There may come a point where you need to fire your divorce attorney. And I want to talk about how you do that, what the mechanics are and some things to keep in mind. Now before you fire your divorce attorney, that's what we call a last step in the process. Not the first thing that you need to do. It might be something, if your relationship with your attorney is not going well there are many ways to repair it or to make your comments known and just to give you a heads up I have about seven or eight podcast episodes on how to manage and get the most out of your attorney relationship in the Quick Star Guide and that's just in the Divorce and Your Money store.
You can get a lot of great information that will save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars just from that section on managing your relationship with your divorce attorney but one of the things I want to cover in this particular episode is the mechanics of, "All right, you've had enough. Your attorney's relationship just isn't working out." And what do you do? How do you communicate that? How do you change attorneys? How does that process work and what are the things that you need to keep in mind as you consider changing attorneys?
It can be a challenging thing to do and there are some elements to consider. Now, one thing I'll just tell you is don't feel as if you failed because you picked an attorney that did not work out for you. Choosing an attorney is a very very difficult process. There are a lot of complications. It's not easy. You don't always know what you're getting because it's hard to say how that attorney relationship's going to go before you get divorced and it's not always easy to pick the right attorney. And so ... And sometimes you have what is a good attorney but isn't a good attorney for you and your circumstances.
And so when you finally get to that point that your attorney just isn't up to the task for you and the relationship's not going well and you're on that last straw, it maybe time to fire that person. And I want to cover three areas to consider, or three things to think about as you go through the firing process. The first is communicating your concerns, the second is interviewing other attorneys and the third is how to fire the attorney and what the mechanics of that are.
Let's start with the first point which is, communicating your concerns with an attorney. One of the toughest parts with the attorney is that you have to communicate what is going on and if you are unhappy for a particular reason, you need to communicate the reasons for your unhappiness with the attorney's job. Sometimes, or most of often, almost the same way it is in a relationship is that the biggest issue of the attorney or with the attorney is in the communication area. And your communication with that person just is not where it needs to be.
And so you might not know what's going on with your case, your attorney might not reply to your emails in a timely fashion, maybe they don't seem prepared or know what's going on in your case and maybe their paralegals are not being responsive. Whatever the concerns maybe you need to start by outlining those and communicating your unhappiness or frustration with the job that the attorney is doing. And maybe they might say, "Oh, sorry, let me work on this thing," and you give them a month or a few weeks and they improve substantially. Because they might not know that they have a problem with customer service.
Many times lawyers are good at the law but terrible at running a business and they're not as adept at things like customer service and communication even though it's very important to you. Other times, and one of my unfortunately favorite sayings is, "A bad attorney doesn't become better just because you keep paying them." And so sometimes you're going to be in a position where just that attorney is not working out and you have to, despite your communication attempts, it's just not going well. And so I wouldn't expect because you pay them an extra $5,000 or an extra $10,000 or an extra $50,000 that they're going to magically become better for you and better for your case.
And so, what to do then is it's time to move to the next step, which is step number two, is that is interviewing other attorneys. Now, I have lots of episodes, both free and in the Quick Stuart Guide on how to select an attorney, both the first time and the second time around. And ways to minimize the chance you end up with a bad attorney. There's a lot of different tips in there for you to think about but one of the things I want to cover is that before you fire or consider firing your attorney you need to have somewhere else to go. It's as simple as that is you need to interview, I suggest at least two, sometimes three other attorneys. Go meet for initial consultations. Meet for even a follow up consultation. Sometimes they'll be free, sometimes there's a charge involved, but this is your life and your divorce and so you need to figure out who the best alternative might be for you.
And I would not encourage you to fire your attorney until you know where you're going to go. Firing an attorney without having a back up option in place is similar to leaving a job without knowing what your next job is to be that you have lined up. If you're working and you have a job and you're like, "I'm frustrated with my job. I want to quit," well, and you quit and you don't have a backup option it could take you two or six or a year, six months or a year are even multiple years before you find the next job and that wouldn't have been the smartest decision.
It's the same with your attorney in that you should figure out who you want to represent you before firing that person. Now, let's assume that you've communicated your concerns, it hasn't been alleviated, the relationship between you and your attorney is irreparably broken, you have found your next alternative attorney, now how to you actually fire your existing attorney? This is point number three. And how do you do it?
Well, there's a few ways to do it. And there's a few things that you should be considering. The first is you can give them a call and just say, "Look, I don't think the relationship's working out." It doesn't have to be a complicated call. Just say, "Look, this relationship isn't working out. I've hired Jane Smith or John Smith in my town. I think they're going to be better to represent me going forward. I just want to give you a heads up that I'm going to tell you know, but also I'm going to need my file and unused retainer." What did I just cover in that?
The first is that you said, there's three things I covered. First is that you said, "They're fired." Or I should say four things. First you said, "They're fired and the relationship is over. Stop billing me." The second is that you said, "This is the attorney that I'm going the use." The third thing is that, "Please send my file, all of the documentation, all of the correspondence, all of the backup documents be it credit card statements or tax returns or whatever else to Attorney Jane Smith or John Smith and here is their contact information." And the fourth I said very briefly but you would want to illustrate this is in some cases you can get your unused retainer back.
Now I know some attorneys who don't have, how have nonrefundable retainers but I also know other attorneys who will refund any portion of your retainer that you paid but will, and will transfer that either back to you or will give that money to your next attorney so it's not like you're out hundreds or thousands of dollars in unused legal fees.
Now sometimes I've also seen attorneys find ways to use up that unused retainer but other times you can get a portion of it back. And so I said you should call and do that but also follow up in writing and say, "Look, I'm withdrawing your use as my council. Here's the four things I said on the list." That they're fired, the new attorney, please send all the documents to the new attorney, and to refund any unused retainer and get a final statement, billing statement from them and what that amount is so you know what it is.
And you know it can seem like a scary process. How do you fire your attorney? What's going to happen? Are they going to come after you? Most of the time they will not come after you. Look, changing attorneys happens on a regular basis. It's something that's common. It's something that is not unusual or weird or anything like that. And so you shouldn't worry too much about it in terms of someone being angry or upset with you. It is what it is. You have to be the CEO of your divorce. That's a phrase you'll hear me say many times. And as a CEO sometimes you have to fire employees and your lawyer is someone who works for you and if they're not doing a good enough job, you need to fire them in a professional manner and that be that.
I want you to understand those mechanics. Know that if you need to do it here are some resources to help you and it's not scary. And you just have to do it and take control. I know some people don't like the confrontation with their attorney. They won't go after ... There's nothing like that. Now, there is one point I do want to bring up and that is sometimes you're going to fire an attorney and you're going to have an outstanding bill to them. It might be hundreds of dollars, it might be thousands of dollars. You should pay the outstanding bill.
The last thing that you want is your attorney, and I've been in this situation where someone needs to fire their attorney, there's an outstanding bill. One of a few things happens. One is the attorney doesn't turn over the files until the outstanding bill is paid. That could be something that happens. Or another thing that happens is there's an outstanding bill paid and the attorney sends that bill to collections. Also something else that you don't want to have happen.
Things to think about, things to consider when it comes to an outstanding bill. Make sure you pay that. Just clean up the last little bits. You don't want to be penny wise pound foolish or anger someone inadvertently or have an additional legal proceeding from an outstanding bill. Make sure you pay that. But otherwise, look, it's very simple. Communicate your concerns, interview other attorneys and then follow with my four step process and just four things to communicate to your previous attorney as you fire them.
One important topic that comes up on calls is how do I stop my spouse from spending all our money? Now, this question comes in many flavors. It could be frivolous purchases, vacations, money spent on an affair. I've heard people spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on prostitutes. Sometimes there's just a spouse that's terrible with money, and one spouse likes to go shopping, or might even quit their job and just spend a lot more money than they used to all of a sudden as part of the relationship. I've had cases where spouses are sending money to family members for questionable purposes. I've had cases where spouses take money out and invest it into terrible business ideas. I've had people who spent a million dollars or more investing in some latest fad and losing it all. Could be gambling, could be drugs, could be any number of situations as to when a spouse is wasting money, and the question is, well, what do I do about that? Is there any recourse? How do I handle that type of situation? And, like in all things divorce, of course state laws vary on the subject, but I want to provide a few terms for you to think about, and a few things to be aware of if this is a situation that may be affecting you.
