Simplify your divorce – improve your life!

Thankfully, Plan C

Her beautiful blue eyes fill up slowly, from the bottom to the top. Then the tears spill over and she starts listing for me all of the clues she has ignored for the past several months.  My heart just breaks for her as she unspools, in the clarity of hindsight, all of the unbidden questions (Where is he? Why did he say that? Who is he with now?) that she had dismissed in favor of trusting her husband.

Of course, it is not always wives who sit in my office, shell shocked, confused, equal parts angry and sad, describing the slow and tortuous trail that led them to the ultimate discovery of betrayal by their spouse.

The husbands come in, too.  Just as surprised and embarrassed.  Ashamed that they did not catch on sooner. Furious at being fooled by someone they trusted.  Man or woman, they are almost always plotting two simultaneous yet mutually exclusive outcomes.  In one, the affair becomes the couple’s wake-up call.  Their reminder that this relationship, this marriage, matters to both of them and only they can save it.  In this reality, we’ll call it ‘Plan A,’ the parties take stock of the small slights and errors that snowballed into this moment, and start themselves in a different direction on a fresh path.

Years from now the ‘Plan A’ couple will look back at this moment and smile fondly at how silly they had been “before” and how happy they made themselves and, more importantly, each other “after.”

Then there is the alternate universe of ‘Plan B’ in which the adulterous spouse is publicly eviscerated and left in the center of town for crows and stray dogs to peck out their eyes and chew on their entrails.

Sadly, as an attorney I can provide my clients with neither outcome.  I have known couples in both categories, so I know that the ‘Plan A’ outcome is possible and the ‘Plan B’ outcome while it might be possible is currently illegal in this country.

We all know couples who have survived the affair (or affairs) and made their own partnership stronger as a response.  Couples who can put their anger, hurt feelings, and distrust aside thoroughly enough to address and resolve the core problems which brought them there in the first place.  Granted, these are rare couples, but they do exist and claim to have benefited from the experience.  They have worked hard, together and separately, on problems and behaviors that likely date back to each party’s childhood.

They have taken on a huge challenge, trusted someone they do not feel safe trusting, and engaged in an exhausting process to get the results they want.

More common are the couples for whom an affair is the final straw on an already dysfunctional camel’s back.  These couples have a steep uphill climb ahead of them, too.  They will not be working on their own problems, they will be fighting against their spouse’s issues. They will have no partner to help them through the work, only an adversary. They will accept as little of the blame as possible and look to place the lion’s share on anyone but themselves.

Sentences like, “I would not have cheated if I felt appreciated at home;” and “we have been living like roommates for years” will bounce off of each other in courthouse hallways across the country.

Thankfully, there is a third course, ‘Plan C.’  Once the initial hurt and anger have subsided, this is where we acknowledge that both parties brought the entire mess to where it is.  Maybe the affair is what the parties needed in order to finally put a suffering relationship out of its misery.  This is trickier work in some ways – it is designed to help the parties grow and mature without the goal of fixing their marriage.

Transition focused marriage and family therapists, attorneys trained in collaborative or cooperative divorce, and neutral social workers can help divorcing parties use this time as an opportunity to become stronger and healthier individuals. It might not be a time to save a marriage or destroy a human being.  It might just be a chance to move up and move on.

What We Love:  There are the obvious ways of responding to crises, and they might be the right course for you.  But, if not – until you find the way that feels right, keep looking.

Divorce Equals Division

Did you ever notice how the words “Divorce” and “divide” both start with the same three letters, the same root?  Divorce can be seen as a time to “divvy-up” assets, debts, photo albums, relatives, and even friends.  You can almost picture a black jack dealer with a green eye-shade laying the “alternate weekends” card in front of dad, and the “pool club membership” in front of mom.

That’s really not the tricky part.  Taking what you want, or need, and leaving the rest where it is – well, that’s something most of us learned (or should have learned) in kindergarten.  If two adults can’t do the dividing themselves, the judge will step in and divide it up for them.  Usually it is just a matter of simple math.  The house has $300,000 in equity. If we sell it, each party can have $150,000 to go buy a condo and start again.  Easy math. Predictable outcome.

But, what if the house is worth more to the parties than the $300,000 in equity? What if giving up my right to $150,000 is nothing compared to my need to stay next door to my neighbors who have protected me during this awful ten year marriage, for example?  How would you go about quantifying that for a judge?

