8 Not-so-Simple Steps to a Smoother Divorce

Divorce is hard. When you’ve made the decision, or your partner made it for you, feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety kick in. You may feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you—all while you were busy building the family business, or taking Timmy to dance class, or Jenny to soccer practice. We lose ourselves in our work, our kids, and all of the demands in our daily lives, and often miss the subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs that our relationship is dying.

In separate meetings, I was told by one spouse: “you could have walked side by side us during our marriage and never seen any sign of a problem.”

The other spouse told a different side of the story: “I begged for us to go to counseling.”

Houston, we have a problem.

Divorcing? Reduce the Emotional and Financial Trauma

In all my years working in family law, I have yet to meet anyone who says, “I want this to be the most expensive, painful, and destructive divorce in the history of divorces.”

On the other hand, I do often hear something like this: “I want to get through this divorce as quickly and amicably as we can.”

If you fall into this latter category, these 8 tips are for you:

1. Manage the emotions

Divorce is a personal life transition before it’s a legal transaction. One of the biggest mistakes people make is acting, or reacting, on emotions. If you hear yourself saying “make him hurt” or “I deserve...”, your emotions are controlling you. You cannot plan for a smooth process when you are focused on blame, shame, or pain. To make productive decisions based on your financial, family, and personal goals, you must manage those emotions.

2. Plan ahead

A dream without a plan leads to pie-crust goals: easily made, easily broken. With your emotions in check, list your priorities. No debts or more manageable debts; disengage from a toxic personality; a strong co-parenting relationship. If the priority is to get as much spousal support as possible, go back to managing the emotions. For each goal, dig a little deeper: what does that goal do for you? This will lead you to your core values and, ultimately, to a more focused plan on how to get there.

There will be plenty of distractions that can lead you off course: Your spouse keeps bad mouthing you to the kids, for example. You can still achieve your goals, long term, depending on how you respond to the offensive behavior.

3. Communicate

If you’re considering or facing a divorce, odds are that your communication habits with your spouse are not great. When you start a divorce, they don’t suddenly improve. It does take two to communicate well, but it can start with one. In my work with therapists on my cases, I’ve learned tools to:

  • Identify when I’m triggered;
  • Calm myself when that happens;
  • and Effectively and productively share and receive information.

Listening to understand is the end result of the tools I’ve learned. And you have a better chance of getting a better result if your spouse feels heard and that you genuinely care. With good communication, there is less need to have the lawyers do all of the talking—a pricey substitute for direct communication.

4. Prepare

Once you know your priorities and goals, you can prepare for a process that will help get you to those goals. If your goal is to avoid spending countless hours fighting in court, you may want to research mediation and collaborative processes and professionals. If your goal is to get whatever the law gives you, research lawyers experienced in family law litigation. Maybe your child needs a therapist. Will your spouse agree to this, or will you need a court order? Do you have vacation or sick time, or can you adjust your schedule, at work so you can attend the necessary court hearings? Do you have a safety plan if you are dealing with a violent partner?

And, for all of this, do you have enough savings or other access to funds for the process AND your living expenses? Learn more: How to prepare financially for a divorce.

5. Gather information and documents

You need to know, and have the documents showing, your income, your spouse’s income, your assets, and your expenses. It’s also helpful if you know your children’s schedules, how much of the family budget is for your kid’s expenses, and what, struggles your kids are experiencing. The more information you have, the easier it is to start planning based on your goals, and the easier it is for your lawyer to guide you and set realistic expectations. The less information and documents you have, the more your lawyer will have to conduct “discovery”: subpoenas, interrogatories, depositions, vocational evaluations, child custody evaluations. It adds up to high legal fees and a long divorce process.

And if you happen to be the spouse who holds all of the financial information, share it! Hiding information creates an expensive process and uncertain future. Even if you do “get away with it,” you run the risk of your spouse finding out, taking you back to court, your case being reopened, and a fine or other penalty imposed on you.

