What You Need to Know if Your Divorce is Starting Tomorrow

It’s Sunday night.  You’re brushing your teeth.  Your spouse barges into the bathroom and blurts out, “It’s happening tomorrow.”  By "it," you know they mean divorce.  It's finally happening.

If you're like me, two schools of thought race through your mind.  The first is emotional.  Where will I live?  Where will the kids live?  Will I end-up alone?  The second is analytical.  How do I make sure I don’t get screwed?

When I eventually stop crying (and yes, there would be a lot of crying), I would consult the smartest friend available on Sunday night.  Google Chrome.  I would spend the next 3 to 4 hours reading everything I could about divorce.  I would learn that Texas is not a good place to live if I wanted spousal maintenance.  I would learn that North Carolina has a mandatory waiting period – what’s the point of that?  And in Europe, I would learn that most divorces are uncontested – I knew I always liked it there.

But the longer I searched the internet, the more angry I would become.  Each “article” (advertisement) would end the same way.  “For more specific information, contact your lawyer.” But contacting a lawyer isn't what I needed.  I just want to know what is going to happen tomorrow.

Sound familiar?  Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way.  I doubt it.

Here’s what you really should know if your divorce is starting tomorrow.

Find out the name of your spouse’s lawyer.  Call them to arrange service.

Expect this call to be really difficult.  I have seen lots of lawyers treat people badly just because they can.  It’s terrible.  Don’t argue with the lawyer.  The only reason for the call is to avoid being hunted down by a process server.  If you can, offer to stop by their office to pick-up the paperwork.  You will need to sign an Admission of Service form.  Don’t worry.  It doesn't mean anything more than you received the documents.  Don’t sign anything else!

Repeat the following mantra 10 times before you read the documents, “This is just a request.  It’s not the right answer.”

I am always amazed by how creatively some attorneys can twist facts.  Sometime ago, a lawyer indignantly claimed to me that the law clearly supported his client's position, only to argue the exact opposite a few days later in a different case.  It’s frustrating.  But understand that it's just part of the process.  Don’t mistake the request for truth.  I have personally been involved with many cases where the final result is nothing like what was requested in the Petition.

What I do:  Scan the document.  Write down the date it was served.  Put it in a drawer to give to your lawyer.  He or she will likely do the same.

Resist the Urge to Make Radical Changes in Your Life

Sometimes, divorce motivates people to make radical life changes.  People tell me that they want to change jobs or move closer to family.  Neither of these things is necessarily bad, but you need to resist the urge to make radical life changes while things are fresh.  Big changes mean big consequences.  It's usually better to let things settle down for a week or two before doing things that are not easily undone.  One common example is moving out of the house. Moving out is a big deal.

Don’t Waste Money Just to Get Even.

About once a year, I have a client who insists on taking a “Vegas Divorce Trip.”  What they really mean is they want to go to Las Vegas (luxury style) to blow money to get even with their spouse who wasted money elsewhere.  Typically, follows a discussion we've had about dividing credit card debt during a divorce.  Please don’t do it.  It probably won’t surprise you to learn that courts don't much like Vegas trips.

Try really hard not to lean on your kids.

Elsewhere, I have written about how important it is for you to share age appropriate information with your children about the changes impacting your family.  But in the first few days following service, emotions can be really raw.  Sometimes, it makes sense to delay the conversation for a while until you get your bearings.  Find a friend or family member you can vent to so you don’t end-up saying things you will regret.

Stay off Social Media

Assume everything you post online will be read by the judge. Enough said.

Begin Creating Your Divorce Plan

As you can see, I'm a big fan of creating plans.  Divorce plans keep you focused when everyone else goes off the rails.  Knowing how you want issues resolved and having a plan to get there makes all the difference.

Take a Deep Breath.

Things seem bad now.  But it won't always be this way.  Things will get better.  You don’t need to have all the answers today.  No one knows exactly how things will end.  It’s okay to figure things out along the way.

5 Things You Need to Know About Electronic Security and Divorce

I recently heard a forensic investigator discuss how technology can be used in divorce cases.  He described how he can find deleted files, determine which websites you visited, and even reconstruct your physical movements using the GPS in your smart phone.

By the end of the session, I was convinced I no longer needed technological gadgets.  Books were fine for me, thank you.  I could save a lot of money if I ditched my clunky cell phone.  And although I rarely do anything too scandalous online – maybe just a little scandalous – I still felt like this electronic snooping was an invasion of my privacy.  Without thinking, I reflexively checked my email.  Gulp.

If you’re going through a divorce, here are the top 5 things you need to know about electronic security:

Change your passwords

My wife calls my password “old trusty.”  She’s right.  I almost always use the same password for unimportant things.  If we were to go through a divorce, she could easily access all my accounts.  For some people, changing passwords gives them an added sense of security.  For others, it’s necessary because their spouse has shown a propensity to hurt them.  Regardless, it's a good idea to change your passwords.

