You’ve all heard divorce horror stories. They happen to people from all walks of life.
Multimillion- and billion-dollar divorce dilemmas explode and run wild. No expense or tactic is spared.
Legally simple divorces turn into knock-down, drag-out fights. Bank accounts are foolishly drained.
Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason.
Most of the time the mistakes leading up to the horror show are obvious and avoidable.
Here are three common mistakes made in divorce and suggestions for avoiding them.
One of the most common mistakes people make when getting divorced is putting off until tomorrow what should be done today. People procrastinate in their divorces for many reasons. Some find that the process of getting divorced brings up too many negative emotions, like fear, sadness or anger. Delaying these necessary tasks allows them to avoid any unwanted feelings. Other people procrastinate because they don’t know what they want and are not ready to make any decisions. Procrastinating enables these people to avoid making decisions and for some, mistakenly allows them to believe they are absolved of responsibility for the outcomes in their cases.
Procrastinating in divorce is one of the worst mistakes a person can make for a number of reasons. First, completing the tasks necessary to get divorced is usually labor intensive and/or time sensitive. If a person delays he/she may have insufficient time to gather necessary information or uncover relevant evidence. As a result, he/she may be unable to satisfy legal requirements necessary for the court to rule in his/her favor on any number of issues in the divorce.
Second, by procrastinating, a person can ultimately limit his or her options. This is often the case when one spouse files a motion with the court and sets a hearing date, and the other spouse, who may have had several months notice, does not meet with an attorney until a few weeks or days before the scheduled hearing. Because of the impending hearing date and deadlines that may have already passed, many good attorneys will not take his or her case. If the responding spouse is unable to find an attorney before the hearing, he or she may miss deadlines, be unprepared for the hearing, and suffer losses.
Lastly, procrastination can lead to complications like assets disappearing, debts being incurred, and property values depreciating, which happened in Pamela’s* divorce.
Pamela and John* negotiated a settlement agreement in 2006, but never signed the documents necessary to make it a legally binding Judgment. Five years later, after the 2008 economic crisis, John refused to pay Pamela the $200,000 buy-out he had previously agreed to and claimed he didn’t owe her any money for assets he contended were “worthless” but nonetheless, intended on keeping. Pamela and John are still married, the value of their assets has depreciated and they are at an impasse in their divorce, which will likely lead to an expensive trial. If Pamela and John had signed a Marital Settlement Agreement or Stipulated Judgment at the time they reached an agreement, their divorce would be finalized and its terms, binding court orders.
So how do you avoid procrastination?
Three of the most effective ways to avoid or overcome procrastination are to: 1) hire a very diligent attorney who stays on top of you and your case, 2) enlist the support of a group of supportive people, who will encourage and hold you accountable during your divorce, and 3) develop and follow a plan designed to avoid your worst fears and achieve your desired outcomes.
One of my great mentors, a top family law trial attorney in San Francisco used to say: “Divorce isn’t a fine wine. It doesn’t get better with age.” For the most part, he was right. So avoid procrastination and take consistent action to efficiently complete your divorce.
2. Failing to Respond
Failing to respond to your lawyer, legal documents, and/or your spouse can complicate things or cause irreparable damage. Why?
Because getting divorced is a legal process that is governed by state laws and local rules. These state laws and local rules require, among other things, the submission of specific legal documents and adherence to applicable deadlines. When a person fails to comply, the consequences often are very undesirable – take Myrna’s* case for example.
Myrna’s husband filed legal papers asking a judge to terminate his spousal support obligation to Myrna just three short years after their twenty-two-year marriage ended. Myrna thought Bill’s* request was ridiculous so she ignored it. A few months later, Bill stopped paying spousal support. A panicked Myrna then learned that a judge had terminated her spousal support. Myrna was devastated, took immediate action, and hired an attorney. It cost her thousands, but fortunately, her lawyer was able to convince a judge to reinstate her spousal support.
Myrna was lucky. She got a second chance, but as you’ll see in Lydia’s* case described below, not everyone is so lucky.
So how do you avoid mistake number two? It’s quite simple, really. Do not fail to respond to matters in your divorce unless you are certain that you are not required to respond or, that failing to respond will not have any negative consequences. And, always open your mail.
