Divorce and Separation Guide for Domestic Relations Matters
Articles 1-5 cover topics ranging from the initial preparation and filing to alternatives, communication and expectations, children’s issues including Guardians and alienation to managing factors such as disorder, tapping into a support network, recovery and getting ahead of future proceedings.
Article 1: Preparing to file Mapping out your case Alternatives to the filing processPre-filing divorce/custody considerations:
Filing for divorce or custody requires planning – and before the other spouse is aware of your intentions if possible. Do you know the placement of tax records, know all account numbers and passwords? Are your banking accounts listed “and” or “or” and would this allow your spouse to close said accounts without your knowledge? Would your residency be in question? Who holds title to vehicles? Who pays which bills? Would your children’s education be affected? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered in order for the challenging situation of legal filings to go smoothly. Often as individuals enter the foray of the legal system, without any prior experience, they believe things will be handled fairly, perhaps with regard to property and to children, although depending on the county in which you file, the judge to which your case is assigned, and the type of lawyer your spouse hires, none of those things are assured. Many people do not realize that attorney you consult with will not be able to see your spouse and will not be able to break confidentiality of anything you tell them. However, any accountant or professional financial person does not owe any such confidentiality to one party over the other when assets are shared.
Considerations for mapping out your case prior to filing:
In the first few weeks following your legal filing, you will need to be prepared to communicate overviews to your attorney that offer them the most efficient view of your case. If you leave out key details, your attorney will be at the mercy of your spouse’s lawyer, but if you communicate too much, you will overpay your attorney for laboring through unnecessary details. A seasoned attorney will guide you through this process asking for only the exhibits needed for making your case quickly and efficiently, a practice most overcrowded court dockets prefer. You will need above all to have your priorities clearly mapped out, what you can live with and without.
Alternatives to the legal process:
Many couples enduring divorce or custody matters will be ordered to go to a certified mediator to lessen or resolve their issues prior to setting a trial date which might take up a great amount of the court’s already short docket time. In lieu of this process, individuals who are entering the divorce or custody process but have a civil regard for each other and a desire to save financial resources and any unnecessary angst for the children involved, can schedule a “pre-filing” mediation. Such a mediation can result in an uncontested divorce filing with agreements already binding via mediation. Families and couples nearly always retain more of their personal assets coming to private agreement over that which is doled out from a legal court bench. If you have young children, this is a particularly preferable route providing your spouse is civil enough to mediate.
Article 2: Moving forward with divorce or custody filings Communicating with your attorney’s officeMoving forward with divorce or custody filings:
If you have made the decision to move forward with custody or divorce filings, you will need to get organized first. Be prepared to relay case facts in a concise timeline oriented way, and certainly in writing if possible. Assets will need to be listed including their worth and marked according to who purchased the asset and who will likely want it once bartering occurs. Children’s matters will also be key and private school tuition should be given consideration. If public school is involved, moving out of the residence may change school districts.
Communicating with your attorney’s office:
Making copies of paperwork in an organized way saves your attorney time and saves you money. It is recommended that you make a duplicate copy for yourself to make phone conversations during your case more efficient. Take the time to get to know the paralegal, secretary, receptionist working on your case. They are often the front line of defense receiving motions, assisting with discovery, marking and organizing your file and exhibits, and managing billing for your case. When communicating with your lawyer’s office, it’s helpful to send an email to both the attorney and the key staff member on your case. Copying unnecessary people drives up your bill and often results in less staff members feeling it’s their job to handle your email. Striking good communication with your legal support team is key-provide them with timely information that bears on legal proceedings and secure support system including counselors, physicians, and family members to assist you with the emotional support that you will likely need.
Often individuals have a view that the legal system is effective and even “understanding” unless they have been through a legal matter. However, the county you file in, the judge you are assigned and the litigious nature of your spouse and their attorney determine the proceedings and outcome of your case. In order to get a favorable ruling, it’s critical to match your spouse’s attorney, or to get a seasoned attorney on the front end. Such legal counsel will be familiar with the county’s courtroom dockets, the judges at the bench and how to handle any protracting tactics from the attorney on the other side. These advantages can save you time and money, and allow you to recover from legal matters quicker.
Article 3: Children's IssuesIt’s all about kids, or is it?
Entering into legal proceeding, whether divorce or custody, can be a trial for not only parents but the children involved. As a parent, sometimes it’s difficult to hand over co-parenting to the legal system while such proceedings are going on. Parents might check with their attorney before making a parenting decision they would make easily prior to such a matter. The reality is that while courts can intervene and protect children that are bruised and battered, in general divorce and custody matters, courts mostly specialize in the division of assets, and to logistical and financial compromises between the parties.
Setting priorities and communicating with a GAL:
Given this reality, cases involving minor children will often be assigned a third attorney known as a Guardian Ad Litem or GAL. This attorney owes you no such confidentiality as your own lawyer and will have sway with the judge varying from courtroom to courtroom. Communication and anything shared with the GAL should be strictly governed by your attorney. GALs can assess parents for issues regarding the children’s school structure, medical care, home situation even down to how many children share a room. Ideally children will meet frequently with a GAL during a case, however each encounter will result in billing typically divided to both parties and ordered by the court. In light of this reality, communication with a GAL mirrors that of communication with your own attorney-be efficient and timely and relay shared exchanges back to your own lawyer in writing so everyone is on the same page.
