I try to live my life without regrets. I generally don’t find it constructive to look back and consider how I could have done things differently unless doing so could teach me a lesson that might help me going forward. The only other time I’ve found this type of reflection to be worthwhile is in situations where the lesson I learn from looking back could benefit others. And that’s exactly what I’m seeking to do with this post — pay it forward and share some of the things I wish I’d known when embarking on the road to divorce.
Most of us don’t know much about divorce or how to navigate the process because we never expect that we’ll have to go through it. But once we find ourselves there, in that place we never imagined we’d be, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the information that’s suddenly become relevant to us.
With that, here are a few things I wish I had known before diving into the divorce process.
It’s honestly kind of terrifying how quickly and easily you can get married in the U.S., given the serious legal implications of marriage. In most states, the process is as easy as (1) going to your local county clerk’s office, (2) applying for and receiving a marriage license (usually on the spot), and then (3) having a person with sufficient authority (even if temporarily appointed) marry you.
You don’t need to say anything in particular as part of the marriage ceremony — just express your intent to marry each other. You might need a witness or two, but even that isn’t required in every state. Simple, right?
If you wanted to, and the line at the clerk’s office wasn’t too long that day, you could probably get married in less than 10 minutes. To further back this up, in Vegas, you can literally get a “drive-thru wedding” if you so desire. (And we seriously wonder why our divorce rates are so high??)
Getting divorced, on the other hand, is a royal pain in the ass. You might be wondering why that’s the case, and I’m going to save my diatribe on the government’s role in all of this for another post. But here are the cliffsnotes: our government incentivizes marriage and disincentivizes divorce partially by way of having crafted laws that make it easy for couples to get legally married and painfully difficult to get divorced. (See also: the U.S. tax code, which is regularly used to incentivize and disincentivize all sorts of different behaviors.)
The standard divorce process generally involves:
(1) filing a petition for divorce with the court,
(2) discovery (during which each party must submit detailed financial disclosures),
(3) negotiation on the terms of the divorce and the drafting of a separation agreement (if that’s possible without going to trial),
(4) trial (sometimes), and
(5) the issuance of the divorce decree.
This all takes time to wade through. And while it may sound pretty straightforward and easy, I frankly found the process of completing the financial disclosures alone to be more burdensome than applying to take the bar exam.
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(Additionally, keep in mind that you’re doing your best to navigate through this major life transition while experiencing a total torrent of emotions, so as an FYI, you’re not exactly going to be on top of your shit).
Even in instances where your divorce process is completely amicable, your situation is simple, and you’re able to fly through the requirements, there are often state mandatory waiting periods tossed into the mix.
This means that even if you get everything filed quickly, you might still have to remain married for another six-to-12 months before your state will allow a divorce decree to be issued. (Sometimes these waiting periods can be reduced if there’s mutual consent to the divorce, but not always). There are also some states that require a waiting period before a couple is even allowed to file for divorce.
I know — cue the crying now.
After everything’s said and done, on average, it typically takes 3-to-6 months from the date of filing for an uncontested divorce to get finalized, whereas a contested divorce generally takes closer to 9 months to a year from the filing date. (The amount of time will vary though depending on the state, the county, the judge, and how efficient the couple is in getting things submitted).
So, in sum, you can get married in 10 minutes, but getting divorced takes months.
Getting divorced is usually an expensive process. Between the legal fees, the court/filing costs, and the distribution of debts and assets, it’s next to impossible for a divorce to be completed in a cost-effective manner.
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I worked with a reputable and very experienced attorney for my own divorce. He billed $300/hour, which would be cheap in a city like New York, but was relatively expensive for Boulder, CO. And when my final invoice was issued (I paid him $3,100 in all, inclusive of expenses and court costs), he literally congratulated me on “setting a new record for the lowest fees [he’d] ever had in a divorce case.”
Because I had a law degree, my attorney was fairly liberal in allowing me to take on some work that he normally would have farmed out to a paralegal for $100/hour, so I was fortunate in that sense. But the process was still expensive and time-consuming to go through.
Now, to clarify, it is possible for you to represent yourself and get divorced for only several hundred dollars. But, if you choose to go that route, I would strongly urge you to ask a divorce attorney to review your filings or, at the very least, consult a CPA or financial advisor that specializes in divorce.
The reason being that, all too frequently when a couple goes through an amicable split and takes it upon themselves to divvy up their debts and assets, they do not realize the longer-term tax implications of their actions, which can be pretty severe and end up biting one or both of them down the road.
I’ve unfortunately found that when it comes to getting divorced, both parties really lose. Sometimes one loses more than the other. But let’s be clear: there’s no “winner” involved.
