Although some people believe that divorce leaves one spouse a "winner" that walks away with everything and the other a “loser,” the reality is that the division of assets, rights, and responsibilities is likely to be fairly similar for both parties. As a result, it's important for divorcing spouses to establish clear priorities, and figure out what's most important.
Identify Issues and Priorities
Divorce can be the most stressful event in a person's life. The emotions that many divorcing spouses experience with a break up can make it difficult to think or act - and some people are left feeling paralyzed. Don't let your emotions take over. You need to work through them, so that you can think clearly enough to make important divorce-related decisions. The divorce process itself can be difficult to understand, so you need to figure out a game plan, and as part of that plan, identify what your needs and goals are for your post-divorce life.
The first step in identifying your priorities is to recognize the issues that are likely to come up in your divorce. The most common divorce issues include custody, child support, property division, and alimony.
Child Custody and Support
If you have children, the care and custody of the children are likely to be substantial factors in your divorce. Even if one parent is willing to concede custody of the children, there will undoubtedly be other child-related issues in your divorce. These may include:
- a visitation schedule for the non-custodial parent
- division of school vacations
- the amount of child support to be paid
- the division of educational expenses, and
- the decision-making process for child-related activities such as sports and summer camps.
If you and your child’s other parent can’t agree on these issues, you may want to engage the services of a well-qualified co-parenting counselor that can help you work on some agreements. Remember that divorce is often toughest on the children who have to adjust to a whole new way of life. It’s always in the best interests of the children to see their divorcing parents working together to make the transition to a post-divorce life go as smoothly as possible.
The division of property is likely to be another major issue in any divorce. This involves dividing assets, such as real estate, furniture, furnishings, art, bank accounts, stocks, investments, and retirement plans.
Are you more concerned with short-term cash flow than future savings? Should you be? If so, you may want to sacrifice some retirement dollars in order to take more cash today.
Or, perhaps your main objective is to stay in the marital home. In many divorces, the home is the spouses' most valuable asset. This means that whichever spouse stays in the home is likely going to have to offset keeping that asset by giving the other spouse a larger share of the remaining assets. Are you comfortable with this type of trade off? Or would you be better off by selling the home and dividing the proceeds?
Establishing financial priorities for yourself is crucial, so you may want to consult with a financial planner to make sure any settlement offer will allow you to meet your priorities, and still allow you to cover future living expenses and plan for retirement.
Whether alimony (also called “spousal support” and “maintenance”) will be paid at all, the amount to be paid, and the duration of payments are often hotly contested issues in divorce.
If you have been the primary child care provider throughout your marriage and left a job in order to raise children, you will likely need some financial support, both during and after your divorce. If you’ve been out of the job market for many years and your earning capacity (ability to earn income based on job history, education, and job opportunities) is very low as a result, you may need rehabilitative or even permanent alimony.
You and your spouse can negotiate over an amount and duration of alimony or if you absolutely cannot agree, a judge will decide using the alimony laws of the particular state where you divorce is taking place. For more information on alimony, you can access our alimony topic page by clicking here.
Give and Take
Once you understand the issues in your case, you can establish your priorities both in terms of what you really want and what you can live without. Doing so will enable you (and your attorney) to resolve your case without wasting an excessive amount of time and money in the process.
While you may have the greatest divorce attorney in the world, he or she is not going to be able to get you everything you want. You are going to have to engage in a bit of give and take. By recognizing that you are not going to take everything in the divorce, you can go into the process with realistic expectations, which may help you resolve your case faster.
Having a clear idea of what you want most may also help minimize the amount of attorneys' fees you pay. For example, if your attorney knows from the outset that you are interested in staying in the marital home and retaining stocks, but you are not so concerned with retirement dollars, your attorney should be able to structure a proposal that addresses your concerns, while making it palatable for your spouse by offering them a larger chunk of your lower priority - retirement assets.
This does two things. First, it gets straight to the point of what you want, without spending time and money debating the numerous paths that your divorce might take. Secondly, it gives your spouse an idea of your priorities and what you are willing to offer. This should either lead to an agreement that you can both live with, or you'll find out pretty quickly whether you and your spouse will be able to agree.