Ignorance is Bliss?
If divorce is even a remote possibility—Consult with a family law attorney to gain perspective on issues that affect your family’s future.
By Elisabeth Camaur, Attorney
Every relationship goes through ups and downs, but when every day seems like a downer—it may be time to get information on precautionary measures in case separation might be in your future. Even when both parties try to make relationships work, irreconcilable differences can lead good people to divorce courts. Despite efforts to resolve problems—vacations, advice of friends, clergy support, therapy, and deep soul-searching—many relationships never recover. Even if you have yet to reach the point of no return, you might benefit from discussing your situation and educating yourself by consulting with an ethical family law specialist.
Meeting with a lawyer doesn’t spell the end of a relationship, and many people wait too long to reach out, for fear that seeing an attorney guarantees divorce. What people don’t know is that a good divorce attorney will be able to help them understand facts that may influence their decisions. Furthermore, these specialists can clarify issues that can be remedied, or they may direct clients to professionals who can help with areas of life that cause stress and disputes. Often, when dissatisfied spouses are enlightened with an educated and experienced perspective, they develop a new self esteem and improve the dynamics of their relationships.
An attorney can help clarify expectations within a marriage, which can keep spouses together. Many times the marriage benefits from the creation of a marital agreement (like a prenuptial agreement, but after marriage). A marital agreement is a tool the spouses can use to put their financial expectations on paper and reach agreements on how to handle their finances and other issues.
In cases where divorce is eminent, an attorney can prepare individuals to enter into divorce negotiations with pertinent facts and detailed understanding of their rights and responsibilities. He or she will help navigate the complicated and important issues that come with the possibility of a separation of two lives. Waiting too long to see a professional often causes irreparable harm in respect to asset distribution, future income, and custody. Are you willing to risk your future and your children’s welfare?
When faced with the possibility of a divorce, consider reasons for seeing a family law attorney early in the game:
Know Your Options. A good family law attorney can discuss legal options related to the domestic dispute. Is divorce the answer? Is there an alternative? Should you consider a marital agreement?... a legal separation?... Do you qualify for an annulment? And, how should you protect yourself during reconciliation attempts? A family law attorney can provide information about your options, even if you're not sure about divorce. Information is power.
Obtain Information About Your Rights.
The decisions you make during a family law case affect you and your children for the rest of your lives. No one should make these decisions lightly or without proper counsel regarding their rights under the law. As with any legal case, divorce candidates need representation without bias or conflict of interest. Never trust the other side to represent your interests, or even to explain your rights under the law. You must educate yourself and understand your rights to properly evaluate the situation.
Protect Your Assets.
During a divorce, a family’s finances are evaluated and restructured. Property, including investments, real estate, retirements and personal items, will be examined and divided. Even the family pet may be allocated to one spouse over the other. Additionally, benefits such as life insurance policies, stock options and even personal days off of work may be treated as property in a divorce. These financial issues can be worked out by coming to an agreement through mediation, on your own or through your attorneys…or these issues can be heavily litigated in the courts when agreements are not made. And, pending a divorce, the Court may freeze or put restrictions on the spouse’s rights to access and/or liquidate their assets. In order to prepare for this aspect of divorce, individuals contemplating any separation should seek the advice of a lawyer as soon as possible to determine the effect a divorce can have on their future financial planning.
Gather Information Regarding Parental Responsibilities.
During a family law dispute, remember that the parents' decisions and behavior can change the lives of their children forever. Parents must be especially sensitive to their children’s needs during marital strife. Keep the home as civil as possible for your children . Whether you stay with your spouse or separate, arguing and having hostile bickering greatly affects your child. Remember to approach parenting as a team where possible.
Take measures to ensure that the children are not emotionally battered or dragged into the conflicts between their parents. Children need stability and security. A good lawyer can provide advice for parenting plans that will work in the best interests of your children. In addition, a good lawyer can refer clients to counselors and therapists who can help your family get through the difficult times. A good family law attorney can provide information about classes for co-parenting and help with tips on how to deal with an unreasonable spouse on parenting issues.
Everyone has heard stories of couples who divorce, and one partner wipes out the bank account before the other saw what was coming. The typical nightmare includes an uninformed spouse at the gas station who discovers that credit cards have been canceled and bank accounts closed. Or, a spouse moves out and tells the other to charge everything on a credit card… later he or she discovers that the post-separation charges are now a separate debt and they are not eligible for retroactive support. And all the while, this trusting person has gone without legal advice trusting that their spouse will take care of the details. Unfortunately, all is seldom fair in love and war. And, a divorce can be the worst of both worlds.
When is it Time?
Your family deserves the best, well-informed decisions. How can you possibly make those decisions without knowing your rights and obligations. A good family law attorney should approach your situation as a problem solver not as fuse to escalate the hostilities. When should you seek legal advice regarding your marriage? You should seek counsel if:
· You have experienced dissatisfaction in your marriage for a long period of time. This may range from months to years, depending on the severity of the dissatisfaction.
· Your children are being affected by the hostilities between you and your spouse.
· You believe that your spouse is hiding assets or income.
· You are repeatedly arguing over financial problems.
· You suspect that your spouse is dissatisfied, or suspect infidelity.
· You live in fear of your spouse, or if your disagreements have resulted in physical harm or threats. (An attorney can direct you to protective services/agencies if you need immediate protection.)
Searching for an Attorney
If you proceed to a divorce action, your attorney will become your partner in navigating through the storm. You should find an attorney who is looking out for your best interests and will not unnecessarily create hostilities or litigation. His or her support will set the tone on how events will be handled and resolved. He or she will direct your position during negotiations and settlements, so you must find an attorney that you can trust to represent your thoughts and desires. This person will be trusted with personal information, family histories and your future outlook—be certain that you are comfortable with the attorney you select and that he or she demonstrates the strength and conviction to confront your opposition. Moreover, it is essential that your attorney focus on your best interests, whether that be a divorce or help with reconciliation.
