The Quicksand of Divorce

The Quicksand of Divorce

(Tips on not sinking in the divorce process[1])

What started out as a simple one-page article on how to help parents in the transition before, during and after divorce has slowly but surely morphed into a very complex series of articles. How can you ask an attorney to write anything without having him ramble on and on? You can’t. How does an attorney give generic advice on a complex issue such as divorce without the accompanying risk that the reader will decide they know it all and then end up falling flat on their face? They cannot and that is why the disclaimer is inserted below. Let’s get started.

Don T. Needhelp slowly trudges through the woods looking for that elusive fishing hole his partner told him was out here. The best fishing in the state, the fish are always biting, and the weather is always nice. As he nears the bank of the river, he sees a big splash in the water. Is that the big one? He inches nearer and nearer the riverbank. Suddenly his leg is seized from below. He looks but sees nothing. As he kicks with his other foot, it too is grabbed by the elusive creature. He falls onto his back as he is pulled into the hole by the great beast. As he descends he continues to kick the beast, but to no avail. It just pulls him in deeper. He is up to his waist now. Punching at the beast only assists it in grabbing his arms. Only his neck is above the murky mess now and the mighty beast continues to drag him down. As he struggles, his head slowly sinks into the mess. He takes a deep breath just before going under. He takes another breath; this time his lungs fill with sand and water. He will be dead soon.

How can an article on divorce start with a story about quicksand? We have all seen the movies with quicksand. Someone is walking around minding their own business when suddenly the ground beneath them explodes, grabs them and as they fight and struggle it drowns them in a horrible suffocating death. Sound familiar? How many of your friends, neighbors or family have been financially and emotionally destroyed by the divorce process? Probably more than you would like to admit. What did they do wrong? There are many ways they could have been personally, emotionally and financially destroyed by the divorce process. Often times they didn’t educate themselves about divorce, they ignored the process and got the worst of it. What should they have done? They should have educated themselves about divorce before venturing into this unfamiliar and dangerous territory. If Fred had read his field manual, he’d have known that struggling is the worst thing he could do. Struggling actually caused his death. What would have saved was using his knowledge and abilities to extricate himself from the situation with only a boot full of wet sand. Much like quicksand, divorce often creeps up on people, grabs them and starts pulling them under. What they do to prepare prior for divorce or during the divorce process can save their personal, emotional and financial lives. Undoubtedly, it is quite possible to drown during the divorce process but if you use preparation, knowledge and discipline you can survive. You and your family will be better off for it.

While reviewing the great many emails that have helped create this series[2], I was struck by one main thing. People feel emasculated by and powerless against a system which is prejudiced against their position simply because of an unchangeable trait, such as gender, sexual orientation, or social status.

While this may happen from time to time, it is not necessarily because the system is biased. Many people, men and women alike, feel that the litigation process is simply not adequate to meet their needs. In my experience, these things happen because people in divorce have an incredible ability to ignore what is happening or to make very poor decisions prior to and during the process. They pick the wrong attorney, go into the process unprepared or unwilling to prepare, do things their attorneys advise them against, don’t do things they should, figure they can work the system themselves, have unrealistic goals or decide to litigate their case on “principle.”

What key things should you know about the divorce process?

First, do not ignore it. The law is a very temperamental beast that does not like being ignored. More accurately, if you ignore it, it will eventually grab you, suck you under and have its way with you. Many litigants have suffered at the hands of an attorney who has taken advantage of the situation because the opposing party chose to ignore what was going on and ended up with nothing. If you want to lose, ignore the Complaint, don’t come to court and pretend that you don’t need to do anything. It will make things easier for your spouse’s attorney. It will also ensure that you will end up with many years of angst and anger toward the system and your spouse. In this situation the problem was not the system; it was the choice to ignore what was happening.

Second, find a good, experienced attorney with whom you can develop a trusting relationship. Remember that your attorney is not a magician. He/she is simply a professional trained in assisting you through the legal process. The lawyer cannot make things perfect. He/she can’t change the other person. Their main goal is to understand your needs and assist you in the process of seeing those needs being met. If your attorney makes grandiose promises if you’ll only sign the fee agreement and deposit your check with him/her, they may not be someone you can trust. As you have probably heard time and time again, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Seek an attorney who will be honest with you about the good and bad aspects of your case.

