CHAPTER 1: Coping With Change And Setting Goals
YOUR DIVORCE RULE BOOK
Divorce creates chaos. The chaos is caused by changes in residences, self-perceptions, finances, social relationships and parenting. The rule book by which you have been living your life has been destroyed.
When this happens, you may find that you behave in ways you never could have imagined.
You may regress to a second adolescence and involve yourself in risky or self-destructive activities. You may find yourself drinking excessively or experimenting with drugs. You may leap into ill-advised romantic relationships in an effort to replace what you have lost.
For the best outcome for yourself and your children, you want to reduce the chaos of divorce to a manageable level. Keeping the chaos under control will help you progress through the grieving process that is a normal part of divorce.
Below is a temporary rule book to follow during your divorce until you are able to rewrite your own. These rules for minimizing chaos fall into three categories:
- Limit change: If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it; if it doesn’t have to be changed, don’t change it.
- Protect people: Protect your children first, yourself second (and yes, your spouse third).
- Protect your financial position: Provide for necessities, protect assets, and pay bills.
Rule #1: Give Yourself Time
You are going through a lot, and it is going to take some time to recover. Don’t listen to people who urge you to “just get over it.” You’ll get over it in your own time. Most people start to recover from a divorce in about a year or so. Some people require a lot longer. If you find yourself stuck or can’t function at your job or as a parent, it is time to get help.
Rule: #2 Wait at Least a Year before Making Major Life Changes
People often react to a divorce by deciding that since their marriage has ended, they need to start an entirely new and different life. They change jobs and homes, cash in retirement accounts, and adopt different lifestyles. You have enough changes in your life right now. If something in your life doesn’t absolutely have to be changed right now, leave it alone.
Rule #3: Wait at Least a Year before Getting Involved with Someone new
You are at your most vulnerable right now. You are also seeking to redefine the new you. You will very likely be a different person in a year than you are right now. The odds are you will not ultimately fit with anyone you become involved with now. Any relationship you enter into right now will be based on panic, need, or simply grief: a bad way to start a relationship.
Rule #4: Take Care of your Children
You don’t have any job that is more important than your children. Make sure they have what they need. Protect them from the divorce. Keep stress away from them. Maintain a positive attitude around your children. In addition to protecting the children, focusing on the needs of the children takes the focus away from you. This keeps you from dwelling on your problems while you are developing a new rule book for yourself.
Rule #5: Protect your Job
Your job is more important than it ever has been; don’t do anything to jeopardize it. Level with your employer. Tell your employer what is going on and be sure to make up time if you have to. Do whatever is necessary to keep the relationship sound.
The unhappiness could be a reaction to the divorce more than anything else. If after a year you are still unhappy, begin a systematic search for a new position. Do it right. Give proper notice and don’t burn any bridges on your way out.
Rule #6: Take Care of your Finances
Don’t spend money on luxuries. Make your car payment. You can’t get to work if you don’t have a car. Make your house payment if you can. If you can’t, make sure your spouse knows about it; then whether or not the house can be protected will be a joint problem. The same goes for your other bills. However, the necessities of life for you and your children come first. Any money you have goes to protect people first, then assets, and finally, your credit rating. For example, if it comes down to buying food or paying off a credit card, the choice should be obvious.
Rule #7: Keep your Friends
Some of your friends will feel very awkward associating with you after your separation. Some will not and will be supportive. Keep them close. Friends can help in tough times. However, be very careful about taking any advice they might give you. You can listen to them, but before you make any decisions, get advice from your divorce lawyer.
Rule #8: Keep your Family
Members of your family can be your greatest allies. Don’t alienate them. Any unhappiness you may feel toward them right now may simply be a reflection of how you feel about the divorce process. It’s possible that your family will want to defend you at all costs. Be very careful; letting them defend you at all costs may not be the best approach. Any advice they give you, or actions they want you to take, may not be in your best interests or what is best for your children. Talk it over with the experts you’ve hired before acting on any advice family members give you.