It’s also usually a good idea to make-up really odd security questions.  My favorite one is, “What were you drinking when you made-out with the really ugly kid in college?”  If you can’t make-up a question (and sometimes you can’t), then lie on the answer. The computer doesn’t know whether you’re telling the truth.  It’s only looking for consistent answers.

Everywhere you go online leaves a trail

On some level, I guess I always knew privacy was dead.  I just wanted to believe that after a while my meaningless searches fade into obscurity.  But, evidently that’s not the case.  Assume wherever you’re going online could be discovered in your divorce.  In other words, don’t buy land in South America for your new romantic partner and then lie about it – true story.

If you have gone somewhere on the internet you shouldn’t have gone, resist the urge to wipe your hard drive clean.  Doing so could get you sanctioned for destroying evidence.  Many times, the cover-up is worse than the worse than the crime.  The law prohibits people from using the court process to embarrass someone.

Get your own cell phone plan and do a hard reset on your phone

Cell phones do more than just reveal your physical location, they also contain information about who you talked to and what you said.  I have seen situations where one spouse “hacks” into the other spouse’s phone.  The “hack” program allows them to read email and text messages and even turn the phone into a listening device.  Sound unbelievable?  It’s not.  These programs are available cheaply online.

What can you do to prevent this type of thing?  Keep track of your phone.  Usually, a person must have access to your phone to install this type of program.  Monitor your data usage, and watch out for weird behavior.  If your phone begins to light-up or turn-off when you’re not touching it, you might want to have someone look at it.  The best way to quickly rid yourself of these programs is to do a hard reset.

Be careful about using your work computer or work email for privileged communication

Think before you use your work computer or work email for communicating with your lawyer.  Businesses have the right to monitor email communication sent on private servers and devices.  Many of the large corporations have these types of monitoring programs in place.  Exposing your sensitive emails might not only be embarrassing, it might also waive the attorney client privilege, subjecting the information to discovery by your spouse.

Stop posting on social media and other crazy blogs

Please don’t post rants about your spouse on social media or in chat forums.  You might also want to consider whether it’s a good idea to post status updates showing you drinking or engaging in objectionable activity.  I have been involved with more than one case where a Facebook posting directly contradicted the testimony a person was giving in court.

If done right, divorce doesn't have to mean the end of technology.  It just means you need to think a little more before hitting "post."

When to Hire a Non-Lawyer Mediator

Sometimes, when I'm chatting with an acquaintance the topic of divorce will come up.  On this occasion, the man was saying that he and his wife were hiring a "non-lawyer mediator" because they didn’t want a lawyer "messing-up” their settlement.

This sort of thing happens all the time.  People think they have reached a deal with their spouse only to have a lawyer muck it up.

Hiring a non-lawyer mediator can be an option.  Sometimes, this approach works well.  Other times, it ends-up causing more problems than it's worth (e.g., deals crafted by non-lawyer mediators can be rejected by judges because they don’t follow best practices).

What should you do?  Here’s the skinny.

If you and your spouse want to use a mediator, go with whomever feels comfortable.  Mediation is supposed to be a facilitative process (i.e., the mediator doesn’t give opinions or recommendations) so it shouldn't really matter who you use.

A better approach, though, might be to participate in a Social Early Neutral Evaluation (“SENE”) or Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (“FENE”) program offered by the court system.  In many ways, these processes resemble mediation.  They are relatively inexpensive, settlement driven, and confidential.  But, unlike mediation, ENE's allow the evaluator to give feedback about how they believe the case should be resolved.  This can help settle disputes because you have more information about what a judge might do if a settlement isn't reached.

Because ENE's involve opinions, it’s critical you choose the right person.  I believe all FENE evaluators (money experts) should be lawyers with recent litigation experience.  Who else can tell you what a judge might do?  Most SENE evaluators (kid experts) should be lawyers too.  But it's okay to use a psychologist, therapist, or social worker, if the person has a good deal of family law experience.

It’s important to understand that ENE's require a court order.  This means that you must have started your divorce case and filed it with the court to participate in an ENE program.  However, most ENE providers will do “evaluative mediation” (basically the same thing by a different name) without a court order, if asked.

Don't get discouraged by the many different options.  They're all pretty simple.  Mainly, they are designed to ensure you keep control of how your divorce is resolved.

5 Things Being a Divorce Lawyer Has Taught Me About Life

Some things are just true.  Coffee is one of the world’s best drinks.  People are happier on Fridays, and guys do stupid things to impress women.

Other things are just as true but more difficult to see.  Unchecked jealously will destroy you.  The future is uncontrollable, and change is inevitable.

For the past 13 years, I have had a chance to look behind the curtain to see into people’s private lives.  Here are some truths I have learned while working with people in divorce:

There’s way too much domestic violence in the world.

The widespread nature of this problem boggles my mind.  It was a part of my very first case.  It persists today.  People from all walks of life are affected.  The saddest part of the problem is that so many people don’t recognize how unhealthy their relationships are until it’s too late.