I'm going to give you three things to think about. The first is something called dissipation. The second is tracing, and the third is the timing of your divorce. And we're going to go through these things and dig into them a little bit, and maybe these will be helpful for you as you try and figure out, well, what should I do in this situation? Let's start with the first thing, which is dissipation of marital assets. Dissipation of marital assets. I know some of you take notes, and I want to spell out the word dissipation, D-I-S-S-I-P-A-T-I-O-N. Dissipation. I feel like I'm in a spelling bee. And the general idea of dissipation is that one spouse is wasting marital money, and it's not in the normal course of your expenses. For example, if one person wasted $25,000 on an affair with someone. Maybe taking someone on trips or nice meals, or whatever, buying gifts, whatever the case may be, or it could have been any of the examples above. Drugs, gambling, anything.
And in dissipation, what happens is you figure out what was lost, and you can get reimbursement for the funds that one spouse spent. So if your spouse wastes a bunch of money on an affair, you can basically get that money back as part of the split of the divorce process. Now, there's a lot of complications and intricacies related to that, but it's something that you should bring up with your attorney and look up the laws in your state to figure out if it is something that may apply to you. But that's the term that you might be looking for, and people don't always know the terms, so I want to make sure that you know what that is.
The second thing is something called tracing, and tracing is a word that's used, it's a legal term, but the concept is very simple. And tracing is used in many aspects of the divorce process, when it comes to splitting up all of your assets and debts and such. And the idea is to figure out, well is to trace, to figure out, where money came from and where it went, oftentimes. And so tracing comes to prove the flow of funds from one place to another. I was watching an episode of Law and Order, it was on TV, and it was an older episode, and the judge, they had a family law judge on in Law and Order. And one of the characters, this is SVU, Elliot Stabler is in the middle of a divorce, and the family law judge says, "It's my job to figure out who I think is lying less." I wrote that down, as I thought that was a great quote, because it's very relevant when it comes to tracing. The goal of tracing is to figure out, well, one person's going to say the money came from one place, another person's going to say the money came from another place, and the real question is, who's right? And where did that money actually come from?
Much of divorce is he said, she said, and there's three sides to every story, where there's what one person says, what the other person says, and then the truth. And in order to prove wasting funds is that you need to have the evidence of the wasted funds, or be able to trace those issues and assets. And so it could be something like getting credit cards. It could be something like bank statements, could be retirement account withdrawals. But you have to figure out where the money went, and oftentimes it's not easy. Sometimes it can be a very tough process to trace or to follow up on every transaction, everything you're looking for, and it can be an expensive process, too. You might need the help of an accountant or a forensic accountant, and you're going to need to get lots of bank statements and account statements and start to try and put together a picture of where certain marital money went.
And it's not always obvious that something was, let's just say out of the normal course of business for your family, and it could be a challenge. Sometimes it could be five or 10 or 20 thousand dollars just to figure out where assets went, or more. And so you need to think about that as you are wondering about assets. Sometimes, and I'll work with you, and it's a smoking gun case of like, oh, well every time this person visited Miami, that was where the mistress or affair person was located, and it's easy to, Miami wasn't actually a business trip. It was only a play trip, and it's easy to figure out all the transactions that happened in Miami. But most of the time, nine out of 10 times, it's nowhere near that simple, and it's something that you have to figure out. And one of the questions is, how much money is gone and how much will it cost to try and find that money, and on top of that is, after you spent all the money on trying to find it, will it have been worth the time and energy? So that's tracing.
The last thing is not a technical term, but more of something for you to think about as you go through the divorce process, which is the timing of your divorce can be very important and very relevant when it comes to the wasting of marital funds. And what I'm getting at is, normally when you file divorce, it kind of stops any major transactions from happening, financial transactions from happening, between you and your spouse. And so what happens is if you file for divorce, basically you're not supposed to do anything suspicious. You're not supposed to make any big withdrawals, you're not supposed to make any big purchases that are out of the ordinary, you're not supposed to move a bunch of money around different accounts. You're not supposed to do anything that could be considered questionable once the divorce is filed.
But up to that point, I hate to say it, that's kind of fair game. You can kind of do whatever you want. I'm not going to say that you can get away with some of the stuff we talked about before, but it's a lot more of a gray area in terms of what's going on in your divorce. And so one of the things that I talk with you sometimes to consider is if your main concern is stopping a spouse from making a major purchase, or making a big withdrawal, or changing assets on something, then filing for divorce could be a great solution in order to prevent something bad from happening, at least from a financial perspective. Now, I don't ever encourage filing for divorce. I say my hope is that no one ever has to listen to this podcast again, and that would be great. But the reality is, is sometimes it's required, and that's why we're all here, and that's why we're listening, and necessary, and so one of the things to think about is if you are fearing, and I hear this every week, that your spouse is going to waste money on something else in a big sum, then that may be the cause or may be the reason you want to consider moving up the timing of a divorce filing.
Now, filing for divorce and the timing around it is a very sensitive subject, and there's a lot of moving parts and a lot of things to consider, but if you are putting together your list of reasons you might want to file sooner over later, and that is it, is to prevent a spouse from wasting funds, any more funds than they have already, on certain areas of the divorce. Because that way there would be recourse and very clear recourse for you to get that money back later, if a spouse is wasting funds.
Now, those are just three things to consider, and three ways to help stop your spouse from wasting money, and to get that money back, or at least try to get that money back, either during the settlement process or sooner. When you are dealing with the divorce situation, and the divorce process, I should say, if you can trace marital assets that have been dissipated ... Whew, a lot of words. You might be able to get some credit for those, and get more of your share of the assets later down the line, because one spouse wasted them upfront.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, I want to discuss a question that came up recently, and it's a subject that while not exactly a specific divorce topic, it's very important when you think about planning for your financial situation, and has a big impact on how you think about budgeting and finances in general. It can impact what you think about agreeing upon as part of the divorce settlement. Many of you have retirement savings, or if you've listened to other podcasts, you might be getting a lump sum distribution or trying to negotiate a lump sum distribution as part of your divorce settlement, and as you may know, is one of the things I advocate for particularly.
I think it makes sense many times and is underutilized, a lump sum distribution, because both parties oftentimes benefit. If you're the person receiving that lump sum, that's great because you have all the funds. You don't have to rely upon your ex-spouse to make those monthly support payments, and if you're the person making that lump sum, you also get the benefit of, well, you don't have to make every month that support payment, and it's all kind of done upfront, and you can also end up paying a little bit less in the form of a lump sum, because you get to get those funds out early instead of over years.
I have some great episodes on lump sum distributions, but more broadly is if you have any kind of savings, be it retirement or investment accounts or cash in a bank account, the question that I want to answer on today's episode is, "How much can you plan to withdraw from your savings each year? How much can you plan to withdraw from your savings this year?" What am I getting at is, the question is, I like to keep things pretty simple. You have your income every year. You have your expenses, or I should say you have your income every month, you have your expenses every month. At the end of the month, hopefully your income is greater than your expenses, but oftentimes in divorce that's not the case and particularly in the beginning.
The situation where this came up is this person hadn't been working in 20-plus years, and they were in their 50s, and you know, you're not going to retire for another decade if you're in your 50s at least, and so the question was, "Well, can I just live off of my lump sum distribution that I'm trying to negotiate? How much of that can I spend each year and be okay?" Or if you just have general savings or if you're even already in retirement or thinking about retirement or planning for retirement, you need to understand, how much of your total bucket of retirement can you spend and be okay?
