Divorce is not easy. There are many pitfalls and traps awaiting parties that have not educated themselves about the process. People often make bad decisions under stress, or without the guidance of an experienced lawyer. Don't be one of them. Divorce law isn't rocket science, but it isn't always intuitive. Avoid the following 10 divorce pitfalls to get a better result.
During your divorce, you should NOT:
1. Lie to your lawyer: We are here to help you. Your communication with us is privileged, meaning we can't tell others about it, except in certain child abuse scenarios. The more we know, the more we can help. We need to know everything, the embarrassing, the ugly, and the secret. If you have a drug, alcohol, or gambling problem, tell us. You have two options: (1) Disclose and likely hear from your lawyer that your secret or problem is irrelevant to the court process, or (2) Fail to disclose and have your case hurt at trial because the other lawyer knows facts you haven't told your lawyer.
2. Lie to the court: If you have a trial, the result is directly affected by your credibility. Judges are generally experts at determining who is telling the truth, and who is lying. Not only is lying to the court a crime, but your lawyer may have a duty to stop the proceeding and tell the court if he or she knows you are misrepresenting facts! If you have areas of your case that are sensitive, work with your lawyer on what you are going to say, but don't misrepresent.
3. Involve the kids in the process: If your case involves a custody or parenting time dispute, nothing will draw the wrath of the court faster than involving your kids in the dispute. Don't talk to them about the case. Don't use them as pawns in the battle against your spouse. Don't use them as your therapist, or treat them as your peers. Don't put your spouse down in front of the kids. You are not only harming your case, you are harming your children.
4. Hide or fail to produce documents: You have an absolute right to see your spouse's financial documents. Your spouse has an absolute right to see your financial documents. I have seen many cases that could have been simple turn complex and expensive when someone decides to not voluntarily produce records. The court can force you to produce records, and order that you pay your spouse's lawyer fees incurred in getting the records. Good clients and good lawyers produce documents quickly and voluntarily. I had a case where we asked for some email records from the other side. They did not produce them, and when we filed a motion to compel their production, they tried to tell the court that they had been destroyed. The stunt seriously impacted the opposing lawyer's credibility with the court.
5. Refuse to cooperate with a court appointed expert: In divorce and custody cases, experts called “custody evaluators” are routinely appointed to gather information about a family and make a recommendation regarding an appropriate parenting plan. If one is appointed in your case, cooperate. Be on time for appointments. Treat the expert with appropriate respect. Ignoring the requests of the evaluator can seriously harm your position and credibility with the court. An evaluator will likely make negative assumptions about you if you cannot comply with a court's order to cooperate.
6. Settle without analyzing your case: Divorce can be unpleasant and emotionally painful. One reaction is to try to get it over quickly. Do not give into the urge to be done with the case before you have a full understanding of the assets and what a fair distribution looks like. You don't want to be in a position where you are contemplating settlement and your spouse knows more about the assets than you. Prepare and go over a proposed distribution of assets and liabilities with your lawyer. Make sure you know the nature and extent of the assets, and get additional discovery if you don't. Do not settle prematurely, before you know what is fair.
7. Fail to try to resolve the case outside of court: Don't settle early without analysis, but also don't fail to try to settle. Good lawyers and reasonable people settle most divorce cases without a trial. Many clients benefit from mediation, either through the county courthouse or through a private mediator. Our experience has been that many very difficult settle in mediation with the guidance of a trained expert mediator. You should always consult with your lawyer during the process to make sure you are getting a fair result. Settling also means you choose the outcome rather than have a judge impose an outcome on you. Parties that settle are generally happier long term, and have less ongoing conflict. Even if the other side is unreasonable, you should still make an offer to create a record of your position.
8. Take out your stress in unhealthy ways: This is the wrong time to up the drinking or other unhealthy behavior. Expect stress from the conflict and plan for it. Take out your stress in healthy ways, like at the gym, sports, or in talking to friends or a counselor. Don't take it out on your children, or your body through unhealthy behaviors.
9. Be economically irrational in negotiations: At some point in every case it costs more to continue arguing than what is at stake. Approach your case with a business like mind. Are you really winning if you spend $1000 on lawyers to argue over a $50 lamp? Some (bad) lawyers insist on arguing about every point, without regard to cost. Every issue is a new battle front. A request to resolve one issue results in two more contested issues. In our opinion, these lawyers don't serve their clients well. Pick your battles. If it costs $1000 to argue over something you can replace at Target for $20, buy a new one, and focus on what is really important.
10. Be your own lawyer if your case is contested and your spouse is represented: Many judges dislike unrepresented parties. Even experienced divorce lawyers hire experienced divorce lawyers for an objective opinion. Many unrepresented people who think they have a great case find out otherwise after a judge rules against them because they can't tell the judge everything they want to because of the rules of evidence. If you disagree over property or custody, and your spouse has a lawyer, seek representation.
Source: “Top 10 List: Top 10 Things to NOT Do During Your Divorce” by C. Sean Stephens, published at The Oregon Divorce Blog. I actually saw Stephens' post in the Georgia Family Law Blog by Stephen M. Worrall and in the South Carolina Family Law Blog by J. Benjamin Stevens, two of my favorite sources.