Or, what if there are two drivers and three vehicles? What if one is the jalopy we keep in the garage in the hopes that enough tinkering will someday bring it back to life as a classic?  It might only be worth $75 to a judge’s balance sheet; but it might be worth thousands to the people who saw it as an investment in their someday retirement.  While a judge could arbitrarily assign it to one party or the other, allocating a $75 dollar offset somewhere else; the owners might want to see it through to completion before relegating it to a junk heap.

The division of divorce is simplistic. It is the multiplication which can be elegant, and beautiful.  Instead of seeing each asset and person as a dividend to be chopped into smaller equal shares; consider looking at them as opportunities to multiply.

Here are some quick examples.  Two parents have a marital residence and a time share vacation home.  Even if they decide to sell the marital residence, they don’t have to give up the vacation time share.  It might be transferred to the children.  In the case of minor children, the transfer would be in name only. In the case of adult children it could be an acceptable conveyance by the terms of the management company. The children get a week at the time share and mom visits them there for the first half of the week and dad shows up for the second half. The kids go from vacations with two unhappy parents; to separate vacations with one happier parent. A larger, not smaller, outcome.

People who are worried that the friends will choose one spouse or the other can use the same multiplier logic by demonstrating in advance that they will be comfortable in each other’s presence.  No one needs to choose sides. No one has to pick which spouse to invite to a dinner party, if the dinner party will go just as smoothly with both people there.  Even better, showing that you will accept each other’s new boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, will go a lot further towards helping your friends keep all of their invitations wide open.  Now you have gone from keeping half of your friends, to keeping all of your friends, and the new people as they come into your lives. Multiplied.

The family boat does not have to be sold if the parties can agree to sharing the use and costs of maintaining it. In fact, not only do you get to keep using your boat (on alternate weekends, maybe) but now you are only responsible for one-half of the upkeep.  So, you have multiplied the part that you like, while dividing the burden.  A better outcome, all around.

Of course, no judge would order a couple to share custody of a boat. That can only come from people who are willing and able to work together.  Trained mediators, professionals who practice collaborative divorce, and even marriage therapists can sometimes help identify opportunities to multiply instead of divide.

WHAT WE LOVE: There is almost always another way of seeing what is directly in front of you.  You just have to be willing to look for it.

 

 

I have clients who are in a hurry to finalize their divorce agreement, even though the date of their hearing is months away.  I also have clients who are avoiding me rather than have to commit anything to paper yet.  I have clients who want to know the details of the spouse’s financial picture before completing their own financial affidavit, and others who bring me everything I request promptly, clearly, and in a completely organized fashion,

 

 You might want to guess that the people who are most compliant are doing so because they are the ones with the most to gain financially. It might seem obvious that my stragglers, or my suspicious clients, are the ones who are likely to get raked by the end of this.

 

Ironically, if anything, it is usually the opposite case.  I have a man right now paying his wife about twice as much as he should be paying her while the divorce is pending. He does not want to be paying her anything, but when I ask him to sit down with me to sort out the financial picture he gets agitated and hangs up the phone.  Then he sends her another check, because he does not know what else to do.

 

A client’s level of cooperation is more typically a reflection of who they are than what they want.  People who have spent their lives balancing their check books, watching the interest rates on their credit cards, and checking their credit scores are people who want to know their financial picture.  It might be that they are going to be worse off at the end of the divorce than they are now, but if they can be told, for example, “you will be living on $500 a week  until you get a better job,” then they know how to start planning.  It might not be what they want to hear; but at least they know what they are up against.

 

It is similar to the feeling of relief when the doctor diagnoses your mysterious pain.  Once you find out that the sharp pain behind your eye is a sinus infection, you can stop worrying that it might be a brain tumor.

 

On the other hand, there are those who find a mysterious lump while taking a routine shower, and become too terrified to go to the doctor.  “What if it is cancer?” they ask, and decide they do not want to know.  They would rather live with a fear than risk learning the truth.  They can themselves that the fear is just hypochondria.  Once they have a diagnosis, though, that safety net disappears.  Too often we hear stories of people who ignored a lump – hoping it would go away, hoping they were just over-reacting – to their own detriment.

 

The ostriches of the legal world are not much different than the ostriches of the medical world.  My clients are afraid that once we all get a clear picture of their financial situation that things are going to get worse quickly.  Maybe they think of a divorce decree as similar to a terminal diagnosis.  Instead of fearing the sentence, “it is inoperable,” they fear the sentence, “all of your earnings, for the rest of your life.”