Understanding Emotional Barriers To An Amicable Resolution
The Grieving Process
A divorce can be divided into four categories:
- legal requirements;
- children and parenting;
- money and property; and
Legal requirements must be met. Assets and liabilities will need to be divided and family support determined. If you have children, parenting will have to be arranged. But above all, and often out of all proportion to the rest, you and your spouse will be dealing with your grief over the loss of your marriage. Divorce is the death of a relationship. Only the death of a spouse is generally reported to be more stressful for adults than divorce. Separation and divorce are consistently rated more stressful than going to jail, losing a job, personal injury, illness, mortgage foreclosure, and all other distressing life experiences except the death of a spouse.
The Stages of Grief
Psychologists typically define the stages of grief as:
Settling a divorce requires a lot of hard work from both spouses. You will have to gather documents, prepare budgets, list all your assets and liabilities and put a value on them, and make many decisions about how to parent your children and divide your property. The emotions you and your spouse experience during the grief process can make it difficult for you to move ahead with these tasks.
In the shock stage, you may feel paralyzed and unable to take any action while you process the idea of ending your marriage. In the denial stage, you may put off doing the work that is necessary to settle your divorce thinking that the divorce is never going to happen. You may think that dragging out the process will give your spouse time to come to his or her senses and give up on the divorce.
In the anger stage, you may dwell on how your spouse has wronged you and feel a need to vent to anyone who will listen about what a horrible person he or she is. You may find yourself opposing proposals from your spouse, even when they make sense, because you want to punish him or her. You may also find yourself making unfair demands. In the bargaining stage, you may hope to change your spouse’s mind about the divorce by promising to change yourself into the ideal wife or husband. You may be overly generous to your spouse in negotiations in hopes of getting your spouse to believe that you are a wonderful, generous person and the divorce is a mistake.
In the depression stage, you may be disengaged from the negotiations and may not care how things are resolved. You will probably find it hard to follow through with tasks and make decisions.
In the acceptance stage, you recognize that your marriage is over and that you must move forward to create a new life for yourself. When both spouses are in the acceptance stage, negotiations are most productive.
Moving through the Stages
Grief is a normal part of life; you will survive it. But you must be patient with yourself and with your spouse who is going through the same process. The process cannot be speeded up. The only cure for grief is time. Understanding that you are experiencing a normal process with a predictable outcome is the first step in dealing with it.
While the grieving process has been neatly divided into stages, the actual process is not so orderly. You should expect to shift back and forth through the various stages until you finally arrive at acceptance. The same will be true for your spouse. For example, a husband could be in the acceptance stage until his wife tells him that, contrary to their earlier agreement, she won’t be sending the children to see him on Christmas. This news drops him back to the anger stage from which he will have to climb back to acceptance. Recognizing where you and your spouse are in the grieving process, even in general terms, is valuable.
The Problem of Grief Disparity
You and your spouse will go through the grieving process at different rates. Chances are that you will be at a different stage than your spouse at any given time during your divorce.
Grief disparity hampers settlement negotiations. The further apart you are in the grief process, the more unlikely it is that you will be able to negotiate productively and reach a settlement. Patience is the solution. Since the only cure for grief is time, the only cure for disparate stages of grief is time.
Sometimes a couple is not as far apart as they appear. The differences in the stages of grief can be real or perceived. For example, a wife in the depression stage of grief may not be able to proceed with negotiations until she believes that her husband is feeling grief also. Some husbands who are horribly hurt refuse to show it, covering their grief with bluster or an unfeeling facade. An expression of their true feelings to their spouse may provide a commonality which will allow the couple to deal. If you and your spouse are truly miles apart in the grief process, the best solution may be just to wait before attempting to work out the details of your divorce. Your lawyers or a mediator can help you establish some temporary arrangements to protect your children and finances and to limit conflict until you are both in a place where you can begin fruitful negotiations.
Getting Stuck and Unstuck in the Grief Process
Sometimes people get stuck in one stage. They will be unable to overcome their anger or depression, for example. When this happens, the best solution is to work with a qualified therapist.
If your lawyer believes you are stuck, he or she may refer you to therapy. It’s important to give it a try. If one of you is stuck, negotiations will prove difficult. When one spouse is simply unable to accept the inevitability of the divorce, the odds are high that the couple will end up in court asking the judge to decide how they will raise their children and divide their property. Court is the least desirable solution to divorce because it is enormously expensive, emotionally wrenching, time consuming, and most of all, highly detrimental to the children. See Ch. 8.