Rob and Victoria separated after 13 years of marriage. The marriage had been stagnant for some time and when Rob’s employer enacted salary cuts, the home environment became very hostile with financial stress. Rob handled the finances throughout their union, and he kept the family in a comfortable lifestyle, so Victoria had no reason to complain—until she learned that Rob had failed to build the savings she expected. Rob began to limit Victoria’s spending for the household and became secretive about their finances. Soon Rob kept himself occupied with “monkey business” when he traveled for work. As soon as she suspected trouble in paradise, Victoria called a family law attorney to find out how she could survive if they went through a divorce. Because Victoria was in no danger, and because Rob continued to pay the household expenses, she decided to stay in the house. During this time she was able to gather and copy important documents, including bank account statements, credit card statements, insurance policy statements, and Rob’s pension plan statement. She brought the information she discovered into the family law attorney to discuss a “what if” scenario. This information helped to establish a “ball park financial picture” for Victoria with which she could evaluate the financial reality should the marriage end. Victoria was terrified and felt dependant on Rob. But now she was taking her head out of the sand and began to feel more empowered by the information and education about her financial choices. Rob had led her to believe that she could not financially survive without him and that she would be left penniless if they separated.
The family law attorney also discussed Victoria’s dissatisfaction with her current situation and her own personal goals. Victoria was referred to and sought the advice of a psychologist who helped her work on building her self esteem, which had been eroded over the past few years. Victoria had lost her “self” during the years she spent as a stay-at-home mother and wife. She spent so much energy caring for others, that she no longer had any idea what her dreams were. The therapist helped Victoria focus on her personal goals, and Victoria started to revert back into the strong, self-assured woman with whom Rob fell in love. Rob voluntarily stopped his “monkey business” and focused on working on the marriage. Informed as to the financial details of their marriage, Victoria requested that Rob work on a marital agreement so that their finances would not come between them again. Rob agreed and moved back into the home a month later.
Finding a good attorney might begin with an online search—but be judicious in your selection. A trusted friend may be able to recommend an attorney, based on personal experience. You may also check with clergy or therapists—but understand that they will recommend attorneys who agree with their doctrines. Above all, you want an attorney who is well versed in family law, and who you can trust to work for your interests. Some state bars certify family law specialists who have extensive expertise. You should interview a few attorneys—either by phone or in person—until you find someone who feels right and who does not seem set on litigating every issue. Interview attorneys with the big picture in mind. If you cannot afford a retainer, many attorneys provide consultations on an hourly basis without the necessity of committing to a retainer. These are typically a “pay as you go” scenario. They may not be your attorney of record and attend the hearings, but if you need help with paperwork or advice regarding a potential hearing or settlement, it’s better to seek information in an hourly consultation than to wing it—Be safe, not sorry.
After you have identified a person or a few people that “feel right,” check their credentials and their practices. Contact the state bar to find out if there is a record of discipline about this attorney. Look at their website and see if they have written any material that seems helpful. How experienced the attorney is in the area of family law is very important. Family law encompasses many other fields: real estate, tax, contract law, etc. In today’s world, many family law cases are intertwined with bankruptcies. Family law requires extensive experience with how these other legal fields interact in your life. An inexperienced or uninformed attorney can do more damage than good. And, an attorney who is focused on litigation, trickery and hostilities can create additional harm. In many states, allegations of domestic violence in the divorce case can have huge ramification on child custody, child support and even spousal support. Abusing this process by trumping or exaggerating such allegations is not only unethical but extremely damaging to your children and the future of both parties. Do not allow an attorney to make outrageous claims and fabricate allegations just to get a litigation advantage.
You are not Alone
A good family-law lawyer approaches every case as a "problem solver," not as a vehicle to escalate the issues between the parties. Good attorneys offer information and options. The divorce process can be very fluid. When you begin the process, the limbo is terrifying: Where will I live? When will I see my kids? How much money will I have? Will my retirement remain intact? Will we need to sell our home? A good family law attorney will help navigate a road map for you and help you evaluate the options you will face.
Time will tell if you proceed to file for divorce or reconcile your current situation, but knowledge is always power.
Divorce and separation are integral parts of our society. Although, statistics can be confusing, we agree that divorce happens more frequently than we would like to see. According to divorceguide.com: “Around 50% of first marriages end in divorce, and 65% of second marriages fail.” Rates increase for further marriages. Although we would like to see these rates diminish and for couples to live in a happy union, if you must go through a divorce you should try to approach it in a manner in which you can resolve it as amicably as possible. Your attorney should not be pushing you into divorce, but discuss your options and what is best for you and your family. .
Many unhappily married couples who stand on the edge of divorce struggle between just “making it work” and actually getting a divorce. If they are diligent, they may explore family counseling to try to reconcile their differences. But at what point should you see a divorce attorney? Whenever you suspect that events might lead to separation—whether initiated by you or by your spouse, Don’t wait until your spouse has turned off your credit card or had you arrested on trumped up charges. Protect your family’s future with information and know your options. Ignorance is not bliss... in Family Law, ignorance can cause great harm to children, assets and finances.
Elisabeth Camaur is an attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization with the firm of Camaur Crampton Family Law in Irvine, California. Camaur has been providing family law services to clients in California since 1993. In 1994, she also became licensed in Virginia and has practiced family law in the Washington, DC area. Camaur is well known for her courtroom litigation presence, her ability to litigate and settle hostile child custody cases, her experience in Interstate/International child custody jurisdictional issues, her management and resolution of complex financial issues in family law cases and her skills as a mediator.