by Virginia L. Colin
There are many ways to get unmarried.
Using almost any approach, you need to educate yourself about your state’s relevant laws and about your family’s finances. You may want to talk with a lawyer and/or a divorce financial analyst. That way you will know your rights and your responsibilities and, if you have a good lawyer, you will know what range of outcomes it is reasonable to expect. You can have a short consultation with a lawyer without having to retain the lawyer to represent you.
Here is the simplest way to plan a divorce: You and your spouse can sit down at the kitchen table, discuss all that needs to be discussed, and decide what to do. This is the least expensive and least distressing way to divorce. When you know what you want, you get some help from a lawyer or mediator to write the terms down in a form the Court will readily accept. You both sign the document and then prepare the other forms your local Court requires. That last step is largely a secretarial task, albeit a time-consuming one. In many jurisdictions you can get a Pro Se Divorce package from the Court that tells you how to do it. Or you can pay someone to do it for you.
If you can’t sit down at the kitchen table without getting into a fight with each other, try meeting in a coffee shop. In public, most people behave civilly.
It the two of you cannot easily agree on terms on your own, you can work with a family mediator. Professional family mediators are trained to help people participate constructively in difficult conversations and make voluntary, well-informed decisions about what comes next for their families. Family mediation is often relatively quick and inexpensive, and it is confidential.
If you and your spouse are unable to resolve things in mediation, you can request a neutral case evaluation. You find a retired or part-time judge, both present your arguments to her, and ask her to tell you how she would rule if you were in Court with her. What she tells you about what she would decide will be good information to help you and your spouse come to agreement on a plan, but her views will not be binding.
If you want the neutral third party’s decision to be binding — to entirely settle one or more questions in your divorce — then you choose an arbitrator. Both of you tell your stories to him, and he tells you what you must do. An arbitrator issues a decision just as a judge does, and you have agreed in advance to be bound by that decision even though it does not come to you in a Court Order. Arbitration is faster and less expensive than litigation, so you save time and money. A Court may readily incorporate an arbitrator’s decision into a Court Order if you ask for that.
If your dispute is about parenting schedules or other aspects of raising your children, you may want to get input from a family therapist or a children’s therapist. A therapist can talk with your children and learn things they are not comfortable saying to either of their parents. Then he or she can advise you about what is likely to work best for your kids.
In a collaborative law divorce, a team of professionals is available to the divorcing couple, and all involved agree in advance that the goal is to work out a fair settlement, not to threaten each other with litigation. This approach is more expensive than mediation but is suitable for people who want to have attorneys present during every step as they discuss how they might settle their divorce.
Another option — perhaps the one most widely known, despite the fact that early mediation is preferable in most cases — is hiring lawyers to handle negotiations. If your spouse is dangerous or crazy or if you are unable to stand up for yourself when talking with him or her, this may be the best approach for you. You and your spouse hire lawyers and tell them what you want. The lawyers gather information and evidence and discuss settlement proposals. Ultimately you should have the final say about whether a proposal its acceptable. Sometimes, unfortunately, clients feel as if they have no control of the divorce process once lawyers get involved. Nevertheless most cases managed by lawyers do get settled prior to trial. In many jurisdictions only about 5% of cases actually go to trial.
If the other approaches fail or if one party wants the divorce process to be long, expensive, and nasty, then you are headed for litigation. Most people think this is the worst way to get divorced. It is dreadfully expensive, horribly distressing, and painfully slow, with multiple hearings spread over a period that can last for years.
Kitchen table, coffee shop, mediation, neutral case evaluation, arbitration, counseling, collaborative law, having attorneys handle negotiations, going to trial — There are many ways to divorce. Often people use a mixture of approaches. For example they may settle some questions on their own, settle others in mediation, and have one tough one left for lawyers to manage.
It’s your divorce. Choose wisely.
Formerly a research psychologist, Virginia L. Colin, Ph.D. has been providing family mediation services since 1999. She has written two books: Human Attachment (1996) and, with Rebecca Martin, The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia (2014). She is also an Internet talk radio show host on Family Matters. She is the Director of Colin Family Mediation Group LLC in northern Virginia, where she specializes in helping couples and ex-couples develop good co-parenting plans and financial agreements.