In every initial consultation I tell my client that a solid divorce agreement that will stand the test of time is built on four pillars. Failing to address any of them makes a very unsteady platform from which to build your new future. Those pillars are:
- Legal Pillar: Obviously, this is why you see a lawyer. There are myriad legal issues involved in ending a marriage (which is a unique legal relationship in itself). Property division, support issues, estate rights, custody, third-party issues, and marital torts are just some of the most common ones. Failing to address the legal aspects of the divorce opens the door to future legal problems.
- Financial Pillar: Divorce is usually as much financial as it is legal. There are assets and debts to be classified, valued, and divided, cash flow budgets to determine, tax consequences to manage, and debt service to apportion, among other issues. The old joke that all a divorce lawyer needs to know is how to divide by two is funny, but simplistic. Even if the ultimate goal is to divide things equally, how that is done makes a big difference. Future goals, liquidity, and risk tolerance, among other issues, matter when dividing assets and debts.
- Emotional Pillar: Frequently the biggest driver of a divorce negotiation, regardless of the process you choose, is the emotional dynamic between spouses. I tell clients that, as on an airplane, they must grab their oxygen mask first, before they can help anyone else, including their kids. Grief and hurt are the two most prominent emotions. But those primary emotions can manifest in many ways. Anger, fear, avoidance, indifference, suspicion, and resentment are just some of the emotional drivers that result from the grief and hurt inherent in the loss of divorce. The emotions that naturally come with divorce can harm the parties, the children, the extended family, social relationships, and careers, as well as the negotiation itself. Finding a way to constructively manage and process the emotional component of the divorce is not only crucial self-care, but a wise way to keep molehills from becoming mountains in the negotiation and beyond.
- Practical Pillar: It took me a while to learn this, but some issues in divorce just don’t have legal, financial, or emotional answers. No matter how thorough and thoughtful you are about the legal, financial, and emotional aspects of your divorce, something will come up that cannot be answered by those solutions. The truth is that divorcing couples, especially those that are co-parents, will have a dozen opportunities a day to drive each other crazy if they want, but in ways that don’t rise to legal significance, don’t impact finances, and can’t be resolved with emotional well-being. Maybe someone over or under communicates about the kids, maybe they are habitually 10 minutes late or early for pick-ups, or maybe they do everything they agreed to do at the very last minute or only after prodding. There is not a great answer to “How long SHOULD the lawnmower be allowed to stay in the garage before you come to move it out?” Those things can be frustrating, but there are no good legal, financial, or emotional answers for them. So, giving some thought to these things, especially the ones that are likely to come up in your divorce, can pay big dividends down the road.
Some of the pillars are more salient for some couples and families than others. But every couple needs to give some thought to each of the pillars to create their best and most durable resolution.