's soon-to-be-ex-spouse to arrive at a division of property, debt and custody, make every effort to arrive at a specific and detailed plan, keeping in mind that whatever plan is decided upon will have to be approved by the court. Having a specific plan is particularly important with regard to child custody. Figure out where each child will live and go to school, who will care for the children, how child support will occur, how visitation will be arranged, how alterations to the agreement will be negotiated, etc. Judges are more likely to endorse a custody agreement where the details of that agreement have been fully worked out and implemented, vs. one that is only haphazardly planned. If the decision is that children will live some of the time with a spouse who has moved out of the the family house, that spouse should set up a space for those children in their new home (in the same school district if possible) prior to attending court.
  • Be civil and polite, especially when in court. It is best to be civil, polite, honest and well-groomed during all divorce communications, especially when in court or otherwise interacting with an agent of the court (a judge, mediator or arbitrator). Behaving well helps to expedite the process of negotiating agreement, and also, importantly, preserves the court's opinion of you as a responsible adult -- an opinion which may prove critical should the court step in to impose a decision regarding custody or property division.