Steering clear of alienation issues:
Most judges outside of clear physical abuse do not seek to remove children from one of their parents. Children define themselves psychologically by both parents regardless of whether one parent is painted as “good” or “bad”. That said, it can be incredibly challenging to receive the concerns of a child who is experiencing the non-bruising reality of damaging emotional or psychological abuse without seeming to alienate the child from that parent. Child Advocacy Centers in the area suggest to parents that they meet a child’s shared concerns with the following phrase “Thank you for telling me. You are very brave. I will make sure the right people know.” Then as easily as you can manage shift the conversation away from the other spouse. If the spouse is truly disordered, abusive, or even if they have a personality disorder the child will need a supportive counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist to help them deal with the emotional damage. If the other spouse simply has opinions and parenting practices that differ from your own, it’s best to tell your child that you and your spouse are different, having different preferences and that neither of you is good or bad, just both trying to do what you feel is in their best interest. A child mostly wants and needs to hear that no matter how bad the actions of one or both parents, that both parents love them and are only doing what they feel is in their best interest. Avoid at all costs openly disparaging a parent leaving any clarifications on bad behavior to professionals.
Article 4: Dealing with disorder and keeping sane Build your networkDealing with disorder and keeping sane:
Legal matters can be trying enough without the presence of mental health issues, but often they do coincide. If possible prior to filing, for custody or divorce, meet with area attorneys removing other more litigious attorneys from your spouse’s selection list. Secure an empathetic counselor both for any children involved and for yourself as well. While your attorney will likely care what you are going through, he or she will not be able to provide the depth of emotional support and logistical guidance you will likely need. If you are dealing with an ex diagnosed with a personality disorder, they experience distortion and can make legal mtters much more difficult while convincingly putting on a show for others. If your ex is diagnosed with Narcissistic, Borderline, Sociopathic, Psychopathic or personality disorder, all these types flourish in the limited pockets of the legal system, especially if unknown and unchecked. It is unfortunate that often a treatable mental illness such as depression/anxiety is confused with these more serious personality disorders which often cannot be treated. Further, they are often unfamiliar to guardians, custodial evaluators and the court system at large when they require a very different approach to secure children’s safety and needs met. It is imperative when dealing with personality disordered ex-spouses to limit communication, to track everything said, done, and reimbursed or unreimbursed. The program, Our Family Wizard, can be helpful here. Try not to “react” to any provocation and instead give all responses at minimum 24 hours before you send or say a response. This teaches the other party you are self -ontrolled and they cannot manipulate you. Be aware that they unknowingly project a great deal of what they are doing and feeling onto you and that they will be convincing in doing so. Keep your reality in crisp perspective.
Build your network and guiding kids through the process:
When dealing with personality disordered exes, it is critical to build a supportive network for yourself and your children. Secure a counselor who is experienced in trauma if possible, clearly communicate what is going on with your children’s school, and find a medical professional that can keep a watchful eye over the situation and any health effects from stress. Find a support group, such as a local church offering Divorce Care, where often duplicate programs are offered for the children involved. If you are dealing with any addiction you formed while living with a personality disordered spouse, seek out Celebrate Recovery programs in the area which can be an incredible asset providing you with confidential support.
Journaling works for some while finding a service related activity such as volunteering at the local hospital or food pantry is a good outlet for others. Above all, retain the perspective that moving away from someone with this level of disorder is a healthy and brave step and the legal matters necessary will not last forever and will be worth it in the end.
Article 5: How to recover Safeguards for any future legal proceedingsHow to recover:
Most professional articles on both divorce and custody offer that an individual can expect to be financially recovered within two years of the conclusion of their legal proceeding. The emotional toll is longer with roughly a year of recovery needed for every four years spent in open abuse, whether at the hands of someone with a mental illness, personality disorder, or further imbalance. The first step in moving toward recovery is a good legal team in guiding you through pre-filing planning, filing first if at all possible, gaining the proper legal protections such as Protection from Abuse, or PFA if applicable, and employing enough efficiency with your attorney and guardian that your legal costs are kept at a minimum. These steps will prepare you to rebound quicker, leaving you with built in protections for any future issues. During trying and protracted legal matters, it can be tempting to think you are the only person to go through such a matter when unfortunately, many have done and are doing so and with children of all ages and with all sorts of challenges. A counselor can help to keep perspectives healthy and balanced ensuring better rest and stress management. Keeping yourself emotionally balanced is critical if you have children looking to you for support during trying legal matters. Close friends and even family members will often run out of steam listening with empathy if a matter has carried on a long time. Journaling is an excellent alternative to getting the sting of a bad experience out without having to feel you are burdening friends and feel as though you are always communicating needs and bad feelings. Further, activities outside your legal matters can keep your head above the water. Try volunteerism and even simple clubs such as painting, photography, running, and the like.
Safeguards for any future legal proceedings:
When a divorce is over, most spouses take a long-awaited sigh of relief. However, depending on what kind of attorney was on the other side this sigh could be short lived. Many will give more in divorce “settlements” than a judge would from the bench luring the other party into believing they have “won”. Shortly thereafter, the same previously generous spouse will file to amend child support, or adjust medical benefits, or will remarry or move thereby shifting visitation. It is important to think ahead. It is critical to think of your finances after your divorce or custody matter is final as all such records would be subpoenaed if any other legal matter were to arise in the future.