I'm going to give you just a very simple rule of thumb to make things easy and some other considerations to think about when you are considering how much money you spend from your assets. The first question is, of your savings, how much can you withdraw each year from your savings? Now, the perfect answer is you aren't withdrawing from your savings. In a perfect world, and very, very few people live in this perfect world, I'd say no one does, but in an ideal financial world, you are not withdrawing from your savings. Just to use very simple math, if you have $100,000, you're adding to your savings every year is the ideal for most people. But unfortunately, in practice, that doesn't work. If you start the year with $100,000, ideally you want to have $110,000 saved up by the end of the year, but you know, I understand that life happens. There's expenses and everything else. Sometimes your income and expenses aren't going to equal each other, and you're going to need to borrow or you're going to have to withdraw some money from that $100,000 in savings, and I just use $100,000 because it's a very simple number to do math from.
How much can you spend? I give a very, very simple rule of thumb, and it's 4%. So for every $100 you have saved, you can spend 4% of that a year and be okay. Why do I use such a low rate and such a low number? Well, if you get above 4%, then what ends up happening is it's going to be very hard to replace that money and you're going to be withdrawing from the principal. What do I mean? Put it a different way, is if you have $100,000 a year, I say it's safe to plan that you can earn $4,000 a year in dividends, interests, and appreciation over the long term, if you are just planning for that.
Now, hopefully your rate of return on that $100 is higher than 4%, but I wouldn't plan on it. You never know. I know the market's gone up quite a bit for the last decade as I record this, but there's always downturns. Interest rates fluctuate, the economy fluctuates, the market fluctuates, and if you spend more than ... If you plan on earning 8% or 10% or 15%, then that's probably not realistic, and that's a terrible plan from a financial perspective if you're making your budget and budgeting, because if you fall under those projected returns, then you're not going to have enough savings for later in life. The plan is, is, look, you can stay about even with your savings if you only spend about 4% a year.
Now, 4% a year is not a lot, and if you have $100,000 in savings, some people I know don't have anywhere near that amount. I know some people listening have many multiples of that amount, but if you have $100,000 a year in savings, then you can only plan to supplement your budget for $4,000 a year and expect to be okay. You know, if you spent $3,000 then that's even better, or zero, that's great, or even $1,000, but once you get over to $5,000 or $6,000 or $8,000 or $10,000 a year from your savings, it's going to be very, very hard to replace those funds. And so for all of you thinking about your budget and what you can spend and what can you live on, think about 4% a year. If you have $1 million, that would be $40,000 a year that you can live on and withdraw from your assets, or $100,000, I said it's $4,000, and it fluctuates to whatever number is relevant to you.
Now, second point I want to bring up connected to all of this is that sometimes when you have to, it's okay to spend a little bit from your savings for the first couple of years after divorce. I don't advocate necessarily for spending additional funds, but there's always practical realities and oftentimes it's easy to forget the reality of one's situation. If you haven't gotten a job or if you don't have a high paying career, or you haven't worked in a while and you're trying to reenter the workforce, for many people it's unlikely that you're going to be earning six figures as that first job, particularly over that first year, even when you're well educated. And sometimes maybe you are actually, and if you are, then more power to you. That's awesome, and make sure you have the other elements of your financial picture set up.
But if you're thinking about kind of reentering the workforce, which is a common scenario I deal with, or if your spouse is thinking about it and you're trying to present a persuasive case to your spouse, you have to kind of keep that in mind as well, is that maybe it might take them a year or two or three to retrain and get back on your footing. And so if you have that $100,000 pot, well, maybe you do need to spend $5,000 or $7,000 or $12,000 for a year. Yeah, that's a big bite and it does cut a lot into your savings, but if it's only for a year or two at the most, then you can use that and treat it like an investment to get yourself back on track, but treat it really like an investment, an investment in education, an investment in job training, an investment in some sort of resource or another asset that gives earning potential.
If you're spending that $5,000 or if you're spending $10,000 in a year just to keep up with your mortgage that's in a house that's too big, or if you're spending that extra money on a car payment that's too high, then I wouldn't really think that's a great use of funds because you'll never get that money back. But oftentimes you're retraining or going ... I have tons of clients who go back to school and become any number of jobs or need to kind of dust off the old degree. They might start at entry level, but since they have some life experience, they get to move up quickly, and it only takes them a year or two or three at the max to get really back in the flow of things in a pretty decent way. I mean, oftentimes won't necessarily be the CEO of a big company, but still earn a very good living for you and your family, and in those scenarios it's okay if you need to spend a little in the short term with the understanding that as you plan your budget and plan what you're thinking about, that that's a temporary thing and you should be working on or try to work on any other lifestyle adjustments you can to see how things are going on.
Also, you should be planning to not spend more than that 4% over the long term, but at the same time money is there for when you need it. It's just, try and save it for things you really need, not something frivolous like a vacation when you can avoid it, particularly right after or during or while planning for a divorce situation, because you don't know all the moving parts and the hidden expenses and just all of the things that happen during this process.
Then the third thing I just want to bring up is that when you spend more than 4%, you can start eating away at your principal. What does that mean? Well, what happens is you end up in a negative downward spiral. If year one, and I'm going to just oversimplify this a little bit, I'm going to use the number $100. Let's say you start with $100 in savings. You spend $4 of it, so you're at $96, but maybe you get some investment returns, so that gets you back to $100. So you kind of stay around even over the course of the year. Well, what if the next year you spend 7% but you only get 4% in investment returns? And if someone who's really good at math understands what I just said, you'll say that what I said is not exactly accurate, but let's just say you start at $100. Year two, you're still at $100, and you spend 7%, so you spend $7 and you only earned $4. Well, then you're down to $97. Well, to get back up to $100 is more than 4%. you have to get up to 5% or 6% to get back to that $100.
Now, if you spend more again the next year, let's just say you're down to $92. Well, getting from $92 to $100 takes a lot more effort and a lot more time. And if you spend, again, and let's just say you get down to $80, well, getting from $80 back to that $100 is a big amount, and without getting to the exact numbers and exact percentages, trying to stay even gets harder and harder and harder every year, and not only does it get harder every year, if you spend 4% of $80, that's only $3.2. So 4% of $80 is $3.2, where 4% of $100 is $4, so you have two things that are happening at the same time. One is that when you're spending your principal, you just have less overall money, and the second thing is, is an equivalent percentage of spending on a lower total amount of money is sort of a downward spiral, because you get, for every dollar you lose, you can withdraw less the next year, and then the next year and the next year, and you keep running out of money even if your percentage of withdrawal kind of stays the same, if you're above that 4% number.
Hopefully I illustrated that clearly for you. It's kind of a lot of numbers and moving parts, but the point is this, is that if you're withdrawing from your savings every year, it gets harder and harder and harder to catch up, and we don't want that happening to you. Does that make sense? I hope that makes sense.
The three points are, first point is, 4% rate for your savings. If you're planning about planning on budgeting, assume you can only spend 4% a year on your savings, or out of your lump sum, out of your savings money. And hopefully less than that. The second thing is, if you have to, it's okay in the short term to spend a little bit of money the first year or two after the divorce because practical realities necessitate that happening. But make sure it's only a short term thing and not something over the long term. Then the third point is that if you're spending more than 4%, you start eating away at your principal, which leads to a negative downward spiral, and you want to avoid that. So plan wisely as you think about your settlement and your divorce settlements, and it's a very important long term planning tool to keep in mind both while you're working and even while you're thinking about retirement.
To learn more about Janet McCullar and the custody process, visit her website at: https://janetmccullar.com/.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
Shawn Leamon: Shawn Leamon, here, M.B.A. and certified divorce financial analyst, here with Janet McCullar, board-certified family law attorney in Texas and author of the new book The Custody Lawyer. Janet, it's great to speak with you today.
Janet McCullar: Thanks, Shawn. I'm glad to be here with you.
Shawn Leamon: Why don't you give us a little bit of a background on you? You just wrote this great and informative book called The Custody Lawyer, but tell us a little bit about how long you've been practicing and why you wrote the book.
