Category: Preparing for Your Divorce

If everyone could agree on everything, then we wouldn’t need lawyers at all.  Most people see lawyers coming in to fight out conflicts, but the other thing lawyers do is work to prevent conflicts down the road.  Those people who choose to go to court without the assistance of a lawyer may find that they are returning to court very often because new conflicts keep coming up.  An experienced lawyer who focuses in family law can write agreements that lay out how conflicts will be handled.  Such a lawyer can also anticipate the needs of the entire family 5 or ten years down the road, and can figure out what will be needed.

I see my role as far more than just that of a hired gun.  I advise my clients on how to approach difficult situations, how to have an agreement as to how things will be handled, and how to accept that some change is inevitable.  While I am prepared to mount an assault on behalf of my weary clients, I live for all the times I save them that aggravation.  Every day my clients have peace in their lives is a victory for me.

There are some family lawyers who believe in fighting everything out in court.  Their beliefs are grounded in their experience which makes them believe that such an approach benefits their clients.  These lawyers mean well and care about their clients, but all that conflict can and does take a toll on the clients, the judicial system and the family.  On the other hand, there are some lawyers who do not believe in fighting for anything in court, and believe that the only approach is to settle.  Often that approach may lead to missed opportunities for more favorable outcomes, and also may lead the other side to think that it can get one to give in.

I believe that the best approach is to be tactical in approaching a situation.  Realize that with every move you are laying the groundwork for the future.  Be strong but flexible.  Keep your eyes always ahead a few steps as well as focused on the ground beneath your feet.  Then your path will be even and you will forge ahead without stumbling.

The Law is Constantly Changing

The law changes all the time.  I practice in two jurisdictions, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Within the past 12 months, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has enacted legislation in support and child custody law.  Both of these laws are true “game changers,” especially the custody law which represents a complete overhaul of how these cases are handled.

Changes in the law happen in two ways, one is by legislative action, as I discussed above.  The other way the law changes is when a court decides a case and interprets the law in a new way.  What most people do not realize is that the way the courts get to decide things in a new way is that lawyers and litigants present the case asking for a new interpretation based on their particular situation.  A good lawyer helps every court understand how new laws might be applied, when they have not had the opportunity to think about those new laws on many occasions.  This in turn helps clients get what they can in the way of help from the legal system.


Divorce and family problems drain us emotionally.   We go from grief, to anger, to love; from nostalgia over the past to anxiety about the future.  We worry about our finances, our children, our love lives.  We try to plan but keep getting caught up in the same cycle of emotional and not practical energy.

The truth is that the law doesn’t care about your emotions.  Family law has evolved to deal with only the practical considerations that come from dividing a family.  Those practical considerations deal mainly with money and how children are cared for.  You won’t get paid for the emotional harm that was done to you.  You can receive money to help you establish yourself financially if you were previously dependent on your spouse, but at some point you will be expected to earn what you are able to.  You also can protect what you worked hard to earn from being taken from you, although  you will be expected to share some of that with your spouse if that spouse provided support to you while you were earning it.  I understand all the ramifications of financial issues in divorce and I work with my clients to satisfy their immediate needs as well as those they will have on the future.

When it comes to raising children, the rule should be that each parent should do whatever he or she can to assist in the raising of children.  The courts used to almost insist that both parents be involved but that thinking has relaxed a little lately.  Both parents should recognize that they have a responsibility to their children but that doesn’t always happen.  It is also true that if the relationship ended because the parents could not get along, continued contact between them over the children can lead to more stress for all involved.  I assist people all the time in learning how to work together, and I favor as much involvement as possible from both parents.  Through my experience I have learned how to write agreements that are easy to understand and that promote good experiences for both parents and children.

A good family lawyer will help guide you across the minefield of your emotions and into the real heat of battle over your money and your kids.  The first battle you’ll have to fight is with yourself as you move away from any sense of revenge or anger and towards the planning of your future.  Then you are ready to face the reality of seeing where you are now and where the law will help you go.  The law can help you, but you will soon understand that most of what you will accomplish you will do on your own.  My job as your lawyer is to point you in the right direction and help you on your way.

1. How much of your practice is devoted to family law?

Many general practitioners include some divorce cases in their files.  There is nothing wrong with that, but often the divorces rank among the most disagreeable work in their caseload.   A lawyer who devotes most or all of his or her practice to family law is making a commitment to wrestling with the difficulties that the practice of family law presents.  He or she also is likely to have more experience in handling cases in any given jurisdiction as well as a good working relationship with his or her fellow members of the family law bar.  There are few areas of the law where the saying “what goes around comes around”  is more likely to be true.  The knowledge that a fellow lawyer is likely to appear in a case in the future means that family lawyers as a whole will try to assist each other and extend courtesies to each other during litigation.  This can save money and stress during the process of litigation and settlement.

