I have practiced family law for… ummm, a number of years. Suffice it to say that I have a big anniversary graduation from law school this year. While homeschooling I have had to scale my practice back, back, and back some more. What I have ended up doing has been teaching people to navigate the legal system themselves. I have come to realize this is a crucial skill for someone who has been through a divorce and has small children with their former spouse. You will likely not be rid of family court legal issues until your last child is an independent adult. You might as well save yourself a lot of money and figure out out the basics of family court now.
Even after a divorce is final there will be passport and travel issues, relocation, medical and educational disputes, child support adjustments, time sharing changes, and confusion over the wording of your Agreement or Final Judgment. If you have to pay a lawyer every time something comes up, you had better take a second job. There is typically no reason to put your lawyer’s kids through college when you can handle many matters pro se (legal talk for representing yourself in court).
The worst mistake you can make is getting legal and divorce advice from your friends. If you are considering getting a divorce, please go talk to the wisest, most happily married couple you know first. Your spouse may be treating you in ways that you do not deserve, but I see more couples that can work through it than I do ones that can’t. They take what they think will be the easier road, and get out of the marriage. They are always surprised to find it was not easy after all. It is endless entanglement to have a child together, married or not.
If you think there is a tiny possibility that you can work it out, explore that possibility. We all go through stuff. You picked this person for a reason. You will probably end up picking someone else just like them (please don’t argue with me, I have seen it SO many times). If you have children, you will never be rid of the other parent. Think about it: high school graduation, college, weddings, grandkids, holidays. Whether you divorce or not, you will have to learn how to cooperate with your spouse.
What always seems to surprise clients is that their incomes do not change and their expenses go up upon divorce. Same incomes, now running two households equals less money to spend. Please consider this and have a plan before you divorce. If you really plan to leave, you had better lower your expectations, tighten your belt, and start a realistic budget. The judge is not going to order your spouse to pay all of your legal fees, your rent, your electric, and your Starbucks bills. There isn’t that much money to go around. Something has to give.
Ponder the family issues and the money issues long and hard before you decide to cheat. By the way, most of this advice does not apply to those who are married to abusers. If you are being abused, get out of there and get help immediately. And it might not apply to those married to multi-millionaires for several decades. That person should hire a good lawyer. I am talking to you, average person who is unhappy, bored, disillusioned, or angry. I gave you the really bad news. Now here is some better news.
This part is specific to residents of the sunny state of Florida for over 6 months. If divorce is unavoidable in your case, you will want to become familiar with a set of documents on Florida Court’s website titled “Family Law Forms”. This very helpful website for navigating lots of different family court issues. Their set of free downloadable, printable forms has detailed instructions for where and when to file each document with your county clerk of court, copies that must be made to the opposing party, and which documents should accompany your filing.
If you are contemplating divorce, sit down with your spouse and start sketching out an agreement. Even if you can only agree on how to divide the furniture or what nights the kids will spend where, put whatever you can come up with in writing and both of you sign it. Here is why: the judge will inevitably send both parties to mediation (a formal sit down with a professional mediator whom you pay to help you come to an agreement). You will be forced to have a face to face conversation on these issues at some point anyway.
Ninety percent of cases settle outside of court. You will likely be forced to come to an agreement either because you run out of money to pay your lawyer or because, when your lawyer explains how much going to trial will cost, you decide its not worth it for the little bit that you could potentially gain from your spouse. With that in mind, start the whole process with a settlement. You may wish to start with the Marital Settlement Agreement form. This may help you think through all of the categories and ensure you haven’t missed anything important that you may have been able to agree on ahead of time. Even if you end up hiring a lawyer, you will appreciate having saved time and money on issues that were not a problem in the first place.
A paying client is a lawyer’s livelihood. Often lawyers are well meaning, but oversell what they can do for you. They will affirm that you are the victim, even if its only half true. Yes, they can likely get you more money, but you will have paid close to what you might get in bloated legal fees. And they can get you more money through long, emotionally draining, protracted litigation. Lawyers are often over confident. That is what makes them good in front of a judge. Make no mistake, when you run out of money, they will push you to settle. They are not going to work for nothing. Make sure you have enough money to finish the fight if you are going to start it.
And remember that litigation takes a long time and your lawyer has very little control over that timeline. Your attorney is also at the mercy of the assigned judge’s schedule. And while we are at it: No, you can’t choose your judge. No, it is not illegal for the judge and opposing counsel to play golf together. Yes, it is illegal for you to write a letter to the judge without sending a copy to the opposing party. No, your child cannot testify against your spouse in court (except in extreme circumstances, with the judge’s prior approval). There is no legal separation status in the state of Florida. And Florida is a “no fault divorce” state, so the judge will not assign any blame and make the other party pay accordingly.
I don’t intend to be harsh, but I would love everyone going into a divorce situation to a) make sure a divorce is really what they need, b) have a realistic understanding of what divorce will do to your finances as well as the rest of your life, and c) know that they can represent themselves if they need to. I have only touched on a few issues here. There are lots of other issues to consider. Some helpful resources are:
|I Don’t Want a Divorce: A 90 Day Guide to Saving Your Marriage – eBook|
By Dr. David Clarke & William G. Clarke
|Helping Children Survive Divorce|
By Dr. Archibald D. Hart
|Divorce and Remarriage|
By Tony Evans
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