I am a Counselor at Law. I have been for more than 37 years, although I’m not sure how valuable my counsel would have been then. Today, most of the questions I’m asked center around divorce.
-My wife/husband wants a divorce.
-How long will this take?
-How much will it cost?
-I want full custody of my kids.
-Will I lose the house if I move out?
-She/he had an affair!
-I had no idea!
I hear these comments hundreds of times a year. And then I’m asked, “So, what happens now? How does this work?” The answer is perhaps not what you expected, and it sounds like this: “Not the way you think; kind of like you think; and, it depends on what you’re trying to do.” Here’s what I mean.
Last things first. What are you trying to do? A divorce is an “official” determination that two people aren’t married any more. That’s an element of every divorce. It’s the minimum definition. The determination takes the form of a court order, which is required to talk about certain subjects, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The question of what you’re trying to do is directed toward how that order affects your life after you’re divorced: For example: Do you have kids? Who do they live with? How often? Who supports them? How? When do they see his family? When do they see hers? How do they experience Christmas/ Hanukkah/Kwanza/Easter/Passover/Thanksgiving/Halloween/July 4th/and other significant times? What happens if their parents start a new relationship? Or two? Will their parents divorce them, too?
That court order I mentioned can address all those questions, or very few of them. It might incorporate a 15-page Parenting Plan that discusses all these things. It might have two paragraphs that says one of the parents has legal and physical custody of the children, and the other parent will pay the custodian $1500 every month. And the parents will alternate having the children on major holidays. And that’s it.
A divorce is ‘kind of like you think,’ in the sense that a judge has to sign that order, even if the couple doesn’t agree on what should be in it. Maybe they never agree. Maybe they come to an agreement eventually. If they never agree, a judge will tell them how it’s going to be. Period. Does someone win while someone loses? Often, both of them feel as if they’ve lost.
How is it ‘not like you think?’ People are often surprised to learn the judge who signs the decree doesn’t have to make all the decisions. In fact, the only decision the judge really has to make is whether to sign the document a couple says they want as their decree. It’s true! Before that decision is made, the judge will need to be satisfied that the document includes everything it should–all those ‘certain subjects’ I referred to. But it’s much less work for a judge to agree with a couple’s decisions than it is to make the decisions for them.
Every couple who gets a divorce in Minnesota has the absolute right to make their own decisions about those ‘certain subjects.’ I can repeat that, or you can read that last sentence over again. And one couple’s decisions may not look like any other couple’s in the history of the state. Which is okay.
I am asked, “Well, what does the law say?” I answer as best I can, but often the question results from a misunderstanding of the law’s role. That role is not so much “You MUST do this,” and closer to “If you can’t work it out, this is what’ll happen.” Think of the written law as a safety net that keeps one spouse from taking serious advantage of the other.
What it means is, if a couple can reach their own agreement on those ‘certain subjects,’ the court will usually honor that agreement. Yes, there are conditions. You can’t agree to something that violates public policy. An example: a couple can’t agree that neither parent will ever pay child support to the other. Why? Lots of reasons, mostly having to do with reimbursing the government if you need government assistance. What you CAN agree to is what’s called a “reservation” of child support. When the court reserves support, it means no money changes hands. Usually, I see that in families where both parents earn enough to support their children independently of the other parent’s financial assistance. Another condition: the court would like to know the couple got some legal advice, and legal representation is better.
The ‘certain subjects’ include the marriage, real property, personal property, children, support of the family, which includes the children and either parent, financial assets, and debts. But divorce decrees can include conversations that disclose why the couple reached the agreements they did, and how those met the goals they have for their family, now and in the future. Those decrees may read much less like a fight and more like a strategic planning document.
How do you create that kind of divorce decree? It helps if you can bring a little different perspective to the task, what some lawyers call a “paradigm shift.”
The original paradigm, the impression we had when we left law school, was that a divorce was first and foremost a legal dispute, like any other. Sure, it had overtones of emotion and psychology and money and relationship, but if we could get the legalities straight, we’d be doing our job. Decades and cases later, many of us have realized that a divorce is more accurately described as an emotional, psychological, financial, and relational matter that has some legal overtones. We realized that by shifting the model of what we were doing, focusing on the realities and not the theories of the matter, our clients and their families got results that fit better, lasted longer, and let them experience the benefit of their family structure, which changed, but didn’t disappear.
Not everyone is independent enough to do this. Some folks have been so hurt before and during their marriage, that their own pain is all they can see. Working with someone they hold responsible is an impossibility. For couples–people–who need someone to decide, the judge can and will make those decisions.
It would be a different and arguably a better world if a divorcing couple had resolved their personal issues before starting their divorce, but it only rarely happens. But for couples who have enough insight to know divorce is not a substitute for therapy, control of the divorce outcome can be very much in their hands.
Next time, I’ll discuss how couples can get the information and the perspective they need to make those often complicated decisions. Spoiler alert: it takes a village–or a team.
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