Everyone is struggling with something.

Our public personas are so phony.  Everyone I meet seems perfect, but behind the scenes things aren’t quite so rosy.  Everyone is struggling with something, me included.

Some of the most successful people I know have serious anxiety problems.  You wouldn’t know.  A teacher I once represented had a husband who abused cocaine.  You couldn’t tell.  And don’t even get me started on the lawyers.  We seem to have the most problems of all!

Don’t be ashamed of the real you.  People will respect you more and find you more interesting if they know everything isn't perfect in your private life.

Everyone screws-up their kids.

Sometimes, I wonder how anyone survives childhood.  I cringe every time someone tells me how they “told their kids the truth” about their divorce.  Far too much information, if you ask me.

Just when I start to feel superior, though, I remember some of the awful things I have said to my kids.  It’s enough to make me want to schedule a therapy appointment.

The take-away message here is that we all make mistakes.  No parent is perfect.  Getting divorced doesn’t screw-up your kids any more than the awful comments I make to mine.  Don’t waste your time feeling guilty about your divorce.  Focus your energy on avoiding conflict, building consistency, and being “the rock” your kids need.

Success is never final.  Failure is never fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.

This peril of wisdom comes from Winston Churchill.  I am stealing it because it’s 100% true.  The trauma of divorce knocks almost everyone down.  You can feel like a complete failure.  Thankfully, however, life goes on.  And for many of the people I have helped, it goes on in glorious ways that no one could have seen before.

Try hard to stand-up after you fall down.  Some of the best things in my life have happened after I failed in pretty significant ways.

We are where we choose to be.

I like to tell myself that I live in Minnesota because my parents lived in Minnesota.  My parents lived in Minnesota because their parents lived in Minnesota.  And so on.

That’s not really true, though.  I could change where I live, if I wanted to.  Moving might be scary, it might make me poor, and it might leave me worse off than I am right now.  But I could do it.  We are where we are because we choose to be there.

It’s true about our jobs, personal issues, and marriages.  It stinks when we don’t have the courage to change the things we need to change because we are too afraid to do so.

Everyone struggles with these problems.  If you find a way to make change easier, please let me know.

3 Things To Do When You Just Want Your Divorce To Be Over

Not long ago, I spent the afternoon in court with a woman I had been representing for more than a year.  Her divorce is complicated by the fact that her husband, who has fired his attorney and decided to represent himself, refuses to negotiate with me.  He insists that he and “his wife” will work-out “settlement terms.”  My client feels tremendous pressure to just be done.  Who can blame her?

For many people, the desire to “finish” their divorce can be overwhelming.  The anxiety about going to court and the uncertainty about what their future holds can make an unfair settlement seem better than no settlement at all.

These situations worry me.

No one disagrees that people can reach whatever settlement they believe is in their best interests.  It’s the hallmark of our judicial system.  People are free to attach different values to different priorities.

What worries me, though, is when the pressure of the process makes people feel that an unequal settlement (without justification) is better than the decision we might get from a judge.  It makes me worry because six months from now (when the smoke clears), I won’t be able to fix the deal.

Some lawyers don’t worry about these types of problems.  They say, “It’s not my fault.  The client was the one who made the bad deal.”  And to a certain extent, they’re right.  It isn’t my fault.  The client did make a bad deal.  But that doesn’t sit well with me.  I care a lot about my clients.  Some of them even become friends later.

Here’s what I tell people who get the itch to “just settle” their case:

First, go for a run or do yoga.

It’s what I do when I get stressed (and yes, even a nasty divorce lawyer like me gets stressed).  Running helps clear my mind.  Things don’t seem as bad after a long run.  If you don’t believe me, believe research from Harvard Medical School.

Waiting to make a decision until after you finish exercising will help keep you focused on what really matters.

Second, unplug for at least 2 hours – preferably 2 days.

Did I ever tell you how much I hate email?  It’s the best, worst invention of all time.  No matter how hard I try, it seems like once a week my mood is soured by a nastygram I receive from someone.  Taking time away from technology helps you think better.  Again, you don’t have to believe me.  Read Sleeping with your Smartphone

If, after a break, the deal still seems like the right thing for you, then maybe it isn’t so bad after all.

Third, make a list of what you think will be better after your divorce is over.

Settling a divorce has benefits, lots of them.  But sometimes the benefits you get aren’t the ones you’re chasing.

Some people settle divorces because they believe doing so will appease an overbearing spouse.  Usually, this doesn’t work.  Difficult or controlling people aren’t motivated by one or two key issues.  The problem is more systemic.  Giving-up on issues that are important to you simply shifts the focus elsewhere.

Put your pro / con list down on paper.  Share it with family and friends.  Talk to your lawyer. Many times, there are things a divorce lawyer can do to help meet your goals while your divorce is ongoing.

What happened to my client?  She stayed the course.  Things are okay.  And at least for now, she has resisted the urge to “settle” at all costs.