Hunker Down – Here Come the Holidays!

D-ThanksgivingAs we all know, the end of the year brings with it all of the joys and excitement of the holiday season.  Unless you are going through a divorce.  Then it brings all of the “joys” and “excitement” of the holiday season.

Here is an excerpt from an email I just sent a client of mine who is embroiled in a nasty bit of drama with his (soon to be ex-) wife right now.

Let me just give a background note.  She is literally certifiable.  Her therapist told me so.   They have a high level of drama in their home on a frequent basis, with three young kids in the house seeing a lot of it.

Okay, now here is what I told him to get through the long holiday weekend…

The kids do not benefit from having two sources of drama and tension in their lives. One is more than enough.  There is nothing anyone else should be able to do that creates craziness within you.  You be the calm stable force that they need.

If you will not be with your children at any point over the holiday weekend, I recommend that you have a written accounting, in the mom’s own writing and signed by the mom, detailing where the children will be every day and night.

Where will they be on Thursday?  From what time until what time?  When should you expect them to be home?

Since the children will be with the mom’s family on Thursday, it is fair that they be with your family on Friday, and you need to be willing to give an exact timeline.  If she refuses, she needs to write down that she refuses to let the children see your family on Friday, and why.

Same thing for Saturday and Sunday – where will your children be?  What are the hours? When should you expect them to be home?

As much of this as she will write down for you, the better.  Give her plenty of space within which to write down her intentions and plans.

Please remember, whatever happens, you are both in this situation for the long haul.  Try to avoid pressing any buttons or escalating any drama.  And, as it is Thanksgiving, remember to take a moment to yourself for counting your blessings.

What We Love:  “Wise men count their blessings, fools count their problems.” – Michael Franti

– Sharon Oberst DeFala

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Crazy is a relative term, so is normal

crazyQuestion 1:  When is it, in the divorce process, that one parent finally gets to teach the other parent the right way of parenting?

Question 2:  When in the divorce process does a judge finally tell one parent that he or she must act more like the other parent?

Question 3:  How many months into the divorce process does the court give a ruling as to who is the better parent?

Question 4:  When do I get to stop dealing with my ex-spouse if we have children in common?

Answer to questions 1 – 3:  Never.

Answer to question 4:  Never, if you are lucky enough to live that long.

The truth of the matter is that there are no perfect parents.

The truth of the matter is that parents who do their best are the perfect parents for their own children.

For the most part, children benefit from the adults in their lives.  They might learn from one parent how to read, from another how to cook. A grandparent might be the person who gives a child his religious roots, or a good teacher might help a girl find her artistic abilities. Some parents have shorter or longer tempers.  There are neater and messier parents, generous and cheap, attentive and distracted.  Unless it rises to the level of negligence or abuse, unless an objective third party would place the child in foster care rather than let the parent continue to be involved, it is all within the scope of normal and acceptable.

If two parents cannot agree on a basic parenting profile – late vs. early bedtimes, nutritious vs. “fun” snacks, video games vs. crossword puzzles, etc. – while they are married, it is far less likely that they will agree on one as part of a divorce.  Post dissolution, Dad will parent the way he has always wanted to, without mom’s interference. And Mom will likewise let her true colors shine more than ever.  Matrimonial judges do not generally interfere with this dynamic.

Children will have their own preferences. They might like the fact that Dad always has dinner on the table at the same time, giving them a sense of stability, and they might think it is exciting that you never know where you are going to eat dinner when it is Mom’s turn.  Kids who feel more comfortable in a very organized house might take on the job of cleaning up when they are visiting the disheveled house, preparing them for adulthood.

As long as both parents are alive, they should both have strong binds with their kids, and eventually their grandchildren.  If what you truly want is your child’s best interest and long term happiness, then allowing the parents to be themselves, for as long as everyone is able, is the best gift you can give your children, and – someday, hopefully –  your grandchildren.

What We Love:  The nuttier your ex is, the more your kids will think you seem normal, if only by comparison.

The Importance of the Decision to Divorce

gandhi“Thanks Mom & Dad – You Just Ruined My Life.”

Would you rather: hear that sentence and know it is false? Or never hear that sentence, yet know it is true?

