Whenever I’ve gone through something new, it seems like I inevitably have this moment, at the end, when I think, “I would have done _____ differently if I had just known ______.” Of course, it’s impossible to know everything you would have liked to have known but, if you’re anything like me, you always try to be as informed as humanly possible. (Even though I STILL almost always feel like there is something big that I wish I knew beforehand!) I do a lot of research when I’m up against the unknown, and (nerd alert) I’ve been known to make spreadsheets listing my options and the various advantages and disadvantages each option provides so that I can make as informed a choice as possible.
For you, divorce is that new, uncharted territory, and you’re wondering about the types of decisions you’ll have to make in the coming weeks, months, and years. You want to be sure you’re making good, solid, informed choices that won’t hurt you later on down the road. Of course, you’re also probably feeling pretty emotional (as most of us tend to feel when we’re stressed and dealing with something big and potentially life altering), and that makes rational decision making even more difficult.
No matter what I tell you today, you’ll probably still find something that you wish you knew beforehand. After all, every divorce is different. Different challenges are faced, and different combinations of situations are addressed. Obviously, unless you’ve met with me or talked to me at a seminar or Girl’s Night Out event, I don’t know exactly what your unique situation is. The best way to get advice for your specific situation is always to talk to an attorney one-on-one. Still, I’ve talked to a lot of women who have been through a lot of divorces, and I think I can give you a pretty good idea of some of the most common things that they’ve said they’d change if they could do it all over again. Here’s a list of the 6 most common things clients tell us that they wish they knew at the beginning of their divorces.
1. I wish I knew more beforehand about the legal process.
You have to make a LOT of decisions at the beginning of your case, and it helps to know a little bit about the process beforehand. Women who go into divorce with no idea of the scope of the process or any idea where they’d like to end up tend to do things with less efficiency, and often make decisions based on emotional reactions to the situation. While that’s understandable, it’s not necessarily the most beneficial way to go about things.
If you don’t understand, ask. Before you start to plan things out in your head, make sure you understand everything that’s happening. Know the basics of the process, and know the choices that you have. Contested or uncontested? Fault or no fault? These things have a significant bearing on your case, and you should have an answer. Just because there are fault based grounds doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move forward using them as the basis for your divorce. Talk to an attorney. Figure out a good plan of action.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Your goal should be twofold: (1) to get divorced as quickly and painlessly as possible, and (2) to spend as little as possible getting divorced so that you have enough left over to give yourself the fresh start you deserve.
Not sure where to start? We’ve got seminars on both the divorce and custody process in Virginia, and, if you’re not local, you can order a copy of our pre-recorded divorce seminar that you can either watch on DVD or listen to on an audio CD.
2. I wish I knew it’s not just about “the principle.”
A lot of people get caught up on the principle. It’s not unique to family law cases, but it is something we see all the time in divorce and custody cases. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I don’t really care about ____, it’s just the principle.”
Whenever I hear something like that, all I see are dollar signs. It costs money to fight about anything in a divorce case, especially if you’re talking about going to court over a particular issue. No matter what a horse’s behind your husband is being, it’s best not to get so caught up in it that you pursue something for the sake of the principle at stake. It will cost you money, raise your blood pressure, and, in most cases, do little to alleviate the actual problems you’re experiencing.
Sometimes, when people say it’s just the principle, it really is just the principle. In most cases, it’s okay to let those things go. Not only will it lower your blood pressure, but it will also demonstrate to your husband that you’re committed to fair dealing in the divorce—and you may find that he’s softened by your choices in the long run, too.
Sometimes, though, when people say it’s just the principle, it really isn’t. It’s something that, for some reason or another, truly is important to them. Maybe they’re embarrassed to admit it, or they’re lashing out because of some other deep rooted insecurity, but the reason they feel like the point is so important to them is because of some totally legitimate reason. You may want to figure out whether you’re reacting strongly to something because of the “principle,” or whether it’s truly important to you. Talk to your attorney or even with a therapist and try to understand the root of the issue, and whether it’s worth pursung. It’ll definitely help your financial bottom line over the course of your divorce.
3. I wish I knew I couldn’t “un-sign” an agreement later.
Just because signing an agreement is an easy thing to do doesn’t mean that it’s easy (or even possible!) to un-sign one later. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen who signed an agreement, usually without an attorney, thinking that it was temporary, that they could add or delete terms later, or that they could just “take it back” if it turned out not to be in their best interests later.
I can understand why they would think that. It’s so easy to sign an agreement. So easy, too, to be pressured into agreeing to something that you don’t really mean, or wanting to just agree to avoid the fight that would surely take place if you didn’t.