2.  How can you help me?

This question is valuable not for the actual content of the answer but for what the content implies.  If the lawyer answers the question with a very black and white, “I can fix everything” kind of answer,  you should be wondering.  No family lawyer in an initial meeting knows the answers.  A big part of that is due to the fact that he or she has no information about the other side yet.  The personalities as well as the facts of the case will become clear in time but not before any attorney’s initial meeting with a client.

3.  How do your fees work?

You will no doubt want to know how much your divorce will cost.  Unless your lawyer offers a flat fee for the entire case, there is never a way to tell how much a divorce will cost.  What you are entitled to know is how the lawyer charges.  In addition to hourly rates, you may want to ask if there are minimum billing charges for certain types of work and whether other people in the firm will be billing their time or services.   You can also ask about retainer fees and payment schedules for future charges.  Above all you want to know that you will understand what it is you are paying for.  Lawyers do a lot of work that is quite honestly thinking, and it is odd as a non-lawyer to think about paying someone to think, because it doesn’t look like work as many know it, but that’s where all the advice you will value comes from.  So when you see a letter that is three paragraphs long and your lawyer charges you for a half-hour, he or she is charging not for slow typing, but for quick thinking.

4.  My biggest worry is ____________.  Will the law be able to address that?

This is another trick question for the lawyer.  A seasoned family lawyer knows that the law only goes so far in helping people going through a divorce.  There are practical issues that the law simply can not or will not address, or it may address them only in a limited fashion.  A client once asked me if it was in her best interest to get a better job because it would mean she would get less child support.  I answered of course it was because she was placing herself into a better position to earn more and to further her earnings ability in the future.  Her spouse’s income was something she had no control over.  In that case the legal situation was a net loss (less child support) but the practical situation was all win.

5.  How can I best communicate with you?

The single biggest complaint leveled at lawyers is that they don’t return phone calls promptly.  A lawyer should have a communications policy.  There are a lot of possible ways to communicate with a lawyer and the lawyer should have preferences and expectations and be able to provide the client with options.  The worst thing any client can do is call and leave a message merely to “call me.”  I do not use text messaging to communicate with clients and I do not like using e-mail either.  Phone calls are scheduled when possible so that both me and the client know to be available with information and full concentration.  A lawyer’s assistant should be trained to take detailed messages to assist the lawyer in responding to the client.  Clients should be kept “in the loop” at all times so that they never have to wonder what is happening on their matter.  If the lawyer you are interviewing does not have a clear sense of how communication flows in his or her office it may be a cause for concern.

You know the old saying about real estate “location, location,location?”  Well to make sense of your divorce you need “information, information, information.”  Your best bet is to gather it yourself, although your lawyer may have ways of getting it for you.

The most important information you need is financial.   Begin by gathering all income information.  This includes recent pay stubs and tax returns for the last five years, which will have W-2 or 1099 forms attached and will include all business related income schedules.  If either of you has a business then the business tax returns should be gathered too.

Next get all expense records you can such as bank statements showing checks written, credit/debit card statements, etc.  Get the bills for your recurring expenses such as mortgage, taxes, utilities, cable, internet, etc.  You also want to gather here any  evidence of debts owed, whether loans or lines of credit, or in other forms.

Next get information on any real estate you own and any debt owed on it.  You should find out some idea of your property’s value, and ultimately may want it appraised.  You can also use this time to list boats, RV’s etc and their values and any debt owed on them should you own any.

Next get statements for all investments, retirement, and other savings accounts, such as those for children etc.  Look for what you know exists but also dig deeper in case something is hidden.  Consider any place in your home or office where information might be stored.  If you have anything you have been hiding, you should gather it and account for it in your own listing because chances are it will be uncovered so prepare for the worst case scenario.

Gather any information about any “stuff” you own that might be of large value.  Typically we are talking about cars, art, jewelry and antiques, but depending on your income level and spending habits your TV, furniture, computers and such might be worth listing.  I generally counsel against counting the spoons and pot holders, but I’ve seen lists of them as well.  Make a note of things that are of special value to you personally and that you would want to keep no matter what.  Be sure to tell your lawyer about these things.

This is also a good time to mention, if you have a lawyer, tell him or her everything, hiding information from your lawyer is just plain stupid.   A lawyer with the wrong information is like a soldier without a weapon or defensive armor of any kind.  He or she simply cannot do the job you hired them for.

If you have completed this gathering process you will be able to see exactly where you are financially.   Knowing where you are is a big step forward to knowing where you are going.

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