Whether your husband of 30 years has announced this morning he won’t be home tonight nor ever again; you’ve found yourself single and pregnant with daddy-to-be nowhere to be found; or you’ve amicably decided to part company with the mother of your three children, the path you’re about to embark on is likely to be a strange, emotionally draining and frightening one. Here are my top tips for getting through a family law issue:
1. Get yourself legal advice sooner, rather than later: Even if things are amicable between you and your ex, being proactive and getting sound advice sooner, rather than later, is one of the best things you can do, whether you are just thinking of separating or you have separated.
You may only need to see the lawyer once or you may end up with your own coffee mug in his or her reception. The key thing is to get the advice you need so you can move forward and make decisions in an informed manner.
2. If you engage a lawyer, who you choose is one of the most important decisions you will make: Law is increasingly specialised and the days of the lawyer who does a bit of everything are over. Your parents’ lawyer may have given you great advice every time you sold and bought a house but how many parenting disputes or relationship property matters has she dealt with? Is she a member of the Family Law Section of the NZ Law Society? Does he have Lead Provider status with the Legal Services Agency for family law?
It’s as simple as this: If you had the misfortune to be diagnosed with cancer, would you have your GP manage and advise you on your course of treatment or a specialist who usually spends his days removing tonsils? No, you’d want a good, experienced, specialist oncologist. The same should be true with the lawyer you choose.
Of the family lawyers available to choose from, look for one who can best assist you to resolve matters in the way you’d like to resolve them. If you are looking for a peaceful, respectful resolution without the Court then a settlement specialist with experience in mediation and collaborative practice is probably a better choice than a family lawyer who specialises in litigation.
3. Choosing Your Process is also one of the most important decisions you will make: There is more than one way to sort out your family law issue. Gone are the days where you only had a choice of going to Court or having your lawyers wrangle it out with numerous letters going back and forth. At Family Law Results, we offer our clients 7 different ways that they can work to achieve a resolution. We work with our clients to find the process that involves the least intervention possible to achieve a safe, respectful, dignified, private means of achieving resolution.
4. Having a professional team may be more cost effective! It may feel counter intuitive that having several different professionals working with you may save you costs! Many people simply engage a lawyer but a lawyer is not an expert on all aspects of the problems you may face in your separation or family law issue. Often it is more cost effective to get the right professionals doing the right jobs.
For example, in collaborative process cases, a couple may choose to jointly engage one financial expert to help them scope their property pool and formulate financial forecasts, rather than them each paying lawyer to do this. Similarly, we often refer clients to work with a parenting expert to formulate a parenting plan and then may seek to take this to their lawyers to be put into the appropriate legal format. Sharing the costs of a psychologist to work with you both on this is a lot more cost effective than each paying a lawyer to negotiate a parenting plan and you get the added expertise that the psychologist brings around children’s development and psychological needs.
5. Gather Support around you: Your lawyer is unlikely to be a qualified counsellor or therapist. While your lawyer is likely to have empathy for your situation and may be very understanding and caring, his or her role is very clear and defined – he or she is there to provide you legal advice and representation. Therefore, it is important to get the right counselling support.
Gather around you anyone and everyone who can support you. Who can you rely on: to pick the kids up when you can’t? to be your biggest cheerleader? To help you see reason when emotions are clouding everything? To fix your car cheaply or teach you how to cook? These people are gold.
6. Get financially savvy: Unless you have to leave your relationship in a hurry, take some time to get knowledgeable about your finances of you. You may have been the one in control of the finances in your relationship but if you weren’t, get copies of all your financial records. These may include bank statements, loan agreements, Trust deeds and resolutions, credit card statements, business financial statements, life assurance and superannuation documents.
Getting copies of your information in advance can save you a lot of time and cost associated with being led a tortuous dance if your ex tried to delay matters or doesn’t want to reveal some of this information. I love it when clients come to me shortly before they are about to separate as this gives me the opportunity to advise them about exactly what information they should collect.