It doesn’t matter what you thought, though. If you’ve signed an agreement, even if you’ve been tricked or misled or threatened, it’s unlikely that your agreement will be overturned by the court. Agreements are almost never overturned once they’ve been signed. You’re welcome to talk to an attorney to discuss your individual case, but you should know ahead of time that you probably won’t be allowed to back out of it.
The court assumes that, as an adult, you understand what you’re doing when you sign a legal contract. If the court went around overturning all the contracts that suddenly didn’t benefit one side, or that one person claimed they didn’t understand or were forced to sign, no one would be secure relying on the agreements they negotiated. No one would be comfortable performing their obligations under their contract, and they would constantly be wondering whether the other party to the contract would be able to weasel out of their obligations. So, out of necessity, the court enforces contracts. It gives people a sense of stability and reliability, and it encourages them to settle their disputes themselves, rather than forcing the court to do it for them. It may not be fair as applied to one specific case, but the law is designed to help protect people who enter into contracts. Once signed, they’re difficult (in fact, pretty darn close to impossible) to un-sign later. You should definitely know that ahead of time.
4. I wish I knew that all attorneys aren’t the same.
Attorneys get a bad rap. I’m not entirely sure why. But there’s no question that, as a group, we aren’t generally beloved. Maybe I’m biased, but I believe that (most) attorneys do a lot of good in the world, helping people do things that they couldn’t accomplish on their own.
Still, like any other group of people, not all attorneys are good attorneys. I don’t mean that they’re bad people necessarily, but there are some that are more skillful than others. There are some that confuse belligerency with effectiveness and litigiousness with efficiency.
It’s important to hire the right attorney for you. The attorney who listens to you, makes you feel important, answers your questions completely, and proscribes a course of action with which you feel comfortable. Hire an attorney that is helpful, kind, and effective. Many attorneys describe themselves as “bull dogs,” but is that really what you need? It seems to me like bull dogs aren’t particularly discriminating; they apply force rather than using their brains to figure out what might, in certain cases, be a better, softer, more effective approach.
There are lots of things you need to know about hiring an attorney, and how to tell whether a particular attorney might be a good fit for you. There’s so much you need to know, in fact, that I wrote a whole book on it. If you’re wondering about how to decide whom to hire, you should give it a read. (LINK) It’s free, and we’ll send it to you right away.
5. I wish I knew not to be so afraid about losing custody.
Men are all the same. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. When men and women make the decision to divorce, men tell tall tales. They say, “You won’t get anything. I talked to my lawyer.” And, “I’m leaving, and I’m taking everything.” And, probably most commonly, they say the thing most carefully calculated to strike fear and panic into their wives hearts, “I’m going to take the kids.”
It’s not true. Judges don’t just take kids away from good mothers because dads threaten it. Most of the time, we really only see judges take kids away from parents when there has been physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
It may be that you have a custody battle on your hands, all the same. But the real question isn’t whether you’ll lose custody, it’s to what degree you’ll share custody.
In most cases, moms get primary physical custody by agreement of the parties, because mom and dad agree that’s for the best. In a smaller number of cases, moms and dads agree to share custody, or to give dad primary physical custody. In cases where custody is litigated, though, it’s usually a question of shared custody—how much time will each parent get?
Though you may not think shared custody is the most ideal situation, either, it’s a far cry from losing custody entirely. Keep perspective, and don’t let him get to you. You’ll waste time (and blood pressure points) worrying about things he’s saying just for upsetting you. Don’t let him upset you. Stay calm, and make good, solid, rational decisions about your case without fear of “losing” custody.
6. I wish I knew that this will pass.
I know, I know. It all feels really crappy right now. It IS really crappy, and there’s not a way around that. You have to go through the process to come out on the other side. I can’t tell you how many women I’ve heard make sweeping declarations—“I’ll never love another man,” or “I’ll never trust again,” and “I’ll never get back on my feet financially”—about their future lives, only to be (happily) completely wrong.
It may seem like an uphill battle to you right now. It may seem like there’s no likelihood that things will turn out for the best in the long run. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you that I’ve seen hundreds (maybe thousands) of women just like you. It’s not okay in the beginning. But, by the end, it is. I don’t know how it happens, but it does. These women adapt, grow, change and thrive.
And you will, too.
It’s difficult, but you’ll make it through your divorce. Armed with information, you’ll go into the divorce process with more information than most women, and that can go a long way towards helping you make the decisions you need to make over the coming days, weeks, and months. For more information, to request a copy of our free book on what you need to know before hiring an attorney, or to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.