Third, take inventory of your life, your needs and your family’s needs. If you don’t know what you want or need, can you expect your attorney to understand and fight for those needs? Remember that sometimes what you “need” may actually be just a “want.” Figure that difference out for yourself instead of paying someone to do it for you. Take the time to have all your facts, documents and evidence in a safe location and ready for your attorney to review. If you can organize documents and make copies you will save a significant amount of time and money. If you bring your attorney a box that looks like a three year old organized it, you are going to have to pay someone to organize that information. Bring requested items to your attorney as if you were making a presentation at work. It shows your attorney that you take the matter seriously, helps ensure that your funds are used more effectively, and decreases the delay that would occur if someone else had to figure out your financial matters from scratch. Look at your actions from the viewpoint of a third party. If you saw someone acting the way you are, what would you think? Would they be doing the honorable thing, would they look like a good father or would they look like a schmuck? If you are doing something shady, right now may be the best time to stop. If you are in a relationship with a third party or are contemplating the same, now is probably not the time to get involved in that activity. Without regard to the spiritual repercussions and no matter the reasons, it reflects poorly on your character and decision-making abilities. You may want to talk about your abilities as a father, but the other side wants to present evidence that you left your children at the babysitter’s house to pursue your paramour.

Fourth, take the time to make informed decisions based on all the facts and options rather than gambling with your future and lashing out when things turn against you. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, sit down, find a good book and educate yourself. If you think you are going to “blow up,” don’t. That is a very simple instruction, but many people sit in Court charged with domestic violence because they did not appropriately control their reactions to stress or anger and lashed out at their spouse. Or they were in the middle of a screaming match when the police showed up. Who wins in a he-said/she-said? No one. If you make a poor decision and allow your spouse to dictate the terms of visitation who wins? No one. The news often shows an estranged father who has killed his ex-wife and the children. I have never seen one of those incidents where the murderer’s biggest complaint was that he got too much access and visitation with the children. His rage usually centered on a denial of access or visitation which may have started some years ago when he decided to settle things physically instead of handling them in an appropriate manner, when he agreed to a less than optimal custody arrangement or when he allowed the other attorney to dictate the case rather than educating, protecting and helping himself. Likewise, I have never heard a Death Row inmate say that the reason he went astray was that he had too much quality time with his parents.[3]

Fifth, remember that what happens during the process could follow you and your family for a long, long time. If you have a five year old, how long does the result affect you? At least until they reach age eighteen years old. Paying an extra $250 per month in child support or not receiving that extra $250 you are due? That’s $39,000 difference over that thirteen year period. Do you want to be an important part of your child’s life but agree to see him/her only very other weekend? That’s about seven hundred days of visitation over a thirteen year period. Sound like enough time to educate, inform and be a significant role model for your children? There are about four thousand seven hundred other days for someone or something else to be their role model. That is four thousand seven hundred days for school, friends, Facebook and others to shape your child’s life. Who do you think will have a bigger impact? “Part-time parent” or television?

Sixth, remember that time is money. Whether it is your attorney’s time or your choice to wait before finding a solution to your situation, time is important. Ignoring the process only increases the likelihood that your money will disappear with time. Your decisions and interactions during the divorce process often center around money. Child support, alimony, property distribution, and attorneys fees all center around money. Did you know that if you do not pay an appropriate level of child support prior to the hearing you could be ordered to pay your spouse’s attorneys fees? It would have been much smarter and cheaper to talk to an attorney. They would have probably told you to pay a certain amount every month. Now you are paying the back child support, your attorney’s fees and your spouse’s thirty-five hundred dollar attorney bill.

Lastly, take care of yourself. Do not isolate yourself. Find a good counselor. Find a good friend. Find a good support group. Find a good hobby. If you call your attorney to get mental health counseling, you pay an awful lot of money for someone who is not trained to give you mental health counseling. Sometimes it is good to vent with your attorney, but if it is an every day occurrence you need to find a professional to talk to. There are numerous groups in the community that can help you. Some are organized through religious groups, others are simply organizations who understand what parents or spouses are going through. Find one that nurtures you mentally and emotionally. It is fine to sit around and complain with friends once in a while, but if that is your only support group your time is being unproductive.

By John McNeil

Originally written in 2005 and edited in 2013.

 


[1] Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is provided as a public service for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a comprehensive statement of the law or, in particular, to contain legal advice. If you have any questions regarding any information found in this article, you should consult an attorney who can investigate the particular circumstances of your situation. Persons receiving information found in this article should not act on this information without receiving professional legal counsel. The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship.

[2] My thanks goes out to Martin Brossman who helped get the ball rolling on this series and showed me that there was a genuine need for this article. I also want to thank the many people who helped contribute to this article by emailing their concerns and questions.

[3] In case you are wondering, I have worked with death row inmates; and I never heard “too much quality with mom and dad” as a reason they committed the murder. Of course I am not counting situations involving abuse.

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