by Zonder Family Law Group
In this series thus far, we’ve talked about a number of terrible if sometimes well-intentioned approaches to divorce that can easily end up biting you in the you-know-where: trying to do everything without lawyers; doing the opposite and going straight to a “sic the lawyers” war footing; inappropriately involving the children to get them on your “side”; trying to play fast and loose with financial disclosures; and “getting it over with” before you’re truly ready to do so.
Hopefully, you’ve avoided all those mistakes and the divorce process has passed the initial stages where one spouse files a Petition, the other files a Response, and both parties have served their Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure, which includes the Income and Expense Declaration and Schedule of Debts and Assets. At this point, you’ve reached the “second act” of your divorce – the third act being some kind of finalization of the divorce, ideally through a voluntary settlement agreement between the parties contained in a Stipulated Judgment which will be signed off by the Judge.
In this second act, your job and that of the other party is to figure out how to come to an agreement on any and all remaining issues in your divorce, including property, spousal support, child custody, and child support. If both parties are honest about the facts, clear-eyed on the law, and willing to work together to create a fair agreement, this second act can just be a relatively straightforward matter of hammering out a written agreement over a few weeks or even days. If not, this part of the process can drag on for months and even years with numerous court appearances, skyrocketing costs, and ever-increasing blood pressure levels.
Certainly, you can’t control what the other person does (you probably learned that at some point on the road to divorce), but you can control what you do at this point to move the process along and save your resources and your sanity. Too often, however, parties wanting to get the divorce over resolved nevertheless fail to properly formulate a plan for doing so. And as the man on the $100 bill said, if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
Your attorney is of course tasked with carrying out the legal steps necessary to resolve your divorce, but they can only carry out the plan that you authorize. Here are the big questions you need to think through in formulating your plan for finalization.
What Is It You Really (Reasonably) Want Out of the Divorce?
Sometimes when you have been engaged for a long time in what feels like a competitive game where “winning” (or at least not “losing”) is the only pursuit, it can be easy to forget what exactly it is you are trying to “win.” Whatever your goals for the divorce were at the beginning of the process, you need to stop at this point and figure out what are the issues that still need to be worked out to finalize your divorce, what outcomes you want on those particular issues, and whether it reasonable to go after those outcomes or whether it makes sense to readjust them.
In many cases, people feel hurt and betrayed by their spouses and enter into the legal process hoping to work those issues out. While you can get fair results on the legal issues, you can’t get emotional justice for the hurts of your marriage in a divorce proceeding, and you need to disentangle the two at this point.
You also need to get specific at this point on what you want. Rather than just say “I want spousal support” and “I want him to treat me fairly for all that I’ve gone through,” you need to instead work on creating a specific monthly amount, duration, and other conditions for support. The same with property division and child-related issues. Rather than complain that the other parent isn’t as good a parent as you, work to create a schedule and custody arrangement that reflects your respective strengths and best serves the children’s interest.
Are You Able to Get Those Things from Your Divorce?
As you are developing the specific goals you want in the finalization of the divorce (keeping in mind you will likely have to negotiate on them), you need to be in a clear and continuing conversation with your attorney and any other divorce professionals about whether you are reasonably able to get those outcomes.
Remember, your divorce terms will be decided by either you and the other party, or a judge. The other party is likely not going to agree to things that are patently unfair, and a judge is going to apply the law to your situation. So while you think a perfect custody schedule would be for the kids to spend every other Thursday evening and the occasional holiday with the other parent, unless there are incredibly persuasive facts to support such an arrangement, a judge will never award that and the other parent will not agree to it, so you need to adjust that goal and revise your plan accordingly.
How Will You Be Able to Get Those Things from Your Divorce? (and How Much Will That Cost?)
Similarly, even where it is reasonable to believe that a court will rule in your favor on a particular issue where the other party refuses to budge, you have to think through the how of what it would take to get that outcome. And at the same time, think through the costs, both financially and emotionally for you and your family.
Take, for example, a situation where the other spouse runs a sports therapy business and you believe there is a certain value of the business above and beyond the physical assets and money currently in the business. Such “goodwill” value can be community property subject to 50/50 division. If you think the goodwill value is $10,000 and your spouse thinks it’s $5,000, then you are talking about the difference between you getting $5,000 and $2,500 in community property. In other words, a difference of $2,500. Then think about what it could cost to hire an expert to provide evidence on what the actual value is, then bring that person to court at trial, all while paying your attorney to prepare for and attend this trial. Unlikely it’s worth the $2500 differential.
You want to take this clear-eyed approach to everything left to be resolved in your divorce. Similarly, with custody, is it worth the financial and emotional cost to go to court to have a trial on whether your custody time share is from Thursday to Monday morning rather than Thursday to Sunday night? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. But you need to do the work of creating a plan that makes sense to you in light of the costs.
Throughout this, you also want to work with your attorney to explore alternative dispute resolution approaches when it appears that negotiation is not getting the job done. You may find that mediation or working with a private judge make more sense as part of your plan to achieve resolution while minimizing collateral costs.
Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Divorce Attorney
If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.