That is a choice parents face all the time. Whether it comes to allowing kids to attend certain parties or concerts, paying more for the label on a piece of clothing, or monitoring the amount and content of their screen time.  Parents know that just because their decisions are what is best for the child does not always mean the child sees it that way.

And so that’s how it is with the decision to divorce.  We all want what is best for our children.  Until recently societal mores in America dictated that what was best for children was a two-parent home, regardless of the dynamic between those two parents. What we have come to learn, as a culture is that children who grow up in a hostile environment are more likely to be hostile, depressed, or anti-social adults.

The reason that governments put divorce laws in place is not to encourage single-parent households, but to improve the quality of individual marriages.  It is in the best interest of our country for the people who live in it to raise their children in relatively happy, healthy households. If that can be accomplished with two parents in the house; that’s great.  But if the choice is between the number of people in a household and the mental health of the people in a household (quality vs. quantity), we have chosen mental health and well being as the more important factor.

Children, particularly adolescents and teenagers, are always looking for the most “normal” persona. The thing that allows them to feel the most “like everybody else.”   If they feel that having two parents living in their home makes them more likely to fit in with the crowd (like going to the party “everyone else is going to,” wearing the same clothes, or watching the same movies as “everybody else”), then the idea of a divorce may feel socially devastating to them.

So it is part of the job of responsible adults to decide in advance whether their children are better off being raised in the family that exists, or making changes that are designed to improve their children’s lives; even if those changes include some painful aspects.  Another part of that job is being conscious of how the children will perceive the decision.  One angry and tearful parent announcing that the family is now abandoned might leave a different impression than two calm adults laying out the future plans.

Two adults who can work together to formulate a divorce plan have a chance at keeping their children on an even keel during – and (more importantly) after – the divorce process.  No matter how hurt, annoyed, fed-up, or furious you may feel is not the child’s fault or domain.  Give that part to your therapist, family, or strangers on a bus.  Wait and tell your children what precise plans the two of you are making to maintain what is good and improve what is bad in everyone’s lives.

Examples include, “Daddy’s new apartment building has a pool and you can invite your friends there,” “We will both still be at every baseball game/dance recital/poetry reading,” “We both believe that things are going to get a lot calmer around here.”   Obviously, you can also explain the details of the parenting plan if you have one – weekly dinners and alternate weekends is a popular visitation structure.   Or, you can just promise to let them know as things develop.  “We don’t know the details yet, but as we do, we promise to tell you together,” frequently works well.

What We Love:  It is easy for a parent to know that your children deserve the best choices you can make.   It is trickier to know that it is true whether the kids like it or not.

Don’t underestimate the value of your in-laws…

inlaws

What is the value of keeping your in-laws in a divorce?

I recently heard a woman make an argument that she should be entitled to increased alimony because she lives closer to her in-laws than to her own parents.   Many states use a rubric of factors to determine alimony. Factors may include  length of the marriage, causes of the breakdown of the marriage, each party’s education/station/ability to earn a living, age and needs of the minor children.

One factor I have never seen listed in an alimony calculation, however, is geographical location of grandparents.  I don’t believe it is something we will see any time soon.  We live in a time when it is common place for people to relocate far from family for work, exploration, curiosity, advancement, and countless other reasons.  So there is no special attention paid to how close or far one lives from one’s parents.

But, the woman does have a point.  Her parents happen to live in Mexico, and she lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. They are in the process of getting divorced and she is keenly feeling her lack of support system.  If she lived close to her parents and siblings and cousins, there would likely be someone around to take the kids for a few hours; or help her move into her new apartment; to drop by uninvited and unexpected with a pizza and a bottle of wine.

Sure, friends may be able to pick up some of this slack.  But only very good friends, and not necessarily without strings attached. Not the way family would.  But what makes her situation more difficult is that up until very recently, she did have family in town – her in-laws.  She was used to the informal, always at each other’s disposal, give-and-take of family.  When you have spent a certain number of years not having to pay a sitter for every little night out, each annoying errand, or when you just need to go away overnight, there is a shock factor that comes along with suddenly having to shell out $10/hour for each of those “meaningless” excursions.