Janet McCullar: All right. I've been practicing for over 25 years. I was a teacher before that, then went to law school. Not too long after I finished law school, I started working in the divorce and custody area, and have mostly done custody cases in my practice.
Janet McCullar: I wrote the book because I noticed that when people come in to meet with me for their very first appointment, and they've got a custody case, and they have a lot of concerns, we have what I call an initial consultation. By the end of that consultation, I've seen their shoulders drop, the person's more relaxed, some of the fears that they have have been addressed, and some of the frequent misunderstandings that people have about the way a case works or what might happen to them goes away. I see [inaudible 00:03:54] relief. I love that initial meeting. I love that ability to really help somebody address those fears and concerns.
Janet McCullar: And so, I started thinking about all the things that I told to people in those first meetings and put it together in a book. Also, just tried to address how a trial works and some special areas like parental alienation, which I hear about from people all the time.
Janet McCullar: So that's sort of a little bit about me and why I wrote the book.
Shawn Leamon: No. That's great. I want to get into parental alienation at a high level in just a little bit, but for someone who doesn't know anything about custody, but they know it's going to be an issue. It doesn't necessarily have to be a divorce-related issue, though of course, custody issues, I imagine, are often happen in divorce context. But for someone who just knows that they're going to have a custody question or a custody battle on their hands, what's the first thing someone should be doing to prepare for that?
Janet McCullar: Well, I think the first thing you should do, of course, is contact a lawyer like myself, and set up a meeting with them. Even if you're not sure you're going to be going through a divorce, or if you're not sure you're going to be having a custody case, going and meeting with the lawyer will give you the opportunity to get some ideas about things to do in case that happens in the future. For example, I often tell people who just want to consult with me to keep a diary or a calendar where they're marking the things that are happening. So if they're having a dispute about when visitation should be or if they're having their child's coming back from a visitation with the other parents, and the child is acting out in some way, they're making a record of it. Over time, these kind of chronologies are extremely useful to me in putting together a case for somebody.
Janet McCullar: Also, going and finding out just some basic information about what happens and what do you need to plan for.
Shawn Leamon: To that extent, is there sort of a flow to how a custody case works or a specific process that one goes through when someone comes into your office? What does that look like? I know for most people, you have no idea what they're about to face or how that process even goes.
Janet McCullar: Right. So, there's usually two ways that people come to see me. Either they are splitting up with a partner and they have children, or they already have been divorced and they're going to be doing what's called a modification of the prior orders that were made by a court. But let's talk about the first instance when somebody's coming in for the first time.
Janet McCullar: Not everyone, these days, is married that is going through a custody case, but many people are. What happens first is you come in, you meet with me, we talk about what's going on in your situation, and I give some guidance on whether a case needs to be filed. Not everybody needs one. I sometimes recommend that people go and try some other things first, such as going to counseling. And then if that isn't working or somebody's ready to separate from their partner, then we will file a lawsuit, usually a divorce. In that, it's going to include the things that we need to figure out about the child or the children.
Janet McCullar: Once that process is started, which is filing some sort of lawsuit, which I think a lot of people don't really think about that, but that's just what it is. It's a lawsuit. A divorce is a lawsuit. Then it's a matter of are there urgent matters that need to be tended to right away or are we going to go through a process then where we're gathering information that will eventually lead us to a trial, where a judge will make decisions, or before a trial, a mediation, where the people will work together with a neutral third party to help them resolve the case through a process called mediation.
Janet McCullar: Along the way, a lot can happen. It just depends on how complex the situation is. If it's a very complex situation, for example, that say parental alienation is involved, we're going to have steps in between where we're going to be asking a court to appoint some professional to do, for example, an alienation evaluation to find out if that is going on. Or we're going to ask the other side for information through a process called discovery.
Janet McCullar: I try to go through in my book a little bit about what happens at each of those stages because it is a very mystifying process for most people because most people don't go through lawsuits in their lifetime.
Shawn Leamon: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. The other thing you mentioned as well is modifications. That's something that I imagine comes up quite a bit, or often I imagine some people don't know that they can modify a previous order, or some people might be afraid that it does get modified. Could you talk a little bit about that process as well?
Janet McCullar: Sure. A modification is a change of a prior order. What that usually means, pretty simply, is that the divorce decree or the last order that was put in place is not working for some reason or another. For example, maybe somebody, you know, wants to move out of state. Maybe visitation that was ordered under the decree or the divorce decree isn't working. Maybe the children are refusing to come and visit the other parent. Maybe the other parent isn't facilitating visitation. Maybe sometimes something big happens like a parent was arrested for driving while intoxicated, or they have developed a drug problem that the parent is starting to affect their ability to parent. All of those are the kind of things that I see when people are coming to me and wanting to change or modify what the original orders were.
Janet McCullar: A very frequent request is one parent may have been the primary parent, and now, the other parent thinks there are reasons that they should be the primary parent. And so that can result in people going to court and asking the court to modify or change the orders.
Shawn Leamon: Now, that's very helpful.
Shawn Leamon: Let's shift gears to, you know, there's a lot of different topics in the book, and I'd like to cover all of them, but don't have enough time for today, but one that you've mentioned a few times is parental alienation. What is that?
Janet McCullar: Parental alienation is situation where there is a preferred parent and a rejected parent. It is not necessarily the case that the preferred parent is engaging in a conscious plan to remove the children, but their conduct can be so subtle. Eventually, it can lead to a child flat out refusing to see a parent. Often, what I hear the favored parent saying is, "Well, I can't make the child go see the other parent. They refuse to go." Which poses an interesting question to me because if your child came to you and said, for example, "I don't want to go to school," would you just throw up your hands and say helplessly to the authorities, "I can't make my child go to school"? Or if your child needed medical treatment, parents don't, I've never heard of a parent who says, "I can't make my child get the treatment that they need from a medical provider."
Janet McCullar: But so often, people will say that in terms of a custody. "I can't make them go." Of course, you can. Every parent can make their child go and visit the other parent. And they need to make them go. When that's not happening, that is one of the biggest signs that there's some alienation going on.
Janet McCullar: It can start off in a very subtle way, but so often, it starts with a gradual, you know, the child stops going to visit, or they don't like the circumstances of the visitation, or they, you know, act out when they come to the other parent's house. All those things can start a path towards alienation or, at a lesser degree, estrangement.
Shawn Leamon: And that last term that you use, estrangement, what does that actually mean?
Janet McCullar: Estrangement is a milder form of alienation. That's a situation where, I often see a parent befriending their child and sharing with the child information about the other parent that's not appropriate. You know, saying things like, "Daddy is divorcing me and leaving us," is something I heard a mother say once. You know that most parents when they're going through a divorce want their children to know "your dad and I aren't going to be together anymore, but Dad loves you and I love you, and time with both of us is important." But a parent who is engaging in an estrangement starts signaling to the child that it's not okay to spend time with the other parent.
Janet McCullar: They can do things like, you know, refuse to let the child talk about what's going on at the other parent's house, forbid them from taking certain belongings to the parent's or from the other parent's house. In public settings, not sitting with the parent or sitting across the room, and if the other parent tries to join them, getting up and moving. Things that are sending to the child a signal that there's something wrong. Often, it gets into a very complex dynamic where the child wants to please the parent who is rejecting their other parent, and they know that as long as Mom, for example, is around that they can't be friendly with Dad or it hurts Mom's feelings too much, and they start taking on a caretaking role.
Janet McCullar: But estrangement is just a milder form of alienation. The child may still go to visitation, but there's a lot happening that is undermining a healthy relationship between both parents and the children. Another way of ... Go ahead.
Shawn Leamon: Yeah. You said the word complex, used the word complex, and it sounds like it. One of the questions I have related to that is given all of the examples you just provided, how does one prove that something's going on? I mean, these are, at best case, it sounds like almost anecdotal examples, but how would you win a case or defend someone or go after someone, just depends on the situation, when these behaviors are being exhibited? It's not like someone, there was a police report filed necessarily, or there was a video recorder going on. This is very subtle human interactions.
