How to Make Divorce Work: 19 Strategies from Experts
Divorce is hard. It's difficult and painful. It can bring out the worst in people. But it doesn't have to. With a bit of guidance and some compromise, a divorce can work for both parties. We spoke to experts on how to make the best of the most difficult situation on all fronts: legal, psychological, and financial, including ensuring there's a financial plan for couples and their children.
Couples who stay together longer than they should can poison a relationship to the point an amicable divorce becomes all but impossible. "People go back and forth a lot and question their decision," says Jacqueline Newman, a New York matrimonial law attorney. "They look in their children's eyes and think, 'What's this going to do to them?' So they wait a little bit, and sacrifice themselves and keep pushing it off and pushing it off until someone hits a breaking point."
The first thing recommended by California certified family law specialist and attorney Barry Fischer — who formed the nonprofit Divorce Project to show how to have a peaceful, civilized divorce — is for a splitting couple to try to come to an agreement among themselves. "The judge isn't in your life. He doesn't necessarily have the best solution for the family," Fischer says. "The best solution is two people sitting down and figuring it out." Working through issues in a more relaxed environment and writing up a settlement agreement might cost less than $5,000 — thousands cheaper than going to court.
Some couples can go to a divorce attorney with an agreement drafted and simply get divorced, but for some folks there will be issues too thorny to do on their own, "That's when you have to choose your battles wisely," Fischer says. "For example, some people want full legal custody, but when I explain to them that the law favors joint custody and they're fighting an uphill battle, they may decide that joint custody isn't so bad."
In high-conflict situations, especially those involving domestic violence, courts can order parents to communicate long-distance. The free TalkingParents.com is one such service — it works without parents needing to know each other's telephone numbers, email addresses, or other contact information, and ensures no one side can ever claim the other person didn't get a particular message, or change or delete a message. The service has a $5 monthly premium option that is ad-free and makes access to records free.
Mediation doesn't always work, because a mediator lacks authority to make one party reveal assets to another; an attorney can go to a judge and file for a ruling that requires a spouse to reveal assets. A mediation process can cost money that may be better served by hiring an attorney.
Couples that are separated but need to coordinate complicated family issues also have options. Our Family Wizard enables communication, organization, and conflict resolution about parenting matters through video tutorials, a calendar, message board, a log to manage shared expenses, and a journal. It has a la carte pricing and add-ons, but annual subscriptions start at $99; two-year packages with additional features can run up to $210.
"Some people continue with a divorce even though they may still be in love with the person because they want to have some type of contact. Negative contact to some people is as good as positive contact," says Fischer. This is why therapy is crucial at the beginning stages of divorce — something California counselor Thomas Carouso believes is helpful to "get out of the drama" that comes from both people involved feeling like a victim. "Remember that you are a family, and you're not at war," Carouso says.
Children are the victims of a divorce, and parents should consider what is best for them during the process. "Unfortunately, parents don't follow that situation all the time, and children end up being the loser," says Robert B. Axel, a retired judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court who estimates he has presided over 300,000 cases. "Parents are angry with each other, and they don't realize how much damage they are doing to their children."
Make time to reassure children throughout a divorce process that "they have your unconditional love," Newman says. "If your child is secure and confident in the understanding they are loved by you, and know that no matter what they do that your love is unwavering, then they will be able to get through your divorce."
Children are perceptive and don't need too much in the way of details about a divorce, because they will pick up on what's going on, says Steve Petrus, whose Petrus Psychology specializes in kids' problems at home and school. "When parents try to hide what is going on, it can make the child feel kind of frustrated, irate and crazy. They're seeing one behavior but hearing something else," Petrus says. "Communication and authenticity is very important."
When it comes to the children, Newman says, "parents should sacrifice their personal feelings of wanting to tell their kids everything in an effort just to get them to don a 'Team Mom' or 'Team Dad' T-shirt." Keep their interests at heart; take the high road.
Children are only children, not your ally, equal, adviser, or confidant. "No matter how old your child is, this is not the person you should be confiding in, complaining to, or offering insight into your divorce proceedings," Newman says. A child shouldn't know the name of the parent's lawyer or the judge, and should never be privy to child support details.
Don't put children in the position of deciding between parents for a holiday. "That is a terrible idea. For one thing, giving children such power allows them to be manipulative. They can imply, or say, that if their demands are not met they will spend the holidays with the other parent," Newman wrote for the New York Daily News. "It can also cause great anxiety in children. In essence, you are asking them who they would rather be with. Parents need to be the parents and decide who the children will spend the holidays with."
Sometimes parents have to move, either for work or military commitments or other reasons, and it's hard on everyone — including when children have to travel to another state, and especially if they're unaccompanied minors. Use programs such as Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts, to keep in touch between visits.
Parents may think they are making the best choices for children, but anger might sabotage those good intentions. "Definitely go to co-parenting classes and to joint therapy, [including] with the children," Fischer says. An alternative: Putting Kids First is a co-parenting class that can be attended online for $60 or through the mail for $70.
Something else that add stress to a divorce: When one household becomes two, expenses double, shrinking the money that might be saved for a child's eventual college expenses. The direct costs of a divorce can take a toll too. "College sometimes has to take a backseat to the family's expenses," Nicole Sodoma, a family law attorney, told CNBC. Families should explore setting up a 529 plan, where money accumulates tax-free and stays that way if it's withdrawn for valid education expenses. Another option is to create a trust for education, where the money can't be taken out otherwise. "You can make contributions every year so you can build a solid future for the children," Fischer says.
Even aside from education, trust planning is a great way to provide asset protection and stay in control of assets you wish to provide for the children. The spouse creating the trust chooses a trustee and how distributions are to be made; an ex-spouse has access only to assets specified by the trust.
Divorce can get ugly, and money is one type of control when one spouse is scared of leaving because they won't have enough money to support themselves. At the extreme, "taking away access to cash, destroying credit, jeopardizing employment, and hiding assets are all part of this," Newman says.
Among assets divided in a divorce, an individual retirement account can be the most contentious, especially if one spouse has contributed more into it. First, a divorce decree must order the division, then an attorney must draw up the qualified domestic relations order, or "QDRO" so as not to incur taxes or penalties. A qualified, experienced attorney should set up the QDRO; it can be complicated.
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