Communicating With Your Spouse
Vow to Do the Right Thing
Divorce is an emotionally charged process because of the long personal history you have with your soon-to-be former spouse. Also, when children are involved, an already emotionally charged atmosphere is even more volatile. As a result, even the most innocuous or insignificant of circumstances can spiral out of control on a moment’s notice.
Remember at all times that what you say, what you do, and how you react to your spouse, if seen or heard by your children, will have a life-long impact on them, and on their future relationships with you, your spouse, and others.
Vow to do the right thing, whether or not your spouse chooses to do so.
Shift the Paradigm
Now is the time to shift the paradigm of your relationship with your spouse from friends and lovers to business associates. The “business” is the successful rearing of your children and the successful negotiation of a satisfactory arrangement to end your relationship as spouses. Treat your spouse as you would a business associate or co-worker whom you might not like, but with whom you must work. When emotions flare, back off, walk away and allow time for things to settle down. Save your sarcasm, cynicism and biting humor for stories you can tell your friends beginning with the phrase, “What I wanted to say was…” Maintain as your mantra: “This is just business now.” You will be happier both in the short and long run, and your children will remember you for it later in their lives as well.
Treat your Spouse with Respect
If you’d never had any children together, then it might not matter what you did to your husband or wife during the divorce. You could spend every dime the two of you’ve got making him or her miserable.
But think about it, you and your spouse are going to be parents forever. That means you are going to have a relationship forever. Do you want him or her as an enemy forever?
You say he is a good dad, or she is a good mom. Then put your anger aside and give your spouse credit for being a good parent. Think about what happens when you work at making him or her angry or tell your spouse that a negotiated settlement isn’t going to happen. That’s your anger talking, and just who exactly is that anger going to end up hurting? If it hurts your spouse, then it hurts his or her ability to parent, and that hurts your children. Surely, this is not what you want.
Even if you have no children, do you really want to waste time, emotional energy, and all your money on fighting? You have much more important things to do with your life. You don’t want to emerge from your divorce without the resources to do them. You don’t want to devote years of your life obsessing over past hurts and injustices.
Defusing a Spouse’s Anger
Anger is the most visible and pervasive of the stages of grief in a divorce. There are a number of reasons for this.
- Anger is the default position. When anything goes wrong during a divorce, the most common response is anger.
- Anger is infectious. When faced with an angry individual, the most common response is to become angry in defense.
- Anger is a common response to chaos, frustration, and uncertainty. The typical divorce has liberal quantities of all three.
Since anger is a normal response to numerous conditions that exist in divorce, developing techniques for dealing with it will mitigate its effects. When your spouse is angry, the normal response is for you to become angry yourself. Understand that two angry people will delay the divorce process. Consequently, the best response is no response. The expression of anger requires energy. The angry party needs to be acknowledged. If the energy expended does not serve to meet the need, the individual will stop expending the energy. You may be skeptical that this approach will work. However, give it a try; you have nothing to lose. It will be difficult not to defend yourself or respond in kind, but you may be surprised at how well this approach works.
Establishing Your Goals
Early in the divorce process, you will want to establish some short and long term goals. Your divorce lawyer can guide you. Your goals can be tangible and specific (“I want to get alimony”), or they can be less concrete (“I want to be able to develop a better relationship with my soon to be ex-husband for the benefit of our kids”). Goals will help you and your lawyer to better organize your efforts and will help your lawyer understand how best to help you.
Establishing goals might seem like a Herculean task, particularly if you have been blind-sided by the divorce. You can begin by thinking about the following issues and jotting down your thoughts on paper. Share your notes with your lawyer at your next meeting so he or she can discuss with you whether your goals are feasible and can devise strategies for achieving them.
Children and Parenting
Think about what type of parenting time, and what division of parenting obligations will best serve your children, and fit into the lives of you and your spouse. If you have not been the children’s primary caregiver but think you want custody, seriously examine your reasons. You should never consider seeking custody because you think it will give you a negotiating advantage on economic matters or reduce your child support payments. You and your spouse should sincerely try to resolve any disputes you have about the children through negotiation and mediation. There are no winners in custody trials. They are detrimental to your children and rob you of control over how you will raise them. For more on children and parenting, see Ch. 2.
