Whether you’re making the decision to leave a marriage, or the decision’s been made for you, divorce can be devastating both emotionally and financially. Even when the split is amicable, it can be difficult to resolve differences fairly. It’s even more complicated when there are children involved. Many women turn to a lawyer for help.
Do-it-yourself divorce is generally not advised by experts. Veteran family law attorney Carla Kjellberg allows that there might be an exception for situations where there are no children, no debt, no assets (including retirement accounts), and both parties are self-supporting.
Kjellberg advises women to seek referrals from friends or the referral service at Tubman (formerly Chrysalis). “Meet with at least three lawyers … if you tell a lawyer your story and [the lawyer] says, ‘No problem, I can get you all that,’ turn around and walk out. You need a lawyer who will tell you the truth, fight for you when necessary, and encourage you to compromise when necessary,” Kjellberg said. “Absolutely never, ever, ever sign a document or piece of paper without getting a lawyer to look at it.” Many, but not all, lawyers will offer a free initial consultation.
M. Sue Wilson, another local family law attorney, said that two-way communication and working style are key. “Does [the attorney] return phone calls and emails, answer letters? What’s the level of customer service?” In terms of working style, “How do they move cases along? My job as an attorney is to work for my client. I’m a mentor/guide-the client decides the best approach.”
Today, Minnesota law requires that divorcing couples participate in some sort of alternative resolution, usually mediation. The vast majority are able to come to agreement. Wilson said that only about 5 percent of her clients go to trial. But it’s important to have a lawyer who is a good litigator, she added. The other side may be more amenable to a fair agreement if opposing counsel is skilled in taking a case before a judge.
Dollars and sense
Wilson and Kjellberg agree that there are two major bones of contention in most divorce cases: money and custody.
In cases where one spouse controls the family finances, the right lawyer can help find and value assets. Even if a person’s financially savvy, the divorce lawyer is experienced with complex financial valuations, such as figuring the value of a pension or business. Lawyers also know if and when a person is within her rights to ask for spousal maintenance (alimony), and how long to expect to receive it. Overall, a good family law attorney is experienced at strategies to help get what’s wanted or needed, economically speaking.
“If you are contemplating divorce, minimally take half of what is in joint [bank] accounts,” Kjellberg advised. “You can’t count on the court helping right away-it might take one or two months,” she said. A notable exception: If a woman’s in physical danger, the court may step in on an emergency basis and order that immediate support be paid.
Just as important as assets is determining who is responsible for debt. Kjellberg suggested that a person run a credit check on herself to determine if there are joint credit accounts she doesn’t know about. And she cautioned, “Even if a court orders [the husband] to pay, the credit card company can come after you.” Kjellberg recommended that either the debt be paid in full, or that the husband make monthly payments directly to the wife so she can protect her credit rating and ensure the account is current.
What about the kids?
The days of Mom having custody of the kids and Dad seeing them on weekends may be a thing of the past. “Courts are going in the direction of joint physical custody,” Kjellberg said. “Joint legal custody is presumed.”
Wilson agreed. “There is a push toward joint physical custody, though most experts don’t think that’s good for kids. But parenting time [the amount of time a child spends with each parent] is what really counts.” Kjellberg pointed out that any long-term parenting arrangements (longer than one month) that are in place during a separation may be hard to change during a divorce. Wilson said, “One thing to be careful about is that often women are peacemakers … lots of times they will agree to things to make peace.” Sometimes those agreements, never intended to be permanent, are upheld in court.
Soon-to-be-ex-spouses who can work out an agreement in advance have a real advantage, both lawyers agreed.
“If you have children, you still have a relationship,” Kjellberg said. She stressed the importance of putting the kids first as you negotiate a relationship with your ex-spouse. “Your primary goal is to be able to sit in the same pew as your ex-spouse at your child’s wedding.”
www.tubman.org or 612-870-2426. Tubman offers a variety of support groups, workshops and family law clinics.
ww.mncourts.gov/selfhelp Comprehensive divorce website
www.helpguide.org Detailed site for parenting during and after divorce, with lots of links.
There are no sleeping bags, campfires or mosquitoes at Sherry Bronson’s Daisy Camp. Instead, women enjoy a weekend of spa treatments in between listening to lawyers, psychologists, financial planners and other experts talk about various aspects of divorce.
“For 15 years, I wanted to help empower women to take charge of their lives,” said Bronson, who has owned several successful businesses. She has also worked as a paralegal in family law, so it’s legitimate to call her a divorce expert. Bronson is also an expert on a personal level-she’s been through several divorces herself.
Why the name Daisy Camp? Daisies open at dawn and, Bronson said, symbolize new beginnings. These low-maintenance perennial flowers are, like women, diverse: There are 80-some varieties of different shapes and sizes.