OMG, He/She met with a lawyer!

So often a spouse will call and scream into the phone, “He/She MET WITH A LAWYER!” I even had a client’s spouse file for divorce the second he discovered that she had simply consulted with one.  Why is everyone so afraid of lawyers? In my next life, I want to add “JD” to my signature and be as feared.

After the scream has subsided, my response is always, “that is GREAT news! I am so glad he/she took the time to become informed. Now they have caught up to you in learning more about how the divorce process works.” It is everyone’s right and responsibility to become informed. Learning how family law applies to the facts in your case is an excellent place to start. If more spouses would slow down and take the time to learn more about the divorce process, maybe we could de-escalate tensions just a bit. Information and education is a great antidote to fear.

Good lawyers will begin a new consult by listening to the facts and providing feedback about how the law applies to the facts of the case. If a spouse has a distorted view of what they might be entitled to or how little they plan to give, it is the lawyer’s responsibility to disabuse them of that way of thinking. The first meeting with a lawyer is important. In some cases, it discourages spouses from moving forward because the reality just doesn’t make sense. Or it informs a spouse that slowing down at work to dodge support obligations, or to engage in certain financial activity might not be wise. The spouse might learn that the judge in that county won’t look favorably on a particular set of facts. Who knows what is being said, but it is a pretty good guarantee that the lawyer is not saying, “YES, you’ll walk away with everything and your spouse will be left with nothing, so sign here on the dotted line and let’s get started!”

Often a spouse worries that a generous spouse will be told by a lawyer to be less generous. I was in a Consult once when a spouse asked if he could give more to his wife than what the calculations suggested. Surprise, the lawyer did not discourage him. The lawyer simply explained the facts, the calculations and how to think creatively about the big picture.

Some spouses believe that an ignorant spouse is better than an informed spouse. They believe that if their spouse is uninformed they will either give more or accept less. This is incredibly short-sighted. Keeping your spouse from the information is not a solid long-term strategy. The facts are the facts, and it is incumbent on you to work with a professional to find ways to be creative and settle in a way that is successful for both of you, no matter how little you might like the person at this moment.

Spouses seek legal advice for many reasons, and while we worry that the mere fact that they consulted with a lawyer indicates malicious intent, this is not often the case (I said not often). What is really important is that the spouse gains a more realistic understanding to better manage their expectations. Often it is a search to share the marital history and a quest for validation of their version of fairness. I say their version because we all see our situation through our own lens and unfortunately, the concept of fair, in this context, is subjective.

For example, there are many families who agreed 15 years ago that a spouse would take on the primary parent role while the other would take on the primary earner role. In this scenario, is it “fair” that the non-earning spouse is now being forced into the workplace with a short timeline to become financially self-supporting? Isn’t a deal, a deal? It isn’t “fair.” But, when a marriage contract is governed by family law, it is a fact.  

In other cases, one spouse might be the sole earner enduring years of frustration with the other spouse for their lack of financial contribution while either not working or working well below capacity. Then the earning spouse is told that they will have to continue to support the other spouse for a period of time. Is that fair? Maybe not entirely, but it is a fact that the spouse was complicit in a situation in which they supported the non-working spouse and have an obligation to continue to support them for some period of time. In both of these examples, “fair” is completely inconsistent with the facts of family law. It is maddening and yes it is completely unfair. But wasting thousands upon thousands of dollars in a process to extract a settlement that meets one spouse’s sense of justice and ignores the other isn’t fair either.

So, let’s circle back to the beginning. Is an ignorant spouse better off than an informed spouse? No. Informed spouses would never have allowed these example situations to go on for so long. (The message here is to become informed BEFORE we marry, but that is another blog.) Denying or delaying a spouse the right to become informed simply continues the dysfunction. People worry that their spouse will be in cahoots with the lawyer as to how to take advantage of the situation. It is true, the lawyer’s job is to do as much for their client as possible, but it is insane to imagine that keeping your spouse in the dark will lead to a better outcome. More likely it will lead to a more protracted and expensive process.

While everyone should get legal advice early so that both spouses understand how divorce works and what the options are from day 1, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that not all lawyers are created equal and that some are certainly more motivated to make a simple case more complicated to increase fees.  That is why it is so important to consult with more than one lawyer to compare advice and strategies to determine who is more believable and creative in solving the problem.  If a lawyer is trying to sell you on a “get it all strategy” or goes right to a litigation model without even addressing other venues such as Mediation or Collaborative or a settlement proposal to identify where the line in the sand might be, that should be an indication that perhaps their own agenda is in conflict with yours. As with any professional you hire, do your research, interview and do not be intimidated by the law degree. They might be an expert in their field, but that doesn’t mean they are the right expert for you.

 At the end of the day, your spouse will get legal input, and at a minimum that evens the playing field so that both of you can finally move forward. So, let’s acknowledge that and change the narrative. It is GREAT news when a spouse meets with a divorce professional. That means they are getting smart, so why not get smart, too and find ways, together, to keep the money in the family by learning the facts and exploring creative solutions. (Signing up for a free trial at dtour.life and completing the Case Profile with the key facts is a great place to start. Armed with this data, the divorce professional can give you immediate feedback as to the best ways to move forward. But don’t forget to get more than one opinion.)

 

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