The process is stressful and protracted, and it’s usually more expensive than you anticipate it will be. You’ll almost always have to make concessions in splitting your debts and assets with your spouse. Plus, you lose the financial benefits of having a partner (which usually at least represents a cost savings of some kind, even if both of you weren’t bringing in income).
There are certainly stories of one person walking away from a divorce with a windfall of some kind. But even in those scenarios, I would not frame the divorce process as having been a “win” for them. It’s neither a fun thing to experience, nor a worthwhile way to spend months of your time.
Divorce is a draining loss, and if you have to go through it, I’m sorry. But sometimes you have to suffer a loss in life in order to make it to your next win.
When I was going through my own divorce, despite having a law degree, I did not give enough thought or consideration to what my various options might be. I panicked, and I lawyered-up as quickly as I could. I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did.
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Here’s why. While the “traditional” approach to divorce is litigation, by nature, this process serves to pit you and your attorney against your partner, which can quickly and easily escalate and result in a more contentious process, a longer divorce timeline, and higher legal fees. In retrospect, I think I could have spent less money and had a much less painful experience in getting through my divorce if I had chosen a different means of going about it.
There are a handful of different approaches you can take to your own divorce process that might be more efficient and/or cost effective than litigation depending on your situation.
(a) The Do-It-Yourself Method. This is not a route I would recommend taking. Divorce is both financially and legally complicated, and unless you have some degree of expertise that would qualify you to take this on without professional guidance, you’ll be in danger of making some big and potentially irreversible mistakes.
It’s always a good call to have an attorney at least review any documentation you put together to help issue-spot and catch things you won’t know to look for. Additionally, I can’t overstate the importance of having a CPA or financial advisor who specializes in divorce review your debt/asset split and offer you guidance on the potential tax implications of your decisions.
I would only contemplate taking this “do-it-yourself” approach to your divorce if you’ve been married for just a few years, have no children to consider, have comparable incomes, no alimony, and have very few debts and assets to distribute. And even then, this is really an “at your own risk” type of option.
(b) Collaborative Divorce. Collaborative divorce takes more of a team-based approach to the divorce process. Each spouse has an attorney trained in the collaborative divorce method representing them, and there are often other neutral third-party experts involved in the negotiation and settlement process as well, such as a divorce financial planner, a therapist, or sometimes a coach. The two lawyers formally agree to work in a cooperative manner in negotiating the issues of the divorce.
If the process works, it has the potential to be cheaper and more efficient than going the litigation route. It can also be helpful to have experts involved (outside of just the attorneys) who can lend the couple advice with respect to children or parenting, finances, employability, etc.
However, collaborative divorce can get very expensive since you are paying for additional professionals to participate in the process along with your attorneys. And if an agreement cannot be reached on all of the issues of the divorce, your collaborative divorce attorneys will then be disqualified from being able to represent you. So each spouse will need to find new lawyers to represent them as they move forward with the litigation process.
(c) Mediation. The mediation process involves you and your partner working cooperatively with a mediator — a neutral third party — who assists you both in negotiating and agreeing to the various terms of your divorce.
The mediator is sometimes, but not always, an attorney. While they have expertise in the areas of divorce and family law, they’re not able to advocate for one spouse or the other, and they cannot provide any personalized legal advice to either party. The couple ultimately has to discuss the various issues and come to an agreement on their own, with the mediator serving as a facilitator.
Mediation can be a more appealing option for some couples because it tends to be less contentious in nature and has the potential to be faster and less expensive than the traditional litigation process. It can also be a better alternative for couples that have kids together because the mediation process frames decisions around what would be in the children’s best interests.
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On the downside, mediation is not a good option for anyone whose situation with their spouse is more combative. If the mediation process fails, you may have to start all over again or hire attorneys and go through the litigation process instead.
(d) Arbitration. In an arbitration scenario, the divorcing couple agrees to hire a neutral third party, the arbitrator, to serve as the judge for their divorce case. The process is private, as opposed to being held in a public courtroom. But the arbitrator’s decision is binding and usually cannot be appealed.
The arbitration process has the advantages of being fast, private, cheaper than litigation, convenient (in that you can agree on when to schedule the appointment), and binding/final. That said, since the arbitrator is making a decision for the couple, one or both parties may find themselves dissatisfied with the outcome and have no recourse — a scenario which could be incredibly frustrating.
In the end, it may make the most sense for you to move forward with the traditional litigation process, especially if your divorce is contentious. But given how costly, stressful, and prolonged the divorce process can be, I’d encourage you to take a little time to consider the various options in the context of your particular situation before making a decision. I certainly wish I had.
This essay first appeared on Medium.com and was written by Kim West, founder of When It’s Knot Forever. Read her blog here.
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