Rarely does a couple walk down the aisle thinking that divorce court might be in their future. This is not to suggest that today’s newlyweds are living in the latest Harlequin romance novel. It’s just that we can’t imagine the day where we fight over the china (even if we didn’t like the pattern anyway)—let alone fighting over the children and who gets to spend Christmas morning with them.
It is my sincere hope that you never find yourself contemplating divorce. But if you are, or if it is thrust upon you, please allow this article to give you some direction and, hopefully, to provide you with some guidance as you navigate the divorce process.
Getting a divorce is not a complicated legal matter, but the divorce process is often exasperating, laborious and emotional even if you are the one who wants the divorce. In order to minimize these frustrations, it is vital to gain as much knowledge about the process as possible, to actively participate in the legal process rather than allow it to just “happen” to you, and to surround yourself with supportive professionals, friends, and family.
Here are five basic (and sometimes painful) truths:
1. Neither your lawyer nor the judge cares as much about your family as you do.
Choosing a lawyer is the first step. While the internet provides a lot of information and generic forms are available, attempting to divorce without a trained professional to advise you is a mistake. And, contrary to what you may think from the sheer number of jokes in circulation, most divorce lawyers are excellent, ethical people who truly do everything in their power to advocate for their clients. You should meet with prospective lawyers and “interview” them for the job. Consider such factors such as credentials, cost, and location. Other factors such as gender, age, or personal compatibility may also be important to you. Ask questions regarding billing procedures, familiarity with the courts and the legal issues of your case, and methods of keeping you informed and aware of what’s going on in your case.
Never, ever forget that you are the one paying for a service and, as such, you are the boss and YOU need to make the big decisions that affect you and your family. You are paying for a lawyer to advise you—not to decide for you.
Neither your lawyer nor the judge assigned to your case, no matter how wonderful they are, will ever care about your family as much as you do. They are not friends, therapists or trusted family members and will not have the same level of understanding of your family dynamics that you do. Be proactive in your divorce.
2. The more you fight, the more it will cost.
Divorce is a lawsuit and, like all lawsuits, it involves certain processes and procedures that are unavoidable. The more agreeable and congenial you and your spouse are, the quicker and cheaper your divorce will be. This does not mean that you should roll over and not assert your rights; it just means that you need to recognize that the costs involved are very closely related to the intensity of the “fight.” You also should recognize that, most likely, you are paying both the lawyers and other professionals involved out of marital monies and, the more you spend on the lawyers, the less you will have to divide between yourselves. I have no objection to earning an excellent living, but is that $100 china plate really worth paying me $2000 to get? Probably not. Obviously, there are often much more serious issues involved in divorce that are worth digging in your heels and fighting for. Just be sure that the benefit is worth the cost.
3. Neither spouse “wins.”
Georgia divorce law with respect to marital assets is premised on an “equitable division of property.” Simply, what this means is that marital property and debt is fairly divided between both husband and wife. Of course, numerous factors contribute to determine what is “fair,” and a husband who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of marital money to set up his mistress in a luxury condo on the beach will probably get less than a 50% share of marital assets. But just because he is a cad and morally one could argue he should live out the rest of his life sneaking food from trash cans, such a fate will not befall him—at least not from the court.
“My friend’s mother’s brother-in-law said Judge Hegetsitall gave him everything, so I should get everything too.” No. Not true. Don’t believe it. Yes, the law is the law, but no two cases are exactly alike and no two judges are alike. The individual facts and circumstances of your case combined with each judge and/or juror’s personality and background factor significantly into how the law is applied to your situation. Again, rely on your attorney for advice as to what is reasonable to expect.
4. The Lessons of King Solomon are relevant.
Most of us have heard the biblical story about two women who come before King Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of a baby. King Solomon, in his infinite wisdom, asks for a sword and says he will cut the child, giving each woman half. The true mother gives up her claim so that her child’s life can be spared. Thankfully, no swords are present in today’s courts. But, in any custody determination, the child’s best interests are first and foremost.
If your divorce involves a custody battle, a court may order that a Guardian Ad Litem be appointed who is authorized to investigate each party and their circumstances thoroughly and will offer an opinion as to what custodial arrangements are in the child’s best interests. Often, the parent who is most likely to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent is seen to be more suitable as a primary physical custodian.
In most Georgia courts, all parties who have children are required to attend a seminar for divorcing parents prior to finalizing their divorce. You do not have to attend together, but in the seminar you learn things important for co-parenting—like how it is really not a good idea to tell your son that his “%*#*& excuse for a father is not going to get him for visitation because he is out with his %*$)# girlfriend.” Such negative language is not in your child’s best interest and will only serve to cause damage down the road.
Just know that if you and your spouse can both love the children more than you hate each other, your children will be much less likely to be a sad statistic of divorce.
5. Emotionally, a divorce is like a death of someone near and dear.
Although I am not a therapist, I can attest to the fact that most divorcing people compare the divorce process to the death of a close friend or family member. The emotional roller coaster certainly is similar—even if you are the one who wants the divorce. Shock, denial, anger, bargaining, grief and finally, acceptance may all be present in varying degrees. Usually, the spouse who asks for the divorce has reached the acceptance phase and is ready to move on. This puts the other at a disadvantage when dealing with the business aspect of divorce.
There is no need to handle the emotional stresses alone and there are many organizations (community-based, faith-based, medically based) to help you and your children deal with these emotions and I encourage you to take advantage of counseling if for no other reason than to make you feel more prepared when you (and you will) reach the acceptance stage and are ready to start again. Furthermore, the more distance you can place between the emotional and the business aspects of your divorce, the more you will be able to actively participate in your divorce litigation and get back to living a joyful life.