 

So, although an agreement might ultimately benefit the payor spouse, that is not who is always the most cooperative. And even if the ultimate agreement will set the payee spouse in a comfortable situation, that is not always the one in a hurry to settle. 

 

Who is most likely to get it done quickly and cleanly? The person who wants to finish the divorce and start a new life.

 

WHAT WE LOVE:   The diagnosis is usually much less severe than what your imagination creates.

With September comes a new batch of empty nests all across the country.  College bound kids and newly employed young adults troop off to their dorms and apartments leaving holes in their parents’ lives.  And, sometimes, in their parents’ walls.  The parents who are left behind see the sweet victory of fulfilling the promise they made long ago to newborn babies. They have brought these precious lives all the way to adulthood safely, given them the wings they need to pursue their own adventures, and settled them in where they will begin their new lives.

 

These parents may also experience the terrifying dizziness of wondering who they themselves will now become, once the need to constantly parent is gone. 

 

There are families in which the process can be gradual.  First an oldest child leaves for college while younger siblings like water seeking its own level rush to occupy the large spaces he leaves behind.  By the time a second or third child leaves the nest, impatient parents have had a taste of their own freedom and are ready for more.  There are parents who divorced when the kids were still small, and have gotten good at being single parents, but would be even happier as just plain single adults.

 

Less fortunate are the parents who have waited “until the kids are grown” to finally get that divorce they have needed for so long.  These people run the risk of losing several identities at once.  “If I am not a parent, at least I am a spouse.”  Or, “if I am not a spouse, at least I am a parent.”  Gives way to, “If I am neither parent nor spouse what am I? What purpose do I have?”  Waiting for the double-whammy may feel safe in a procrastinating sort of way; but it might inadvertently cause a bigger rupture at the end.

 

The truth of the matter is that just as no one is ever fully prepared for all of the highs and lows that parenting brings; no parent is ever fully prepared for the vertigo of seeing tail feathers fly out your front door.  NO matter how well you prepared for your days of independence.  No matter what precautions you took to have a clean slate once the fledglings took flight.  A new chapter of your life begins. Single, married, or widowed. College tuition to pay, or loans to co-sign.  Friends to travel with, or bills to sort out.  The world looks different when it belongs to you alone.

 

The best advice I have seen empty-nesters follow is to downsize as soon as practicable.  Just as Joni Mitchell and Sting lament of the bed being too big when a loved one is gone, having a big empty house with bedrooms that look like shrines to childhood actually does no one any good.  Your kids will benefit more from you having a larger purse and a smaller house than the other way around.  This is not to say that you should sell their belongings without their permission.  You might even be willing to spring for a storage unit for a few years; assigning each child a reasonable amount of space.  By changing your own perspective; and showing the kids that you  are not wallowing in depression while you wait for them; you allow for everyone to spread their wings and fly at the same time.

 

WHAT WE LOVE: Each stage of our lives gives us new ways of re-inventing ourselves into the person we want to be next.

A Successful Marriage?

I met this great couple yesterday.   I guess I really should not call them a couple since the reason they were in my office was to sign their divorce agreement.  Plus, they’ve been separated for a few months now. Nonetheless, they were great together. She is beautiful, serious, hard-working, and stable. He is hilarious, carefree, funny and fun. You can see how they would have been a great complement to each other. You can also see how things could have gone wrong.   Finally, they are not the right couple for each other. Their adult employed daughters are 24 and 22 years old.  In all, I consider that they have had a successful marriage.  I told them so.

Until yesterday I had been working with the two of them via telephone and email.  We put together the outline to their agreement the way they wanted it and I was reducing it to writing. The 3 of us needed to sit down together and go over the salient points of the agreement so we can finalize open items, make sure that everything was in compliance with what a court will allow, and hopefully get it signed if possible.  I had emailed them my final draft in advance.

The 2 of them walked in together smiling and joking with each other.   We sat down in the conference room.  The wife pulled out her copy of my draft, neatly marked and tabbed where she had questions.  She pulled out a calculator, a pencil, and a notebook.  The husband sat next to her, empty hands folded on the table in front of him, just smiling at me.

“Did you both have a chance to review the agreement?” I asked them.

They both nodded.

I turned to the husband, and asked, “Do you have any questions?”

“No,” he said, “my ex-wife read it, so I know its fine.” 

He was not being a martyr.  He was not being sarcastic.  He was not even being stupid, it turns out, because I had done my own due diligence on the matter and it is as fair and reasonable a distribution of assets as any judge would order.   He was right.  She read it, and it covered both of them.