Work out a budget that includes every reasonable expense you may have – refer back to your bank statements for the last 6 or 12 months of your relationship to get a realistic indication of how much is usually spent. How much will you need to get by each week? How much income do you have? Your lawyer will be able to suggest solutions about how you can make up the deficit in your budget or assist you in working out how much financial support you are legally liable to pay your ex or for your children.
7. Be clear about Legal Costs: Understanding what your lawyer charges for and how much is important to be clear about at the outset. You may be eligible for legal aid. Ask your lawyer about this or check with the Legal Services Agency. If your lawyer won’t do legal aid work, you may prefer to find one who will. There are a number of very good family lawyers who will do legal aid work. The Ministry of Justice or your local Court can usually steer you in the direction of such a lawyer.
If costs are an important consideration (and let’s face it, they are for most of us when we are seeing a professional) ask for regular invoices and regular estimates for the foreseeable work ahead. Even better, see if your lawyer will complete the work needed on your matter for a “fixed fee” which will give you some certainty about how much your fees will be. Ask your lawyer if there are things you can do that will save on costs. Usually there are.
8. Get smart about how your actions and emotions effect your children: You’re not the only one with a lot of emotions and stresses to face around your separation. If you have children, they do too. Your actions and emotions through this time can make all the difference to how well your children weather this storm.
The Ministry of Justice has some great DVDs that explore the issues of parenting kids during and after a separation and also offers a free programme, Parenting Through Separation, to help you identify solutions for best parenting your children through these times.
Our clients invariably find it useful to work with a professional who specialises in child development and co-parenting. You could do this on your own but having both parents attend means you can work on creating a positive co-parenting relationship together. If you are cringing at the prospect of sharing such sessions with your ex, consider that you are both going to continue to be parents of your children till the day you die. Assuming there are no safety issues involved, isn’t it better you sort out your future parenting relationship together soon than find yourself (and your kids) cringing at the prospect of the two of you sharing your child’s wedding, graduation or 21st birthday celebrations?
9. Listen, and be open, to Advice: This is different to following advice. Listen to the professional advice you receive. Be open to it. You may not always hear advice you like. The best lawyers are the ones who will advise their clients honestly and frankly. They don’t sell their clients false hope by telling them what they want to hear. Ask questions about the advice you receive. Make sure you understand the advice and the reasons for it and if you don’t, get your lawyer to explain it again and if need be, again. Consider the advice. If time allows, take time to digest it properly and then make decisions.
10. Don’t take legal advice from your ex: I have lost count of the times I have heard a client say “My ex tells me I’m going to get nothing” or “My ex tells me the Judge will see me for what I am and take the kids from me”. At best, such comments are likely to be misguided and at worst, plain old bullying or abusive.
Assuming your ex is not a specialist family lawyer, my guess is that she or he has as much experience of family law as you do (ie only as much as you’ve gained since your separation). Do you really think your ex’s version of how the law will treat you is an impartial and unbiased view? Don’t waste your emotional energy, time and money second guessing your legal position because of what your ex tells you the law is.
Having said that, if you are unhappy with the legal advice you are getting, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion – the cost of this often allows you to be reassured about the path you are on. Just make sure that second opinion is from another experienced family lawyer – not your ex!
11. Be Prepared to Compromise: I do not believe anyone lay on their death bed wishing they’d managed to stop their ex seeing their kids every week or wishing they’d ensured their ex didn’t get a share of their superannuation.
Life is too short to waste it embroiled in conflict. Your kids are too precious and vulnerable to spend their youth watching the people they love most in the world spit the name of the other.
That is not to say, give in to everything your ex wants. Just be open to compromise, letting go of the small stuff and meeting in the middle to achieve a prompt resolution and move forward with your life.
At times you may be right in principle. You may even be right in law. But the costs (both financial and emotional) of arguing about an issue may outweigh the benefits. A good lawyer will point out to you when you are faced with such a situation.
Remember, this too will pass. And you will move on to brighter times. Holding on to conflict between you and your ex will slow down you getting there.