What about family holidays?  Until now, every major holiday included her children looking forward to aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins laughing together at someone’s house.  They knew there would be gifts and favorite foods, “inside” jokes, and familiar arguments.

Now, she will have to choose if her children will spend holidays with their extended family or with her. She might need to take her kids to a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner, or cook her own Christmas feast to make them feel like things are still as good as they used to be.  Or she might want to fly herself and the kids down to Mexico, so that she can be with her own family during the holidays.  But, while being with her own parents and siblings might make her feel comfortable, it will likely have the opposite effect on her children, for whom everything will feel foreign and new.

Or, if she believes the best interest of her children is to keep having holidays the way they always did, then she might spend every holiday all alone, watching the clock until it is time to go pick them up again.

Instead of increasing her alimony, which might not even solve most of these issues, there is a less expensive and more obviously available solution:  keeping her in-laws.  Those people who are inextricably linked to the last person in the world she wants to see right now may hold the ticket to her salvation.  But, depending on the details of the divorce, they might not be particularly interested in seeing her right now.

They have likely heard her husband’s side of the story. They might believe that she alone is at fault in the breakdown of the marriage.   They may have been willing to keep an open mind in her regard at the beginning of the divorce, but by now might feel that she is being stubborn or greedy or hostile in the divorce proceedings, even if it is her attorney calling the shots instead of her.

How, then, could she bridge that chasm?  Is there any hope for her of replacing her far-away family for herself and her children with the people she knows best in New Jersey?  Yes. There is a chance. That chance is in her hands.  It is up to her to reach out to her in-laws.  Individually, if necessary, to mend any broken fences, and say things as simple as, “I hope that we will still be family, and that my children will always feel as close to you as they do today.”  And, of course, she could take advantage of every opportunity to be kinder and more generous than she needs to be – both when her in-laws are watching, and when they are not.  In matters related directly to the divorce, and in unrelated matters. She could make a point of always something positive about her ex-husband, so that everyone knows there are no hard feelings. And so that no one is worried what will happen if they are both at the same dinner.

This might sound difficult, especially if she has just cause to be truly angry at her husband.  But we do the same thing in dozens of social situations all year long at parties, work, and school: pretending to be nicer, more forgiving, or more generous than we really are.  And sometimes, if we are very lucky, those good feelings catch up with us and stop being pretend emotions. Sometimes acting as if you are a benevolent person actually makes you become one – inside and out.

What We Love: The loving family you seek might be closer than you think.

What is the difference between a Guardian Ad Litem (“G-A-L”) and an Attorney For the Minor Children?

In cases involving the custody of minor children there are times when either one of the parties or a judge will suggest that the children need someone to represent their interests.  Sometimes, parents fail to recognize their own inherent conflict of interest with their children.  Frequently, this conflict of interest can result in disaster for the children.

I do not mean disaster necessarily in terms of the child being forced to visit, or live with, “the wrong parent,” that is usually something that can be re-addressed and re-decided within reason until the children reach the age of majority.  By disaster I refer to the long-lasting emotional and financial damage that a protracted custody battle can create.

So, enter the neutral third party.  A Guardian ad litem (“at law”), or an Attorney for the Minor Children.

The first question is: what’s the difference?

An attorney for the minor children is an attorney who has the job of representing the children’s desires to the court.  Just like any other party’s attorney, the attorney for the minor child keeps his or her own beliefs out of the picture and merely reports (and id necessary, advocates for) a child’s preferences.

A G-A-L, on the other hand, is not always an attorney.  These can be therapists, counselors, and social workers (or, also attorneys) who are trained in identifying and advocating for the best interests of minor children, regardless of what a child, or a parent, claims to want.  A G-A-L will take a child’s preferences into consideration, but only as one component of a larger picture.  A G-A-L must take into consideration all of the factors that are in the child’s best interests; even if it is different than a child’s wishes.

So, not just that fact that all of her friends attend the same school she does; but whether the Father’s new house is in a more appropriate school district.

Not only whether siblings get along well with each other; but also the relative psychological damage of separating them at this point in their lives.

