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Source: Family Advocate, Vol. 37, No.3

Good negotiators, like good lawyers, are prepared. They know where they are going and how to get there. As any successful lawyer will tell you, superior preparation can often spell the difference between winning and losing the case, especially in hard-fought, complicated cases.

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The familiar phrase “ugly divorce” usually refers to those that have gone to divorce court because they could not or would not agree on specific items (or anything!). There are some situations in which divorce court is the only option, but it should be avoided if possible. Afterall, a judge will be making decisions about your life, financial situation and how you spend time with your children.  Court should be a last resort, because of the serious negative aspects of this particular means of settling marital dissolution.

  1. Divorce Court creates a very combative atmosphere. Before going to court, lawyers may try to work together to find an equitable settlement, but in court, their job is to “win” for their clients. Tactics may be more aggressive because the lawyers need to place a very strong argument before the judge, and may include the “airing of dirty laundry.” The public disclosure of private family matters is something you might prefer to keep private.
  2. Divorce Court creates intense stress and hurt feelings, further damaging the relationship of the spouses, which inevitably hurts any children involved. All this pain decreases the future possibility of cooperation between the spouses, which also hurts children.
  3. Divorce Court can be long and drawn out. The judge is a very busy person and your court dates need to be fit into his or her schedule. Long periods of lull followed by intense and stressful court proceedings will be the norm.
  4. Divorce Court is expensive. Besides court fees, going to court takes more time and more work for the attorney than other methods.
  5. Divorce Court is risky! You may think you will get “justice” but unfortunately, that may be less likely in court than in one of the alternative methods. This is because judges do not always agree with your version of fair.  Certainly they try to be fair and impartial but, they don’t know you, your spouse, or your children. They don’t have time to hear every stitch of evidence. You don’t get an opportunity to talk to the judge directly; you’re dependent upon your lawyer. Then this judge, who doesn’t know you, hasn’t talked to you, hasn’t walked with you through this process, only knows what the lawyers have said about you and what evidence has been presented about you, will make a binding decision on everything that matters the most to you: your children, your assets, your very future. This is incredible power in the hands of one person.

Generally, unless one spouse is particularly combative, has a history of abusive behavior or substance abuse, or is suspected of hiding significant assets, divorce court is not the best option and should be avoided.

Mediation or collaborative divorce processes are methods that are less stressful and often less expensive. A litigated divorce, which essentially means a lawsuit, is often necessary, since in 80% of cases only one party desires the divorce. Nonetheless, litigated divorces don’t need to go to court, and every effort should be made to prevent that step.

As a wedding day approaches, most couples are consumed with thoughts of dresses, flowers, music, food, fun, and love. The last thing anyone wants to think about, much less talk about, is how assets will be divided in the event of divorce! However, this is a conversation that many couples need to have. Marriage is full of tricky discussions – it’s ok to start practicing that skill now.

There are many benefits to talking about a prenup. One of those is that the discussion will force you to look at your financial situation and examine both of your attitudes about money. Frankly, a deep discussion about finances should be a prerequisite to marriage, as money is a huge source of friction and discord in many relationships.

Beyond the benefits of discussing financial matters, there are several situations in which having a prenup in place is a good idea, such as:


  • If there is a large financial disparity between the two parties
  • If you own all or part of a business
  • If one of you has a large amount of debt
  • If you are remarrying, especially if there are children involved.

Regardless of your reasons, discussing a prenup can be difficult. Sometimes both parties heartily agree to a prenup. In other cases, one person has to convince the other. Here are a few tips for approaching the subject of a prenup:

Pick the Right Time

Don’t bring up a prenup in the heat of the moment or in the middle of an argument. Likewise, don’t introduce the topic in the middle of a romantic dinner to commemorate the anniversary of the day you met. Pick a quiet, neutral time to bring up the topic – when you are both well-rested and calm.

Consider a Mediator

You could suggest a meeting with a mediator who can help you discuss the advantages of a prenup impartially and without emotion. If you decide to move forward and draft a prenup, the mediator can also help you by asking all of the important questions, gathering information, and offering sound, logical advice. Again, a mediator can remove the emotion from a tender subject.

