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


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.



The eastern seaboard of the United States has just come through a major storm and its after-effects. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without electricity and more are dealing with the results and damages.  More than a hundred people are reported dead.  Those of us who “only” lost heat, or electricity, or cell service or some work days/school days, are feeling pretty grateful and fortunate right about now.  And, considering that it is November, it is just about that time to start being deeply thankful for our blessings.

Yes, even if you are going through the turmoil and disorientation of a divorce.  This year, as always, I am collecting some of my favorite stories of the post-divorce possibilities. These are the stories that make me feel a sense of gratitude and hope. These are typically people who kept their wits about them during the divorce process enough to be civil adults with each other afterwards.  (The names are fictitious, the stories are true.)

“Rickey” owns a restaurant in town. A few days after Hurricane Sandy I saw him at work looking unshaven and a more bedraggled than usual.  I asked if he had electricity and water at his house.  He said he did not; he lives in one of the towns near here that spent a few days with 100% of its citizens in power outages.  But, some of the guys at his place had been able to find him a generator that very morning.

“I bet you are excited to get home and get it juiced up,” I said. 

He chuckled, “not quite,” he said.  “I had them bring it over to my ex-wife’s house, so she and the kids can use it.  I’ll wait until they go out tomorrow, and see if I can go take a hot shower while they are out.”

“Annie” hosts her family for Thanksgiving every year. She and her two sisters rotate who hosts each of the major family holidays, and she is always happy to have a large crowd for Thanksgiving.  Being the youngest of the three sisters, her children are also the youngest of the 8 cousins and they get very excited to have all of their cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents at their house for the day.

This year, the divorced middle sister is bringing her new fiancé, which surprised me, since I know that the kids all love her ex-husband, Uncle Mike.

“Oh, Mike will be there, too,” she told me. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without his pumpkin pie.  He is very happy for my sister that she is moving on in her life, but none of us sees any reason why that should mean we lose Mike in the process.”

“Brandy” lives in my neighborhood with her husband “John,” John’s 11 year old son “Johnny” from  his first marriage, and 3 year old “Alyssa” – Brandy and John’s daughter.  John’s first wife, “Tracey” lives in an area of our town which lost their power for 6 long days.  On Halloween night I was out trick-or-treating with my kids when who did we see going door-to-door together but Brandy, Johnny, and little Alyssa, all in costumes.  Alyssa was being carried by a woman in a witch’s costume, so it took me a moment to recognize her.  But, of course, it was Johnny’s mom – Tracey.  Alyssa calls her Aunt Tracey. She ate most of her meals and took most of her showers at Brandy and John’s house the week she had no electricity at home. So, it made perfect sense for her to be out in our neighborhood carrying Alyssa from house to house helping her collecting candy and treats.

For more of these anecdotes, please visit my post at  And may you and your loved ones be inspired this year to think not only of your divorce or separation in November 2012, but of all of the Thanksgivings, and Halloweens, and even hurricanes to come.  Those of us who survived this storm have a unique opportunity to recalibrate our priorities right now, and to rethink what the words “family,” and “emergency” and “necessity” truly mean.

WHAT WE LOVE:  The rewards that come from doing the right thing, even when no one would blame you for doing the wrong thing.

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.


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.


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.

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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.


How Co-Parenting Could Work for Heidi Klum’s Family, and yours..

Heidi Klum and her Husband Seal Henry Samuel are announcing their intention to divorce, by publishing this statement:

“While we have enjoyed seven very loving, loyal and happy years of marriage, after much soul-searching we have decided to separate. We have had the deepest respect for one another throughout our relationship and continue to love each other very much, but we have grown apart. This is an amicable process and protecting the well-being of our children remains our top priority, especially during this time of transition.”

They are parents to 4 children together, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 2 to 7 years old.  These children are used to two parents who literally travel the world separately and together on a seemingly non-stop basis.  There homes are inMexicoandLos Angeles.  His music recording and promotion work takes place all over the globe, but primarily in theUK.  They each have busy successful worldwide careers.

So, what is their plan for an amicable process that protects the well-being of their children?