6. Get the right help

So many people google “divorce lawyer” and pick the lawyer with the highest ratings. Unfortunately, as we all know, reviews are not always reliable. In a world of fake news, fake profiles, and general online insecurity, choosing a lawyer online is like throwing a dart at a phone book page of lawyers. If you don’t have a personal referral from a trusted friend or professional, there are web sites that list lawyers based on having met specific qualifications. These include local practice groups and bar associations. Whether you are looking for a collaborative divorce lawyer, family specialist, or certified divorce financial analyst, consider their qualifications AND interview them in person.

For most people, your gut will tell you more than an online ad. Look into how much of their practice is dedicated to the specific field and process you are looking for. If they completed a collaborative training 2 years ago and have done only one collaborative case in that time, that may not really be the collaborative lawyer you want.

7. Let the little things go

I once had a mediation where the spouses, with their attorneys and a financial mediator present, spent two hours arguing over payment for one spouse’s hearing aids. Let’s do the math:

  • $400/hour for the lawyer mediator = $800.00
  • $400/hour for each party’s attorney = $1,600.00
  • $250/hour for the neutral financial mediator = $500.00

Total cost of the hearing aids: $1,450.00+/ear

Other common arguments include photo albums, furniture, and reimbursement for insurance payments. When the average cost of a contested divorce in California exceeds $50,000.00 per person, ask yourself, “is it worth it?” I’m not saying give up or give in. I’m saying make a sound financial decision. If you’re fighting on “principle,” be ready to pay for it.

8. Be Realistic. People Don't Change

People do not change their personalities for the better when they enter a divorce. If your spouse controlled everything financial, never put your name on the accounts or properties, and controlled all the income, giving you an allowance, why would they be any different in a divorce? The odds are s/he will try to hold onto, and even hide, the assets and the income.

Neither the lawyers nor the judge can change the person you married – you couldn’t, and you had how many years? Be real. If it was difficult communicating with your spouse before, it will be difficult during your divorce. If your spouse is used to being in control of everything, expect that s/he will try to exert that control in your divorce.

The fact that a judge is making orders, or you both agreed to mediate your divorce, does not mean that your spouse will suddenly be someone different. There may come a point where you have to decide to continue to engage or cut your losses. If you are dealing with a high conflict personality, they will not learn a lesson, even if they “lose.” You know the spin they’ll put on it. You know how they will never let go of what “you did to them.” So it’s up to you on whether you spend all your retirement to not let him get away with it or whether you agree early on to let her feel a “win” if it means ending the divorce fast. You decide.

Finding Value in Professional Help When Separating

There are no easy answers, no magic pills, and no short cuts. “Quality, fast, and cheap” is a myth when it comes to the divorce process and professionals. Something always gets sacrificed.

Shift your focus from short-term gains to long-term goals and invest in the right resources to get you where you want to be. This means focusing on your and your children’s mental and physical health, the personalities involved, financial knowledge, and legal knowledge. Working with therapists trained as divorce coaches/family specialists in mediation and collaborative practices, both before and during the divorce process, will help you prepare for a smoother process.

Therapists can also act as either a child custody evaluator, who prepares a report recommending a specific parenting plan to the court, or as a child specialist who helps parents create their own parenting plan out-of-court.

Financial professionals can be experts in a contested case or neutrals in a collaborative divorce or mediation. In an out-of-court process, they educate both spouses on the financial picture, realistic financial goals, and tax implications, and they can prepare projections based on possible solutions.

And, finally, your lawyers can represent you individually in court, as consulting lawyers in an “unbundled” out-of-court process, in a collaborative divorce, or as a neutral mediator. While it may sound like a lot of professionals, remember to avoid being penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Professionals are only expensive when you regret not having them.


About the author

Diana L. Martinez has received “Super Lawyer” designation each year since 2016, is a Eureka Award recipient and is a faculty trainer with the International Academy of Professionals. She is an experienced collaborative divorce lawyer handling cases throughout California, with offices in Corona, Riverside, Newport Beach and San Diego.

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