Not just whether Dad is the more fun parent; but whether Mom has been the one consistently helping with homework and enforcing chores.

The second question is:  if things have gotten so bad that we are hiring extra professionals to tell us what our kids want and need; how can we still love our divorce?

So far in the divorce process, you and your spouse may have hired lawyers who do not see the big picture, do not have a way of encouraging the two of you to complete the process, and have only helped increase the emotional and financial costs of the divorce.  Now we have a new set of eyes (or maybe two new sets), and it is a chance to re-boot the entire divorce.

Consider allowing your children’s attorney the right to tell you exactly what your children want; and consider receiving the news with an open mind.  Even if it is the opposite of what you might have hoped to hear.  Your children are sending you a message and this is your opportunity to let their voices be louder than your own, or your lawyer’s voice.

Remember that a Guardian Ad Litem did not have an opinion of you or your family before being hired.  Any information you are able to receive from this person is a gift of insight into you, your children, and your family dynamic.  While it might not be what you want to know or hear right now; it might be information that can have a positive influence on the way you parent, or even co-parent long after your divorce is over.  Picture yourself at your daughter’s wedding reception, congratulating her other parent, your ex-spouse, and being genuinely happy.  Getting to that moment might have been as simple as listening to a tip from a G-A-L when your daughter was still in elementary school.

What We Love:  Divorce is an opportunity.  No matter where in the process you are, it is never too late to bring the best part of yourself.

Which Costs More – Following or Ignoring Your Attorney’s Advice?

When your lawyer says, “Don’t take his calls for a while; let things cool off, first.”  If the next thing you do is answer an angry phone call from your divorcing husband you are likely to find yourself in the middle of an expensive issue that may not have even existed until you answered the phone.

Here is a pretty common example.

Husband (Harry) and Wife (Wilma) are living separately while they go through their divorce process.  The school-age kids spend most nights at home with Wilma, and have dinner with Harry one night per week. The parents alternate who gets the kids on the weekends.  Things are working pretty smoothly.  Wilma starts dating a new guy, and one night he is leaving her house as the kids are coming home from dinner at Dad’s.  So, a brief introduction is made:

Wilma:  “This is my new friend Rex.  These are my kids.”

Rex & Kids (simultaneous mumbles): “Nice to meet you. ‘Bye.”

Over and done. Rex leaves, kids get ready for bed.  Until the following weekend, when out of nowhere, one of the kids sitting in the back seat of Harry’s car, says, “Hey, dad.  Have you ever met Rex?”

Two possible scenarios are about to unfold.  Let’s stop and walk through each one for a glimpse into the ways a divorce can go up or down in price pretty quickly at a moment like that.

Option 1 – Follow your lawyer’s advice.

Wilma is home making dinner and her phone rings.  It is Harry.  He has the kids, so she has to answer it – just in case.

Wilma (answering phone):  “Hello?”

Harry (sputtering mad):  “They are hanging out with your new boyfriend? What the heck is that??!!”

W:  “Are the kids okay? Where are they?”

H: “The kids are fine, they are watching TV in the next room.”

W:  “Oh, okay, so long as they are safe.  Listen, my lawyer advised me not to speak with you directly about anything else right now.  Everything is too crazy.  Let’s talk in a few days, instead.”

H: “How dare you—“ …  Call ends.

Harry hangs up and immediately calls his lawyer.  He rants and rages about what a terrible mother Wilma is. The lawyer listens politely while the meter runs.  At the end of this call Harry’s lawyer advises him that if he wants to pursue sole custody he will need an additional $20,000 retainer.

Harry decides not to pursue any further legal action at this time and calms down by the time he returns the kids to Wilma on Sunday.

TOTAL COST OPTION 1:  One 30 minute call between Harry and his lawyer.

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Option 2 – Ignore your lawyer’s advice.

Wilma is home making dinner and her phone rings.  It is Harry.  He has the kids, so she has to answer it – just in case.

Wilma (answering phone):  “Hello?”

Harry (sputtering mad):  “They are hanging out with your new boyfriend? What the heck is that??!!”

W:  “You are over-reacting they only met for a minute, and you cannot tell me who I let into this house anymore.”