Budgeting, Child Support, and Alimony
Both you are your spouse will need to fully disclose your income to the other for purposes of establishing the need for and ability to pay support and alimony. You can begin gathering the information necessary to establish your income and to prepare a budget. See §1:31 below and Ch. 3
for details If you are the major bread-winner, you can expect to pay child support and possibly alimony (also called maintenance or spousal support). If you have not been employed, you will need to think about whether you can she reenter the work force. Visualize where you want to be six months and six years from now. For more on child support and alimony, see Ch. 4.
If you and your spouse own a home, think about whether you want to stay there and, if you do, what are your reasons. Are the children close to a life event, such as finishing elementary and moving on to high school, where staying in the house until school is completed is something you wish to do? How realistic is that desire, both economically and practically? Can you economically afford to remain in the house, and if so, can you realistically perform the maintenance and upkeep required? Does it make sense for you to spend half of your monthly budget keeping the house, when suitable housing is available in the same school district at half the cost?
For many couples, what happens to the home is a visceral issue that tends to lead to unrealistic expectations and goals. Frequently, the home is really an albatross that needs to be let go. If you want to “buy out” the other spouse’s interest, consider whether it is economically feasible. Does it make sense for you to keep the house if you only wish to stay there in the short term? If your plan is to stay in the house for less than five years, it might make more sense to sell the house now, so that your spouse will bear some of the costs of sale.
Your Other Property
Think about the assets you might want to retain. Prioritize the ones that are most important to you.
When you think about how much an asset is worth, you may naturally think about how much it would cost to replace or how much you spent to buy it. But those are not the standards of value used in divorce. What matters is how much you could get for the asset if you sold it.
Few people own assets that are so valuable that they can’t be replaced, and nearly everyone believes that what they own is more valuable than it really is. Think in terms of garage sales. That is to say: If you had to put the property on the curb and solicit an offer for purchase, what would it realistically bring? Too often, divorcing couples waste time and money negotiating over assets that aren’t worth the time invested in discussing them. For more on property division, see Ch. 5
Working Effectively With Your Lawyers
Trust, Communication, Information
The key to a successful working relationship with your divorce lawyers is trust. Trust is built on a foundation of communication and information. Keep the following suggestions in mind and work with your lawyers in pursuit of the most advantageous and satisfactory resolution of your case.
Be Candid with your Lawyers
This is a very difficult time for you. Your lawyers realize that you will be delving into some very personal information and areas, things that you might feel reluctant or reticent to discuss. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to be totally truthful and candid with them about what has gone on in your life. Your lawyers are professionals who will not judge you and are obligated to keep everything you tell them in confidence. Telling your lawyers the whole truth enables them to represent you with all the powers at their disposal. Often, it will help alleviate concerns you might have and comfort you in this most difficult time. It also eliminates the possibility of your spouse’s lawyers “surprising” your lawyers and gaining an unwarranted tactical advantage. Do not ever hesitate to tell your lawyers the truth, in the same fashion you would tell your doctor of any physical issues you are experiencing.
This is your divorce and, very likely, unfamiliar territory for you. You will no doubt receive advice, both solicited and unsolicited, from friends, neighbors, family, coworkers and others who have been through a divorce, or know someone who has. While these folks mean well, they are often misinformed about the law. There are many common myths about divorce. If any “advice” that has been passed on to you causes you concern, ask your lawyers about it. Your lawyers should give you direct, understandable answers to your questions. The correct information might be very different than you expected.
During the divorce, you will be asked to provide certain information and documents as part of the process known as “discovery.” Get a head start on this obligation by gathering and organizing your important documents, such as tax returns, bank statements, retirement account records, life insurance policies and the like. For a list of the documents you will need, see §1:31 below.
This can often seem like a waste of your time, particularly when your spouse “already has all that information.” Whether he or she does or does not is beside the point; the object of the exercise is to disclose what you know, and what you have. Also, remember that if you have information or documents that are requested by your spouse and his or her lawyers and you do not disclose them, you might be barred from using them for your own benefit. Discovery is often a time consuming process, but an important one. The more thorough and organized you are, the less time your lawyers will need to spend on discovery, and when they save time, you save money.
Use your Lawyer’s Services Wisely
You can save money and control the costs of your divorce by using your lawyers’ services wisely. Organize your thoughts and write down your questions before you call, so you can be sure to discuss all of your questions in one phone call. Use your lawyers’ office staff and paralegals to make appointments, answer routine questions (such as when your next court date might be), confirm receipt of a document or other information, and for assistance with discovery.