How will you know whether or not you need to respond? Many legal pleadings will state that action is required within a specific period of time but if they do not, you’ll need to do your homework by researching applicable laws and rules or consulting with a divorce attorney licensed to practice in your state.
3. Caving in to Pressure
The third most common and biggest mistake people make in their divorces is caving into pressure. This isn’t unusual because most trial attorneys are trained to exaggerate risks, which in turn leads a woman to choose a path that she perceives to be safer. And of course, it can be difficult to withstand bullying from a domineering spouse when freedom is just a few steps away.
It is common for people to feel two types of pressure in divorce. The first is internal pressure or a pressure that is fueled by fear, anxiety, impatience, anger or any number of other uncomfortable emotions. The second is external pressure that is exerted by a spouse, lawyer, mediator, judge, settlement judge, mother, father, sibling, friend, child, therapist, and/or anyone else in their inner or outer circles of influence.
Sometimes, in cases like Lydia’s, a person can find herself under both internal and external pressure.
After years of trying to finalize her divorce from an overbearing husband, Lydia decided to “take” his settlement offer even though she didn’t feel comfortable with the level of risk it involved. Months later, Lydia was unemployed and saddled by a house she couldn’t afford or sell. In desperation, Lydia approached her ex-husband asking him to renegotiate their settlement agreement – he refused. Lydia then asked a judge to overturn the settlement agreement and he too refused. Sadly, Lydia was stuck with the deal she had apprehensively accepted.
In Lydia’s case, she was feeling an inordinate amount of external pressure from her husband, who wanted her to take the offer he was making. She was also experiencing an unacceptably high level of anxiety as her husband threatened to leave her penniless if she didn’t take the deal. Consequently, Lydia went against her instinct and caved into the pressures, which placed her in a financial situation that she would not have otherwise chosen.
Unfortunately, situations like Lydia’s are very common in divorce, especially when a disparity of power exists (i.e. one spouse is and always has been the primary breadwinner, leaving the other spouse financially vulnerable) or litigation is involved. In instances where spouses can’t mutually agree to the terms of their divorce, whether on their own or with the help of a mediator or collaborative lawyers, they usually turn the decision making power over to a judge (“litigation”). When a case is entrusted to a judge, the parties lose the ability to determine the outcome of their divorce, which leaves them waiting, wondering, and trying to persuade a judge to see things a certain way. This lack of control in a backlogged, overworked judicial system with unpredictable judges can cause even the toughest women to cave in to the pressures.
So what can you do to avoid the ever-real pressure you are or may be facing in divorce?
First, prepare yourself. Simply knowing what to expect and being able to recognize internal and external pressures as they arise will enable you to better cope. Second, with respect to external pressures, consider limiting discussions about your divorce to a very small, trusted, and objective group of people, perhaps your lawyer, therapist, and closest friend. Third, keep the strategic and confidential discussions about your case completely private – sharing them only with your lawyer. Fourth, do not ask random friends, family, and strangers what they would do in your situation or for their advice. Every divorce is different and well- intentioned people may cause you to feel greater pressure to do things differently. Fifth, as much as possible, avoid confrontations with your spouse and, if he is overbearing, abusive or disrespectful of your boundaries, consider communicating through your lawyers. Sixth, if the internal pressure is putting your health at risk, speak to your doctor about possible treatments. Finally, use meditation and a grounding practice to help calm your nerves, slow your mind, and stay centered in difficult situations.
If after reading this article you feel petrified because you have already made one or more mistakes in your divorce, rest assured that you are not alone and if the mistake cannot be corrected and you are already feeling the consequences of your actions or inaction, forgive and love yourself in spite of it. You are only human and did the best you could given your circumstances and limitations.
If you haven’t made any of the mistakes listed above, but you’re now terrified that you will, develop and practice a grounding technique, like mindfulness meditation then calmly take positive proactive steps to do the things that must be done in order for you to avoid mistakes in your divorce.
Divorce, like any other important life transition, takes time, attention, and discipline. Do your best and use all of the practical and inspirational tools available to make it as easy as possible.
There are no guarantees avoiding these mistakes will save time, money, or tears.
But avoiding mistakes people make in divorce could make your divorce process easier.