Janet McCullar: That's very true, Shawn. A lot of people come to me and they're worried about a he said, she said. You can imagine in family law of context and divorce and custody context, that's almost always the case. It's a he said, she said. One, I work with my clients to establish a lot of credibility with the court. I like to say it is they're going to say, but we're going to show example after example. Usually, I work with my clients to come up with very specific examples of the other parent's conduct that we can talk about. So that's one way.
Janet McCullar: But then so often, the kind of interactions that are happening between the parents are also translated into text communications, emails, postings on social media, all of those are frequent types of documents that I use as evidence to show that something is happening and to bolster what my client is saying.
Janet McCullar: People who cannot talk in terms of specifics, you know, if I ask the parent, for example, "Tell me how you encourage and support a positive relationship between your child and the other parent?" And they can't give any examples, that's going to be a thing that undermines their credibility in front of a court. But I'm going to have a client who's prepared to talk about and give example after example after example so that we can demonstrate it. That goes back to keeping calendars and journals and emails and screenshots of things that are on social media, and so forth.
Janet McCullar: In some districts, people make recordings as well. Tape recording another person is something that can be tricky. In the state that I live in, you can record a conversation that you have with another person. Just like if you and I were sitting down having a talk, I could record that conversation. I wouldn't even need to let you know it, and that would be lawful in Texas. But it's not everywhere, and so, before a person makes recordings, they need to be careful about doing that.
Shawn Leamon: No. That makes a lot of sense. Going back to the book, The Custody Lawyer, you cover a wide range of topics from the custody process, visitation, a spouse that's violent or bullying, kids with special needs, and everything else. For someone who, and I know there's many, every day across the country, someone who needs some advice, what's the best way for them to contact you?
Janet McCullar: They can go directly to my website, which is janetmccullar.com. Right on my website, there's a lot of information and also, the ability to set up a consultation with me, and I can talk to anybody anywhere at almost any time to talk about the particulars of their situation. And then secondly, would be to try and find a lawyer, and to have somebody who helps you. I think that a lot of people can save the cost of a lawyer by talking to me first, seeing if they even need to hire a lawyer or maybe I'll have some tips or strategies that they can use to help them position themselves well before they hire a lawyer.
Shawn Leamon: Well, that's very helpful. Well, Janet, it's great speaking with you today.
Janet McCullar: You, too, Shawn. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, I wanna continue discussing creating a marital history. Now, if you didn't
hear the previous episode, you should go back and listen to that one because it has a lot of
good information about the overview on why you should create a marital history, and some
important questions you should be thinking about when you create said history. And also,
some alternative methods to create a marital history and why it's so important to do. And
in this section, I want to continue with the marital history and provide some other areas for
you to think about.
This next area is called the health history, the health section. And, what should you be thinking about in here to include? Well, if there are any mental or physical problems that have happened in the past few years, particularly for either of you, but particularly if it affects the work ability, and also if it affects the way this divorce may go. Have there been any hospitalizations or major surgeries that have happened? Are there any substantial prescription medications that you may need to think about and someone may have? Also, if there are large out of pocket medical expenses, which I've had several cases where that is a substantial portion of their divorce and negotiation, that is very relevant as well.
The next section is education. You should, just for the record ... Or, I shouldn't say for the record, but for our records, give us any information on your educational background, degrees, advanced schooling, no schooling at all, whatever the case may be. And also, this is an interesting section, particularly for those who've been out of the workforce for a while. One of the things that you should think about between us and between your lawyer is if you are planning a second career, a next career, what that might look like. So, I've had clients who've gone to coding school, become real estate agents, become paralegals, become a variety of things. And, one of the things that you should consider is, if you are thinking about those things, how much it costs, how long it takes, and what life might look like after you get that advanced education.
The next section is employment. If you've been working, tell us where you've been working, about how much you make, how long you've been working there, what your salary is, what your job position is, what your future prospects are at that company. And if you haven't worked, that's okay too. Let us know. Or, if you've had a break from employment. I know some people who worked for a while, then they stopped for a while, then they've restarted their career. Whatever the case is, that's fine. Just let us know what has been going on, and also do the same for your spouse.
The next section is real estate. And actually, I just had a client send me an email 'cause they have a bunch of real estate. I said, "Just give me a list of all of this information for all of your properties. I'm just gonna run down it." For every piece of real estate you have, tell us when you purchased it, how much you spent when you purchased it, where the funds for the down payment came, how much of a mortgage you may have had, who's been paying the mortgage payments, have there been any substantial upgrades. Like, if you remodeled the kitchen, or if you added a wing to the house, or a new bathroom, or whatever the case may be. And, how you paid for those upgrades as well. And also, whose name is on the property, as well as whose name is on any debt.
And then, finally, is there other income that we need to think about, or unusual income, or unusual things in your finances? Things that might be unusual or other include income from rental property, substantial dividend income if you had a settlement. So, a lawsuit judgment that you won. If there is a trust, a spouse has a trust. If a spouse gets substantial stock options, or you get substantial stock options, something to think about. Or, if a big chunk of the income occurs in a year end bonus, or if the income is lumpy, or if there's a business involved. All of those things you kind of can toss into the other section to provide any additional explanation. And, I'll say that most people have ... not everyone, but most people have some sort of other that they need to include as part of the process. So, something else to think about there.
And, those are the main items. And so, what you do is go through each of these to the best of your ability. And, you should start filling them out. Once you have everything written down, it doesn't have to be in my order, and sometimes attorneys will ask for them in different orders, to the extent possible, you need to start gathering proof of everything, or evidence of everything. As I said, to the extent possible. If there are particular wage items that we need to be thinking about, or if there is a bank account, or if there is a mortgage statement, or if there is a medical history that we need to know about 'cause it could become a good deal, or if there was a specific instance of abuse that may be relevant, or if you've been seeing a therapist for a while, either you singular or as a couple, start gathering up that information. Anything that can ...
As I say oftentimes on many coaching calls, I'll say, "I understand what's going on, but do you have any proof that what you're saying has happened? Something with the kids?" It's better to have as much documentation as possible that proves what you're saying is correct, rather than not having it at all. And so, as part of that, you just go section by section and start getting the evidence you need, particularly if there's going to be, or if you anticipate, a dispute over something. So, a good example, let's just say, is a bonus. Sometimes spouses manipulate what their income actually is. And so, what you'll do is you'll need to go get the tax returns and say, "Hey. On the tax returns, here's what happened over the last five years. Here's five years of returns. Here's a good way to verify what the income is, or what the income has been."
Or, if there is a medical issue ... I've had a few cases where almost 100% of the divorce is about medical things. And if that's the case, then you need to have evidence of what medical treatments you've been having, what the out of pocket has been, who your doctors are, what prescriptions you take, and what the future prognosis is of that medical condition. If you're on disability, why you've been on disability, what prompted it, what evidence you have of it, why it might mean you can't work. Or, if you're the spouse contesting the disability, which I also have some clients who are contesting a client's disability claim, why ... You don't think that spouse is as disabled as you think they are, and here's some evidence. Here's a Facebook post of them running a half marathon, or doing an adventure sport, or playing golf and walking around just like they're fine, where they claim they can't work and they can't get out of bed.
So, whatever that is, anything that you're going to anticipate contesting ... It could be something for the kids. I don't know. But, start getting in the mode of gathering evidence now and including that in the marital history.
Another common one that people forget about, but if you have text messages, or emails, or in some cases, a little bit more extreme end, recorded phone calls or conversations, that is also evidence, or potential evidence. Make sure you don't violate any laws. But, if you take a screenshot of a text message conversation, or if you have nasty emails or nasty voicemails, or Facebook messages, or whatever the case may be, all of that type of stuff is also potential evidence that can help you with your claim.