 

Be Honest

Be truthful and straightforward about why a prenup is important to you. Be very open about your financial situation – the good, the bad, and the uncertainties.

Listen

If your partner is opposed to the idea of a prenup, listen to their concerns. Don’t jump right in with arguments.

While you certainly do not expect your marriage to end in divorce, a prenup can allow you to open important lines of communication, have an honest dialogue about financial matters, and ultimately allow you to retain more control of your financial situation, rather than giving that control over to the court system. Approaching the topic is not easy. Remember that a trained attorney can help.

Parties often ask what is the best way to proceed when initially contemplating separation and/or divorce. Generally speaking, parties are encouraged to try to reach an agreement to resolve whatever issues have arisen in any legal matter. In family law, agreements are especially encouraged due to the personal nature of the issues at hand along with the belief that it is better for the parties to draft their own agreement rather than allow a stranger to dictate their family dynamics going forward. Additionally, litigation or time spent in court is often the most expensive aspect of a divorce matter.

Both mediators and divorce attorneys can help you negotiate or draft a settlement agreement. The key difference is a mediator is an impartial third party where as an attorney is representing one party’s interest. This is not to say a divorce cannot be resolved with only one attorney; simply that the attorney cannot give advice to both parties since it would be a conflict of interest. Instead, the attorney should make it clear to the unrepresented party their role in the process and the limitations on communication between the attorney and the unrepresented party. Further, it is possible for both parties to have independent counsel and still reach a settlement agreement. If mediation is successful, an attorney may still be needed to file and process the divorce matter.

Click here to read more about options for mediation.

Mediation is a neutral and voluntary process wherein two or more parties that have a dispute meet with a mediator who facilitates the meeting in an attempt to come to an agreement and keep the matter out of court.  A mediator does not have to be an attorney. Oftentimes, counselors receive training in mediation as well.  It is important to keep in mind that if an attorney is a mediator, they cannot give you legal advice since they are a neutral party.  For this reason, some people also keep an attorney for legal advice while going through mediation.  The benefit of mediation is that it often can resolve issues or at least narrows down the issues in dispute.  This is helpful in the legal setting so that only money is spent litigating a very focused issue, if needed.  If an agreement is reached in mediation, it can be drafted and signed by the mediator or it can then be taken to an attorney to review.  Agreements that are reached in mediation not only help keep costs down, but they also help to keep the relationship more amicable since both parties have had input in coming to the agreement.  

In Pennsylvania, pets are considered personal property in a divorce. Like any personal property, if they were a pet prior to marriage, they go to the party who owned the dog at the time of the marriage. If they were purchased during the marriage, then like any other personal property, either party is entitled to keep the pet. If the parties cannot agree, they can either go to arbitration or they can decide that neither party gets to keep the pet. It is unrealistic to expect that the Court will entertain a custody schedule for a pet in a divorce. In addition, the custody statutes only apply to children. If you want to share custody of the pet, it is something that is best resolved through mediation. Through mediation, the parties can decide what things they want to address to agree on and this can include an agreement to share a pet. If you opt for this, be sure to not only include the schedule for you put, but also who will pay the expenses or how they will be shared, including vet bills, food, regular shots, etc.

When getting divorced, there are several different approaches that a couple can choose. Some people opt for mediation to try to resolve their disputes and save them money. Others, take the traditional approach and opt for attorneys to handle everything. There is another approach that is less known but can be quite effective – collaborative law. Collaborative law, unlike mediation, involves two attorneys similar to the traditional approach. What makes collaborative law different, however, is that both spouses agree from day one that they want to settle everything out of court. They formalize this agreement in writing with their attorneys wherein they agree that they will make any and all efforts to resolve their issues involving divorce, custody, and support out of court. While they always reserve the option to go to court if they cannot reach an agreement, there is a hefty price to pay – loss of representation by both side’s attorneys. Even if one party is still willing to work it out of court, both spouse’s and their attorneys agree that if one of the parties decides to litigate, both attorneys will withdraw from the case and both parties will have to start over with new attorneys.

This option is a great option for parties who are both committed to settling their differences out of court but want the benefit of having legal advice that mediation does not provide. When hiring an attorney, you should ask if they are willing to handle collaborative law cases if this is an option that appeals to both you and your spouse.