Now, I am not saying that they are taking the divorce lightly.  There is clearly pain in both of their faces when they discuss the efforts they have made to keep the marriage together.  They feel that they have failed at something where they wanted to succeed, and that is difficult.  They are each disappointed in themselves and each other that divorce is their only remaining option. 

BUT, they do not feel the need to make the situation worse by fighting with each other; attacking each other; pitting the kids against each other, or even short-selling each other on the financials.  They just want to maintain a friendship in which they can someday attend their daughters’ weddings and hopefully their grandchildren’s birthday parties in peace.

I asked them if I could bottle them.  I wanted to be able to take a portion of that affection and good will and pass it along to my other clients; the ones who don’t face this process with the same sanguinity.    The husband just chuckled and shrugged.  The wife rested her hand on her husband’s shoulder and told me that she will always love him. 

No deep thoughts or brave words of wisdom, just two good and kind people letting each other go forward in their lives.  All I can say is they were able to preserve enough respect and affection for each other during the rough times of their marriage that there is still plenty left now, at the end, when they need it the most.

Maybe the lesson here is not just for people going through divorce, but even for couples who think they will never divorce.   Not every married couple is the right fit.  The wife can be her perfect square self, and the husband can be his best round self – if they don’t fit as themselves then they just do not belong together.  But that still leaves room for respect and affection and kindness.

Maybe what we can all learn from the man who says, “my ex-wife read it, so I know it’s fine,” is that by creating a foundation of trustworthiness, they are able to trust each other long after they are no longer in love.

What We Love:  Don’t squander all of the good will during your marriage – you might need it during your divorce!

Scared into Staying

I sat across the deposition table from an older attorney.  A nice man, I grew up with his son and knew the family.  I had always liked him, but at this particular moment I felt an urge to slap his face as he winked at me and said, “These two lovebirds will be back together in no time.”

He represented the husband.  More accurately, he had represented the husband’s wealthy parents in real estate and business dealings for more than 30 years.  He knew they were good people, solid pillars of the community, and reliable clients.  He made the mistake of presuming their son was the same.

I represented the wife.  She was young and pretty with a 2 year old son she was desperate to save from the bad situation in which they lived.  I had interviewed friends and witnesses who all told basically the same story.  The couple met in their favorite watering hole, shared a love of cocaine, and got married in a stupor.  The husband’s parents were able to keep fights, arrests, and restraining orders at bay because of their considerable financial interest in a small town.

The wife had a few miscarriages, which she blamed on the drugs.  The husband told people that he was secretly relieved when the pregnancies didn’t take. Then, during her last pregnancy, she sobered up, and it took – or the other way around.  And after she got clean her husband got angry.

She brought me her copy of a police report which reported that he had grabbed her by the hair and thrown her down the stairs while she was pregnant.  She dropped the charges.

Every time she tried to get out of the marriage he threatened her.  The usual list of threats includes “I will kill you/myself/our child,” “I will never give you a nickel and you will be homeless/hungry/poor/kicked out of the country club,”  “You will never see me/our child/our friends again,” “I will stalk you/your friends/your family until your dying breath.”  His threats also included “I will have you arrested for drug abuse.”  This was enough to make her scared to leave.  The physical violence made her scared to stay.

Until the day that everything changed. 

She was asleep.  He came home late, drunk and angry.  His crashing into furniture woke the baby, who started to cry.   The dad went into the nursery to yell at the baby, the mother jumped up and ran in just in time to stop the dad from slapping the baby across the face.  That night, she threw random clothes and baby items into a bag and slept at a friend’s house.  The next day she started calling lawyers to file for divorce.

“It was one thing when he hit me,” she told every divorce lawyer she interviewed, “but I cannot let him hurt the baby.”  Lawyer after lawyer refused to take her case.  Some knew the husband’s family and did not want to cross them.  Others knew of the husband’s family and assumed she was lying.  And even those who did not know the family found her story to lack credibility when she refused to press charges.

All she wanted was a divorce, her freedom, not an all-out war.  She wanted enough money to get out of town safely and start a new life.  If she pressed criminal charges she knew the backlash against her would be insurmountable.  But, by trying to keep her case low-key, she was giving everyone the impression that things were not so bad; just a little rocky.  Her husband was busy telling people that they were just passionate about each other; fights were part of their relationship, and they would be back together in no time.