My first recommendation (if they asked me) would be co-parenting.  Co-parenting is more than having joint legal custody (in which both parties consult with each other on major life decisions effecting the kids), or even shared physical custody (where the parents each spend about one-half of the time with their children.  Maybe they live with mom Sunday morning through Wednesday dinner, and then switch.)

Co-parenting is a deeper commitment to continuing to consult with each other on an ongoing basis on the details of each child’s life.  It involves lots of telephone calls and in person conversations, plenty of passed notes and emails – all focused on the status of the children.

Co-parents are interested in more than “I took Jimmy to the dentist last week, you owe me $10.”  Co-parents have a lot of the same conversation post divorce as they may have had during marriage.  They just skip the non-kid conversations.

Here are some examples of co-parenting conversations:

“He did okay on the math test, but look at questions number 3 this afternoon. See if you can figure out what went wrong there.”

“I picked up the tickets for the dance recital.  Our 4 seats are all down front, so your mom will be able to take as many photos as she wants.”

Chances are that the reason a couple divorces has very little to do with either party’s parenting skills.  I frequently hear clients say, “he’s a great Dad, he just didn’t know how to be a husband” (or vice versa).  Co-parenting can empower the parents, and more importantly the children, to enjoy all the benefits of two good parents doing their best without the interference of a bad marriage.

What We Love:  In the midst of making one of the most difficult decisions of their lives; Heidi and Seal are prioritizing their children’s needs.  In doing so, they might make themselves happier also.

Read more:

(The Politics of) “Dad’s New Girlfriend”

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Is there ever a reason why you would encourage your child to be friendly with your spouse’s new “significant other?”

Maybe. Take this True or False Quiz to see if there ever is for you:

1.         My ex-husband is such a wimp that his new wife will be the one controlling their purse strings.

True – Might be worth making the woman like your kid (child support and alimony only get you so far – true generosity is limitless).

False – Maybe only Dad’s love is necessary in this situation, and the new harpy can get in line.  (But, beware, there could always be a Last Will & Testament.)

2.         My ex-husband has a new baby with his second wife.

True – The bond between your child and that half-sibling may be one of the most important in either of those kids’ lives. It is an important time to mend old fences and just be present for the new baby.  In most states, the new baby will have no impact on pre-existing child support orders. (And, no matter how you may feel about the new Wife, that baby did not ask to be born into it – please keep the two separate in your mind and dealings.)

False – Never say never.  If they haven’t yet, they may soon.  Help your kid keep an open mind before it is too late.

3.         My ex-wife has a new baby with her second husband.

True –Your kid might suddenly be feeling like the third wheel, or an indentured servant.  Help your child’s situation by finding ways of making that new father grateful for

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you, and grateful to your kid.  It will go a long way to improving your own child’s ranking in his or her home.

False –  If she doesn’t yet, you may encourage her to try. Nothing will take her mind off your faults and failings as quickly as being totally consumed with a brand new infant.

4.         I was hoping we could reconcile, but my Wife has moved in with her new boyfriend before the divorce is even final.

True – Your Wife apparently is not interested in reconciling with you.  Her message seems clear.  Letting your kids blame “the new guy” might leave them with a misplaced sense of injustice.

False – If your wife has not moved on, and you really believe there is a chance of reconciliation, take advantage of the moment while you have it. Consider making reasonable and practical changes before it really is too late.

5.         That phony little secretary stole my husband right out from under me.  If I teach my kids to be accepting of her, how do I ever teach them a good set morals and values?

True – Maybe the values our kids need to learn are to always do what is right themselves; even when the other person has done wrong.  We are not suggesting that the phony little secretary needs to be everyone’s best friend.  But she might be the only link between the kids and their dad in his old age.

False – That secretary may only be a symptom of what went wrong, and not the underlying cause of the breakdown of your marriage.

* * * * *

Obviously, the older your children are, the more likely they are to make these choices without your input.  In general, adult children are less likely to be accepting of new relationships than younger children may be.  It is a great bonding opportunity for you to still be able to parent your adult children by modeling acceptance and graciousness even in the case of a new partner.

What we Love: The next new love on the scene might just be your own.  This is a chance to help your children learn that it is healthy and sane to move forward, not backward, in life.

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