Rely on your Friends and Family
Your lawyers are not therapists. They can assist you in dealing with some of the normal emotional distress and personal difficulties you will experience. For more complicated issues, you will need to rely on mental health professionals trained to deal with people in emotional distress. For the routine types of emotional upset that are engendered by every divorce, it is likely far more cost effective for you to discuss your feelings and concerns with family and friends when you need a sympathetic ear.
Initial To-Do Checklist
Because divorce is essentially a business transaction, much of the work of a divorce involves separating your joint finances and assets. Hopefully, you and your spouse can agree through much of that process. Either way, you will want to begin with these steps:
CASH AND CREDIT
- If you don’t have one, open a separate checking account. You can do so with a small amount. What is important is that you have this account, not how much is in it. You need your own financial system.
- Set aside some cash in a safe place. Sometimes in divorces, the bank accounts and credit cards are frozen.
- Close your joint credit card accounts and obtain a credit card in your own name. Any debt on the joint card can be transferred to the individual cards. Alternatively, you can tell your credit card company that no new charges can be made on the joint card. Watch your credit report to make sure that your spouse does not obtain a new joint card (or apply for a joint loan).
SAVINGS AND INVESTMENTS
- Freeze all your joint investment accounts so cash cannot be withdrawn and loans cannot be placed against them. Obtain statements for all the accounts.
- If your spouse has a retirement account, ask the retirement plan administrator for its current statement and a copy of the plan description.
- To ensure privacy of your communications, rent a post office box and open a new email account.
- Change the passwords for your ATM cards, bank accounts, online stores, social networks, and email accounts. Ask your spouse to return the duplicate key to your car.
- If you have a job, tell your boss you are going through a divorce. Offer to make up the hours you will miss.
- If you don’t have one, begin making plans to obtain a job. Update your resume, research job prospects, and begin applying for interviews.
- If you depend on your spouse’s health insurance, investigate the cost and availability of continuing its coverage. Compare separately obtained insurance.
- Make a detailed list of all the property in your home. Append photos of the more valuable items, enabling the date stamp on your camera before shooting.
- Gather and organize information about what you own and owe. You will need financial statements, tax returns, bank statements, insurance policies, and investment account statements. See the checklist in §1:31 below.
- Start thinking about which assets you want to keep and which you are willing to give up.
- Write for your attorney a concise narrative about your marriage, and include the date you began living together, the date you got married, your children’s birth dates, any previous separations, when various assets were acquired, and separate property either you or your spouse inherited or brought with you to the marriage.
Supporting Document Checklist
Use this form as a checklist to help you collect the documents you will need to give your lawyer to substantiate your income, assets, and debts for purposes of resolving the financial issues in your divorce.
- List two pay stubs
- Last month’s utility bills
- (phone, electric, gas, village, garbage, etc.)
- Receipts: household repairs or replacements, if any (any anticipated or ongoing repairs?)
- Last auto loan statement and Titles (if applicable)
- Auto repairs and/or maintenance
- (any major work needed or immediate expense?)
- Medical/Dental/Optical bills or quotes or statements for unexpected expenses
(for ongoing medical treatment or medications)
- Children’s school fees: registration, PTO fees, books, etc.
- Last statement of any credit card currently used
- Copy of savings statement(most recent or copy of passbook)
- Last month’s checking statement (do not include actual canceled checked unless otherwise instructed)
- Certificates of Deposit
- Money Market Accounts (most current statement)
- Stock, Bonds, and/or Investment accounts (most current statement)
- Real Estate documents (closing package from purchase/refis) and last month’s mortgage statement (if unencumbered, mortgage release)
- Last month’s home equity line or loan statement (if applicable)
- Any and all documents relating to secondary vacation residence and/or timeshare
- Any and all documents relating to vacant land
- Any and all documentation relating to any business interests (tax returns, financial statements, and the like)
- Copy of life insurance policy statements (need death benefit values and any cash values)
- Most current statement of any and all retirement accounts, pension plans, IRAs, 401(k) plans
- Tax return State and Federal
(last three years, unless otherwise instructed)
- Any lawsuit claims against you or your spouse
- Any and all appraisal for property; jewelry, collectibles, certificates of authenticity, etc.