During the deposition, she finally had the chance to tell her story.  She told it as calmly and honestly as she could.  She spoke directly to her husband’s attorney and answered every question he asked, whether or not it made her uncomfortable.  She explained the beatings, the anger, the abuse, and the threats.  Not in a melodramatic tone, just slowly, accurately, and credibly.  By the time she was done testifying, silent tears ran down her cheeks.

When the husband’s attorney said that he had no more questions, I was relieved.  I could not wait to get her out of there.  But, she had one more thing she wanted to say on the record.  “I have not pressed charges,” she told the lawyer, “and I do not want to go back to the police.  Please just let this end, and let me out.”

 

At that moment, I felt as if she was the bravest person I had ever met.

A lesser person might have chosen not to believe my client that day.  He could easily have told his clients that there would be a long legal battle ahead of them and could easily have run his bill into the 6 figure range to make sure that grandson stayed in town.  But, to his eternal credit, he did not.  Within a week I had a reasonable (though not generous) settlement offer on my desk.  Within 6 weeks the parties were divorced.  And about 18 months later I received a postcard from my client.  She and her son had moved out of state, she was engaged to a nice guy, and they were buying a modest, but affordable home together.  Her bravery had paid off.

What We Love:  Sometimes it is the truth, plain and simple, which helps determine the outcomes.

Let’s talk for a moment about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.  Not every family sets up a belief in either of these characters.  But, many do.  So when is the right time to dis-abuse your children of the fiction you have created for them?

Do both Santa and the tooth fairy exist for the same length of time?  Once the tooth fairy’s cover is blown, does Santa automatically disappear?  Do they both fall under the catch-all heading of “pretend visitors that make childhood better?” Or are they distinct entities from each other?

A common way people decide to let their kids in on the secret is when a child calls their parent on it.  My 8 year old recently just looked me in the face and said, “Mom, you’re the tooth fairy, right?”   No need for me to guess in that situation. I just smiled and handed over the money that was hidden behind my back.  My next sentence, of course, was, “but you cannot tell any other children!”  I don’t know what is going on in other families and I do not want to be the one responsible for the end of this particular innocence.

But, what if my kids never guessed?  Or, upon guessing, decided it was too horrible to think of a Santa-free world, so never mentioned their concerns to me?  Would I let it just continue?  Would my teenager be opening gifts from Santa every year?  If an adult child needs his tooth pulled, would he expect a quarter under his pillow the next morning?  Which would be more upsetting to a 21 year old? Learning that there is no tooth fairy? Or realizing that his parents had lied to him throughout his teenage years?

This is pretty much the conversation I was having with my client last week.  She caught her husband cheating on her in 2008, but decided that her son would be devastated by a divorce; so they just stayed “married.”  The husband had various affairs in different states while spending down the family nest egg, thinking that he was getting away with it.  The wife took a job to help compensate for the missing money, and hoped things would eventually return to normal. 

5 years later, they are embroiled in a hideous divorce.  Both parties are angry and bitter that they wasted so much of their lives in a sham marriage.  There is no money left in savings; and the wife is living in assisted housing because the husband refuses to help pay her bills.  (We are waiting for the judge’s order on that one.)

But the angriest person in the whole picture is their 21 year old son.  He has confronted each of his parents about the fact that although it was their choice to stay in a loveless marriage, by lying to him they never gave him the choice of whether he wanted to live inside that particular set of lies with them.  He keeps looking back at uncomfortable holiday meals, angry non-celebrations of birthdays and milestones, and feeling as if there was a script that they both saw and he did not.  The script of their deceits and anger, which would explain the parts of the picture he did see.

He told his mom that it is as if she let him believe in Santa until he was 20 years old.  What might have begun as a harmless story made to help the big scary world feel a little friendlier, devolved into a pathological behavior in which what was obvious and sensible was hidden behind fantasy and fiction.  He is furious at them for tricking him.  But I suspect he is angrier not only for the fact that the lies worked, I think he must have suspected all along that something was foul in their household, and every time they hid the truth it was as if they expected him to act stupider than he really is.  They were asking their son to dumb-down his own emotional intelligence just when it was their job to help him develop it.

The divorce will eventually conclude, and the parents will be able to begin their own pathways to healthy sane relationships.  The son will also eventually learn to trust his own feelings and forgive his parents for trying to protect him.  But all of them will likely always wonder when would have been the right time to admit to their child, and themselves, that the marriage was over.

WHAT WE LOVE:  No matter how long it may take to come out, once it is acknowledged, the truth is powerful and liberating.

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