What's the first thing to do when you decide to divorce or separate? It's not hire a lawyer, despite what well-meaning friends and family might insist.
I understand the desire for "closure," but rushing to hire a lawyer when you're still upset, angry or scared won't necessarily help you attain closure more quickly. It actually can make your divorce take longer, cost far more, and mean missing out on some of new collaborative ways to part, or "consciously uncouple."
Early separation can be exactly the wrong time to divvy up your assets, let alone make critical decisions about your future. It’s hard to think objectively the week after your spouse moves out, particularly if you have no job and no idea where she kept the cable bills. You’re in survival mode, scared or angry. Maybe I can’t support myself, you might think. Or, She’s going to pay for my unhappiness, in cash. Other people are relieved to the point of imprudence.
Rushing to tie up loose ends can create lasting conflicts generated by short-term fears. Hiring the same adversarial lawyer who "helped" a friend have the worst divorce you've ever seen also can mean missing out on the newer forms of cooperative divorce such as mediation and collaborative divorce—ways of working together to come apart.
The fact is, it takes time to get over a divorce, no matter how quickly you dispense with the legal details.
“There are five levels of separation: sexual, physical, emotional, financial, legal. You could be legally separated and still totally emotionally enmeshed,” says Forrest Mosten, a Los Angeles–based collaborative attorney and mediator.
My husband and I decided to postpone discussions about who got what and simply begin living apart—moving toward being unmarried practically and emotionally.
We wrote up a basic separation agreement that spelled out how many nights our son would be with each of us, and a child and spousal support arrangement we could both manage. It wasn’t a legal contract, but rather a set of personal guidelines we committed to following.
I spoke to a couple of lawyers for general knowledge and advice, but didn’t hire anyone. Filing and formalizing, we agreed, would be the last stage of our divorce, not the first. Several lawyers warned me about the possible complications of this approach, particularly if we wound up fighting over our assets and child in court. But we were not going to fight about anything in court. We'd agreed to keep our divorce out of court, and I’d seen too many bad divorces caused by rushing to decide and divide.
This interregnum turned out to be one of the most helpful things we did. It let our post-marriage relationship evolve naturally—improve— without divisive input from professionally suspicious third parties.
“But everyone’s telling me to lawyer up!” you might say. We all need information about the laws in our state, but learning the law is not the same as filing for divorce before you’re ready emotionally and practically.
Read more about Principle of Parting #3 in Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well.
Read about mediation and collaborative law, two team approaches to making it legal that can save you thousands.
Check out Massachusetts-based attorney Don Greenstein's creative ways to make mediation work magic.
What's it like to be a divorce lawyer? Check out Katherine Miller's essay, "I Was a Typical Divorce Lawyer, Until I Got Divorced."
Check out Principle of Parting #4, and the others, on this Seven Principles of Parting page.