So, what do you do? So, let's take a step back. Just giving you a week's worth of potential work. You start answering all these questions. There's no set form, per se, that you have to fill out. It's just what makes the most sense for you, and what the major items are, and what you wanna include. You can always add to it or revise it later. But once you have it, what next? Well, once you have that information and you have the evidence, you need to take a step back from it and keep it all organized as possible. Have a friend look over it, and say, "Hey, friend. Here is some evidence that ... Give a look at this. Is there anything I'm missing? Does it all make sense to you? Is it clear?" If you have a trusted friend, show them everything you've prepared.
And then, once you have that all prepared, and everyone's reviewed it and it's good to go, it's nice and organized, share it with your attorney. Or, if you're gonna book a coaching call with me, or book a call with another certified divorce financial analyst, or someone else, prepare it as well. And, send that information over and say, "Hey. I want you to review all of this in advance of our conversation." Or if you're gonna go to a meeting, bring it with you to the meeting, or ask to have it reviewed in advance. I have a document review call that I recently started offering where we go through marital histories, and other relevant documents, in advance of the call so we can dive deep and really understand what's actually going on in the divorce. And so, I would start thinking about those things, and share it with the people who are your trusted advisors. Be as honest as you can, and we will interpret the information to the best of our ability.
Also know this, is that your spouse may be doing the same thing. And so, sometimes it's helpful to hear ... Or, maybe not even helpful. But, sometimes we will hear the other spouse's side of the story as well. It's not just a one-sided process sometimes. We always work for the person who hires us. But, if you're kind of going through a collaborative process and you're on good terms with your spouse, have your spouse prepare their version of the story as well. It can be very helpful for all of us as we figure out what the appropriate course of action is, and how do we get through this process in one piece and minimize the amount of conflict, and make sure everyone gets, to the best of our ability, the outcome that we hope to get them to.
There's no right or wrong way to do a marital history. The more information you can include, the more organized, the better. There's not a template. There's not a worksheet you can fill out for this one. But, start thinking about it. Start preparing it. I guarantee you your attorney'S going to appreciate it. I will appreciate it. Everyone you work with will be very appreciative of a marital history when you create one.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
I'm going to discuss a topic that I haven't brought up on the podcast before. And that is creating a marital history. Now, this is something that I've talked about on one-on-one coaching calls, but not something that I've brought up on the podcast and I think it's a really important subject that everyone should listen to. And perhaps, everyone should create. One of the challenges when you are getting divorced and you hire someone like me or you go to your attorney, is trying to catch up on everything that has happened. And of course, a lot has happened, particularly, if you are contemplating separation or divorce and are going through that process. And so, one of the things that can help us and help you and help everyone, is what I'm going to call a marital history. Some people might call it a marital history questionnaire, a lot of attorneys I know don't do this at all and they might just ask you questions.
But, this is one of the most powerful tools that I'm now a big fan of. That I think that everyone should do and should create and should work with. And do on their own. It's something that you can do individually. It's not necessarily going to be a fun subject, but it can be very important when it comes to settlement negotiations, if you have to go to trial, and just helping us understand the context of what's going on. One of the things that I ask, if you book a coaching call with me, there's always a questionnaire that covers some basic information on a marital history. But, for the sake of this episode, I'm gonna get into some really in depth issues that you might wanna create, or thinking about, or think about creating that will help everyone get on board. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to your attorney or comes to me or comes to an accountant or something like that, is that we don't know you.
And we don't know everything that has been going on. And even if we do know you for a while or work together for a while, there's stuff that we might forget or we might miss or we might not have it all in order. And so, one easy way to provide clarification in terms of your history and things have gone on, is to document it. Write it all down and create a marital history document. And I'm going to get into what goes into a marital history. And there's different ways that you can do it. But, what it does is in the span of 10 minutes for us, is we can read a few pages of information that you prepared and say, "Okay, I'm starting to get a feel for what's been going on over the last five or 10 or 15 or 20 or 30 years." And now, I can start formulating a strategy in terms of "Oh, your spouse is a narcissist" or "Oh, I understand that you've been a stay at home parent all of this time" or "Oh, you're the primary bread earner and this is what's happening" or "Oh, this spouse has money issues" they can't save.
Or "Oh, you've been or the spouse has been great, just things aren't working out and we need to get a divorce and this is what's gonna happen" or "There's been abuse and here's some examples of instances that this has taken place". Whatever the case may be, it's easy for us to come up to speed with what those things are. And it's in a marital history document. And so, what I'm gonna do over this episode and perhaps a couple of episodes is go through some of the things that should be on your marital history and some different ways to prepare it and some different considerations to do. Now, there is a ... There's sort of two methods to creating a marital history, and they're not exclusive, meaning you can do both of them. And the one that I normally go with, not because it's right or wrong, it's just the way that I think. Very analytical and I deal with of numbers.
And I like creating what I call a timeline. Or what many people call a timeline, in which I say, "Hey, if you wanna do a very simple version of this document that's only a page long", which might be all that you need for some people is, look, just create a page, or two pages at the most. Create a timeline for me. Tell me what day you got married. Tell me the big events that occurred in your marriage." So, if you bought a house on a particular date. Tell me that on May 1, 2002, you bought a house. And just give me like ... You can keep it that simple. You could say, "Hey, we bought a house. We both contributed $50 thousand each for the down payment. And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Or, if it's something more complex than that, maybe you could say, "Oh, well I contributed the down payment, spouse did not contribute, house is in my name only. And I pay for the mortgage. And have for the last 20-some years."
Whatever the case may be. I said, "2002", so I guess less than 20 years, last 15, 16 years. And so, you can do that or you could say, "In 2017, in June we had our first big argument and I left the house for a month" or "There was an abuse situation that occurred and police were called" or "Went to marriage therapy for the first time". But, what you do is you just take all the events in order, put them with dates and you list them on a page. And that's the simple method that can say, "Okay, I can see the big events. Here's some quick explanation in terms of what's been going one". I've had people who do it by hand. You can type it up. You can do it in excel document. Whatever is easiest for you. And just quickly layout the history and timeline for things that have happened.
Now, I'm going to go through a little bit more of a comprehensive method that can be paired with a timeline, but I'm gonna go through a lot of different questions and a lot of ways to jog your memory in terms of things that you should include on this marital history. Now, if you walk into almost any attorneys office they'll have a intake form for you to complete. Some of the questions on that intake form are helpful and will relate to a marital history. But, some of the stuff I don't really see on many lawyers intake forms, even at the best law firms in the country. But, this is the kind of information that can save everyone a lot of time and energy and questions. And provide a lot of clues in terms of how the divorce should proceed. And so, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna go through a bunch of questions, a bunch of prompts for you to think about. You can ... I don't have them ... You can kinda just think through these.
You might wanna pause for certain ones. I'm going to just kinda read through them, some of the important ones. And start making some notes for yourself. And also just FYI, is I keep a transcript of all of the episodes on the podcast at DivorceInYourMoney.com. If you click on "Podcast" you'll see a transcript of all of the episodes, so if you miss a question or you can always rewind, but also, I keep a list of these questions for you. And I'll try and keep them separated pretty easily, so you can kinda copy and paste if you wanna look at some of these down the line. I know some of you listen to this while working out, some in the car, some at work, and sometimes you're not in a position to write these down at the moment. So, I'm gonna try and make these as easy for you as possible at DivorceInYourMoney.com. And if you click on the "Podcast" button, you'll see the transcript for this episode, in terms of the questions. And I'm gonna do this, probably over two episodes. So, if you don't get all of them now, the other episode will be up shortly.
Now, questions to consider. And let's go through these. These aren't gonna be fun, but you should write these down, type them out, whatever's best, so long as the information is in a position that you can communicate it and share with the people who want to help you. Me, your attorney, et cetera, 'cause this stuff is useful. So, first section is on marriage. There's lots of things to consider in the marriage category. Things to consider such as: Is this your first marriage? Why don't you tell ... You should write down when you got married. Where you got married. And if you had any previous marriages, make sure you write those down and document them as well. Was there a clear time that you separated? You should include that. Why did that separation happen? And if you think there's a clear time you separated, sometimes it's as simple as, "Well, my spouse moved out of the house on August 4th." That's a clear separation date.