H:  “You do whatever you want when you do not have my kids there, but it is irresponsible of you to introduce them to your new boyfriend when we are not even divorced yet.”

W:  “How dare you call me irresponsible? I am the one who is taking care of them all week long, while you are doing who-knows-what in your new bachelor pad.”

H: “You don’t understand how much I hate being away from them.  If you hate having custody so much, why don’t we just see what a judge says about them living with me, instead?”

W: “Fine! I’ll tell my lawyer!”

H: “Fine!”

They hang up & call their lawyers.  Even if one lawyer tries to stop this run-away train, the other might not.  Custody frequently begins with a request of the court that someone from the court’s family relations office meet with the kids, and each parent, and see each kid interact with each parent in each parent’s home.  (This is called a “Custody Study.”)

The lawyers write and file motions for a custody study, which they must then argue before a judge.  If the judge approves it, there is another 3 – 6 months worth of attorney billing and interaction with the family services division of your local courthouse.

At the end, even if the recommendation is to continue with joint custody, a neutral party might recommend a parenting plan that is inconvenient for all of you. But, because you have left it to relative strangers to decide, they may be the ones determining the next several years of your relationship with your children.  (Or, worse, the custody study could give one parent exclusive rights to the children.)

TOTAL COST OPTION 2:  Two lawyers working a total of about 15 hours each, on this one question.  Plus, your own time off from work and child care costs. Plus there is the possibility of a devastating outcome.

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The longer and more attentively you retain control over the emotions and discussions surrounding your own divorce, the greater your potential of keeping down the costs.

What We Love:  Clients who diligently follow good advice from their informed lawyers and themselves to a more cost-effective and calm divorce and post-divorce life.

What are the Different Types of Custody in a Divorce?

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Custody is usually divided into legal and physical custody; each of which can be either joint (both parents together) or sole (one parent alone).  For as long as the biological parents and their child are all living together, the parents share joint physical and legal custody.  Once a parent re-locates; the custody questions need to be addressed individually.

Legal custody is the right to participate in the big decisions that affect a child’s life.  These are the questions such as religious upbringing, major medical decisions, which schools to attend, and where to live.  Almost every parent is entitled to joint legal custody of the minor children, no matter what the circumstances of the change in living situation.  So, if Mom moves out and leaves the kids with Dad; that does not give Dad the right to sign the kids up for boarding school and convert their religion.  Both parents are still involved in making these decisions for the children’s be interests.

Sole legal custody applies in extreme cases, such as a parent who is incarcerated may not be expected to participate legal guardianship decisions.

Physical custody is the set of responsibilities that go with a child’s day-to-day care and maintenance.  Physical custody is determined by where the child sleeps most nights, who drives her to school most mornings, and who is responsible for making sure that teeth and hair get brushed; homework gets done, and breakfast gets eaten.

Courts look to replicate what is already the truth of a child’s parenting situation when fashioning orders regarding physical custody.  Just because one parent is staying in the marital residence does not necessarily mean that is the parent who should retain sole physical custody.  A child staying in his own room is not the same as a child being parented in the manner to which he is accustomed.  Who rally takes the majority of the responsibilities for your child’s day-to-day maintenance?  If it is you; you should expect to be awarded custody.

If, it is really your spouse; please consider the value of letting that continue unabated.  You can find plenty of other ways to show your child how much you love her.  It does not need to be by changing the rules during a period of transition.

If both parents really do share all parenting responsibilities, consider joint physical custody.  It can be accomplished many ways.  Some families sell the marital residence and use the proceeds to buy two small homes (such as condominiums) near each other. It gives the children autonomy to move freely between the two homes without having to worry that they left a book or glove across town.

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula), Austin's Fer...
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Another method of joint physical custody is called “bird-nesting” in which the children stay home and the parents take turns living there with them; each parent might have a three or four night rotation.  Or, less convenient, but much more common, is the cross-town schlep, in which the relocated parent drives the kids back and forth to school on the days they live in the new home.

What We Love:  There is no single mold for how parents and children divide their time.  The goal is to have post-divorce life be an accurate (and more viable) reflection of what the kids already enjoy and expect.