But I know many of you are still living together or maybe you're still contemplating divorce. So, a formal separation hasn't happened yet, but you might want to say, "Hey, I think we kinda of ... I think the breaking point was this day." And, there always is a breaking point. You can say who left, what the circumstances were. Those types of things. The next section I would consider is kind of a loaded one, but we'll call it the Fault Section. And trying not to over communicate emotions into some this process. Just try and state the facts to the best of your ability. I've worked with clients on creating these before and sometime you'll say "Well ..." you might have a paragraph as to what you're explanation is, but really ... and what you're thinking, but really, only one thing happened. You moved out of the house and you moved out because there was a threat of something or it was just time or you finally found a new place to move.
Just write "Moved out of the house. Found a new place." Not, "Well, I've been thinking about moving out of the house for eight months and I was walking around the neighborhood and I took a walk and on that walk I was contemplating it and I saw my neighbor and the dog and we had a nice chat. Then I went and had a drink and then the wal ... and then ..." You don't need to do all that. When it comes to this next section, in particular, just try and state the facts to the best of your ability. Remember, everything I say in this process, to get the best outcome possible is to really look at the facts. So, here's some questions: Why do you think the marriage is ending? What did you do that may have contributed to the marriage ending? Sometimes that's an easy question like, "Well, I had three affairs, but those affairs might be because my spouse did not fill my needs in another way" or "We haven't talked" or whatever the case may be.
Now, what things did your spouse do that contributed to the marriage? If you're getting divorced, I know that list could fill a book. But focus on the big items, the breaking points. Are there any third parties that are involved. So, is there another boyfriend, girlfriend that's been involved in this process or that's the cause of this? Is there something, someone outside of just the two of you that is leading to the breakdown of the marriage? As I said, try and document the big things, not everything is of relevance, but to the extent you're willing to share it with your attorney or with me, write it down. Write down the facts and kinda keep it clean. Next area is on children. Make sure you have the ages of the children, where they were born, where they go to school. Do they have any medical issues?
I deal with a lot of people who have children who have special needs. And that provides or adds a layer of complication in the divorce. Is there anything unusual about the child's lives? It could be in relation to, well I have some kids who go to boarding school or who are exceptional musicians. When I say, "I", I mean I have clients who have kids who are like that. You should make those things known. Is your spouse a ... Could they still be a good parent? Is there a reason that custody should be ... And I hate to use the word "Custody", but is there a reason that one child should spend a lot more time with a parent than another? In some cases that's clear, in some cases that's less clear. But, if there are some things that need to be brought up, then by all means, start writing those down. And also, from the kids perspective, if you could guess, sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's not. But if you could guess, do you think the kids would pick a particular parent to live with?
And if so, why? I know some people who have kids, they're in theory living in the same house, but one parent has almost no relationship with a child in the house for any number of reasons. And so, if that's important, then write that down. Has one parent been the primary parent in the relationship? That is very relevant. It's not a negative thing, if one parent has, usually in most relationships, or in many relationships, one person worked and the other person takes care of the household including the kids. So, it's not unusual if one person is, but it's good to be honest and as truthful as you can with your advisors. At the end of the day, even if something might look back for you, it is not something that we're making a judgment on. Our goal is to help get the information in the context, so that we can help you and help make the right decisions for you. And help you make the right decisions that you want.
And so, those are the first areas to start with. Is the marriage, why is it breaking down? Just some basic information about the marriage. Why it's breaking down. And tell us about the kids. In the next episode I'm gonna go through some other questions to think about, like health, education, employment, income questions that will help us get a better picture of your marital history and your marital status. And, just a reminder, you can write these down, you can type them out, whatever format is easiest for you to do. But, be as truthful, as honest, and as much detail as you can so long as it's relevant detail. Stay tuned for the next episode. A lot of good stuff coming in and a lot more questions I wanna make sure that you have answered, which will, I won't say make your divorce smoother, but will certainly help us and help your attorney, help anyone who helps ... help your mediator, whoever it is, in the divorce process present the best case for you.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
When you think about divorce, it is indeed a process, and as part of that, I get to work with you through all stages of the process. Sometimes it's months or years before you file, and you're trying to figure out the key items. Other times during the divorce, you're trying to figure out what path makes the most sense for you, and sometimes, it's even after divorce is over and whether or not it makes sense to pursue a modification or trying to enforce a part of the agreement that's not being taken care of promptly. In this episode, I want to give you some considerations for those of you who are still considering filing for divorce, and in particular, when you should file and whether you should file first. There are reasons that you might want to file first, but the end of the day, if you can control it, you should file for divorce when the time is right for you.
Now, sometimes that timing is enforced upon you by your spouse filing, but if you're in a position where you can control when to file, you need to wait until it makes the most sense for you and your family. Sometimes that might mean, well, waiting for the kids to get out of the house and go off to college or go off to their next career. Or I'm thinking about taking this job or my spouse is thinking about taking this job in another state, or whatever the case may be. Or maybe we're still in the trial separation phase, and we want to reconcile, and so maybe we shouldn't file for divorce quite yet.
Whatever the case is, you need to, if you can, wait until things are right. Now, sometimes you are kind of forced to wait. Maybe you're trying to figure out certain financial complications or other things as part of divorce. I mean, there's a lot to think about when you're filing for divorce. There's 200 episodes of this podcast, which just deals with the financial issues and doesn't even get into most of the custody issues in the legal process of divorce, oftentimes, as well, that's involved. And so there's just a lot to think about whatever the case may be. But in general, I would say my advice is this, is don't rush into divorce if you can prevent it.
Oftentimes when I talk to you and you're still in the early phases, you might be still trying to reconcile, and you might still be trying to do things to make things work for you. In that, case I'll say, "Hey. You know what? Here's what you need to be doing to prepare today just in case the worst case happens. But it's my sincere hope that I never have to speak with you again, and you reconcile, and you're able to work things out." That's my hope is that I don't have to ... If I didn't have this job, I would be very happy. But you know, things are what they are, and so we have to confront them head on. I want to make sure that you're protected.
That said, now there's some reasons that you may consider filing first. I'm going to go through three reasons on why you might want to file for divorce and might want to do it sooner over later. Now, sooner doesn't necessarily mean next week or next month or even next year, but when it looks like divorce is inevitable, there are some things and some reasons you may want to consider filing for because you can dictate a few key elements of the divorce process or maybe have some needs to dictate a few key elements of the divorce process.
I've been reading a lot of military books lately. I grew up in a military family, and I find military books fascinating. One of the things that's come up in a lot of the books I've been reading lately, particularly on the more modern wars, Afghanistan, Iraq, and some of the other conflicts that we’re involved in across the world, is these soldiers repeat a phrase that is actually pretty important in the divorce process. But they keep repeating this phrase, tactical advantage, and there are tactical advantages to filing first when it comes to the divorce process. What are those? These are things that give you a leg up against your opponent and unfortunately, your spouse becomes your opponent in the divorce process. Sometimes it's necessary to get the advantages you can have, particularly if you're starting at a disadvantage.
Here are the three reasons to consider. One is you get to choose where you want to file. Two is if there's immediate danger to you or your children. And three is to prevent the movement of assets or prevent further hiding of assets. I'm going to go through each of these issues.
Point number one is you get to choose where you want to file. Oftentimes, either one of you is moving out of the house or maybe moving across the city or the state or to a different state entirely, and that can provide or propose some potential complications when it comes to the divorce process. If you are in one state and your spouse is in another state, for example, I'm going to use the extreme version of this. Well, and you're both residents of your respective states, well, whoever files for divorce, well, that's likely where the divorce is going to be taking place.
So, if you live in ... I'm just going to make up these examples. Let's just say you live in Texas where I am, and your spouse is moving to Colorado. I have a situation right now where something like that is taking place. Your spouse lives in Colorado now. Well, if you file for divorce in Texas, then you get to have a Texas lawyer who's near you, probably in your town. You get to pick the court and the county and everything's better. But if your spouse files first and your spouse is in Colorado, well, many of the issues that have happened in this divorce are going to take place under Colorado law, and then you're going to have to get yourself an attorney in Colorado who can practice in Colorado. You're going to be going to court in Colorado potentially, if that's what's required. You know, you have a distance issue that adds some layers of complication to how this process may go for you.
So, if that's a concern for you, or it might just be a different city, if someone moves a few hours away, you have to be prepared to make that few hour trek whenever you want to have an in-person meeting on a particular issue. So, there's things to think about in that regard when it comes to divorce. If you have that issue, you may want to be the person who files first so you can dictate what jurisdiction you are in.
Now, second thing is if there's immediate danger to you or your children. I'm looking for some good experts in this area to talk about some sort of abuse things because it's something that comes up more often than I would like. But if you are in a position where you're afraid your kids could be kidnapped or abducted by your spouse, or if you're in a position where there's a lot of abuse going on, be it physical or emotional or otherwise, then you should consider filing for divorce first, and also, putting, implementing at the same time, some legal protections to prevent a spouse from further communication with you, direct communication, or to make sure there's supervised visits with the kids, or whatever sort of protection of custody there may be or that's required for your children or you so that you are legally protected.
You know, there are some tragic situations out there where a spouse doesn't protect themselves, and the worst case, either severe abuse can happen, or there's cases where you can be threatened with your life. And one of the ways to help protect that, it's not the only way, but one of the ways to take a step in the right direction is to file for divorce and for additional legal protections to prevent your spouse from communicating you or having certain contact with you in order to ensure that you're not threatened down the line. And if there are continual threats, that you have a legal recourse to protect yourself in those circumstances.
Then the third thing is to stop the movement of assets. So, one of the things that can happen is when you're getting divorced, they have these things ... Oftentimes, you have to ask an attorney what your local version of it is, but it's an automatic temporary restraining order, which actually, it doesn't have to do with a physical things, actually tends to deal with monetary things. Basically what it says is that you and your spouse or that you ... Yeah, you and your spouse, can't make unusual financial decisions anymore now that the divorce has been filed.
What do I mean? Well, because a divorce has been filed, you can't, all of a sudden, take a bunch of money out of a joint account and steal it, for all practical purposes, or your spouse can't go get a new loan to try and hurt one's credit or can't open up new investment accounts or can't move large sums of money around. When you file for divorce and you have these restraining orders in effect, then you have the potential to protect yourself if your spouse does do something suspicious and something fishy. And if they do it after the divorce is filed, that can really come back to haunt them and hurt them later. It gives you a layer of legal protection to say, "Hey. Your spouse is in violation of certain things, and therefore, you deserve to be compensated for those things."
This really comes into play a lot when ... I know I'm willing to bet almost all of you suspect ... Most of the people who listen, or many people who listen, suspect to some form of a spouse hiding money from them. Oftentimes, that is indeed the case. Now It's just the question of how much is being hidden from them. But when that is happening, one of the ways to provide some real consequences for that to continue happening or to prevent that from continuing to happen is by filing for divorce and having these orders in effect where it says if your spouse does something fishy, they get punished. But if you haven't filed for divorce yet, a lot of things that you can do while still just a normal married couple, like take a bunch of money out of accounts or take loans out or whatever the case may be, might be perfectly legal and perfectly normal until a divorce has been filed.
Now, as I said, whether it is choosing where you want to file, be it the state or the county or the city, be it your kids are danger or you're in danger or you're trying to prevent the movement of assets, ultimately, timing can be very important for you and the divorce process. Sometimes these things are very time-sensitive and super urgent, and you need to pursue them right away. And then other times, you're in a relatively amicable situation, and you're just trying to do the best for the family and the kids, and you're in a position when you can wait and kind of can figure out some things in advance. You can kind of wait on things and plan more carefully for some of the considerations that you have when you're filing for divorce.
Ultimately though, you have to file when the time is right for you. There's a lot of considerations, there's a lot of things you might need to think about and work through, but do it when you're ready. Don't do it sooner than you're ready. And as I say, if there's a chance ... The other thing I didn't really get into, but if there's a chance that you're still can reconcile with your spouse and you think that there some things that you can do, well, maybe you should wait a little bit longer. But you have to weigh the pros and cons of waiting versus filing now to determine what's best for your situation.
If it's one of those things ... One of the times I do a lot of coaching calls is for people who are still researching their options and trying to figure out, well, should I file? How should I file? What options do I have? You know, there's very different options for pursuing the divorce process when you're in an amicable situation than there are when you are in a highly contested and very adversarial situation. There's a way to preserve family relationships even though you're getting divorced, and there's other times where you have to kind of go all out. But if no one's filed yet, you kind of have some options in terms of talking through, or one of the things we can talk through is what makes the most sense for you and making sure that everything goes for the short and long-term in the way that you want them to.
Filing for divorce is a huge and complex decision. As you do your research and you're thinking, I want you to write out, weight out these different concerns. Hopefully, when the time comes, or hopefully, never comes, you will be making the right decision for you, your family, and your ultimate situation.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
As part of my job, just about every day I work with attorneys all across the country. And I wanna communicate as often as I can important lessons I learn from working with them, the good, the bad, the ugly. Since I get to see so many styles, and cases, and jurisdictions, is kind of telling you what's normal, or what to look out for, and make sure that you're making the appropriate decisions, and have a good working relationship with your attorney as you go through the divorce process.
Most of the people that I talk to and work with don't go through divorce every day, hopefully not, and it also means you don't have to interact with lawyers every day. So one of the things that is difficult at times is trying to figure out if the behaviors that you're sensing with your lawyer are correct. Ether or not you need a second opinion, whether they're doing a good job for you. And at the end of the day, even though I get to help you with many of the complicated issues in divorce. And as you know it's called Divorce and Your Money, and so I specialize in the financial aspects of the process.
A divorce lawyer is essential in the divorce process, it's ultimately a legal process. I wanna make sure that you maximize the relationship that you have with your attorney. One of the biggest complaints or comments I get, and I get this almost in ... And I would say it's about half of the people who call have the same comment, and that is, why is my attorney not fighting for me? Why is my attorney not advocating for me, not working on my behalf to the extent that they should be. And you're in the middle of the divorce process, this is your life that's at stake, your future, your kids life. And the question is, is why is this person you've paid thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, are they really advocating for you the way they should?
And you call, and you're saying, "Hey is this really in my best interest? Why aren't they pursuing X, Y, and Z?" And I'm just not comfortable, and I'm kind of wondering if this is normal behavior" And so on this episode I wanna discuss some important things you should keep in mind with the relationship with your attorney, and some ways to handle situations in which your attorney is not fighting for you. I'm gonna go over three points. The first is understanding that there are different skills of lawyers. The second is that you should address your concerns head on. And then the third is oftentimes you need a second opinion or have to make a change. And so I wanna get into all three of these issues as you consider your relationship with your attorney.
The other thing I wanna get into, just briefly, is I also get to work with some exceptional attorneys across the country that I recommend as often as I can. Now I only do that through coaching calls if I know someone in your jurisdiction. And if I don't know someone I can show you ways, show you some resources to find good attorneys, or you can listen to some of the other podcast episodes. But there are also some awesome attorneys out there that if I wanted family law help I would call immediately, and without any hesitation.
So let's get into what happens if your attorney is not fighting for you. The first thing is it's kind of a mindset question, and issue. You have to understand is even though your attorney is an expert, or hopefully and expert in family law, everywhere in the country there are good attorneys and bad ones, and some attorneys who are okay and in the middle. And so the point of that is that attorneys are just humans too, they're just like you or I, they just happen to, in the family law world, specialize in divorce, and custody, and family law issues. But, you should not treat your attorney as God. Sometimes attorneys have flaws, we all do, I have flaws.
There are good attorneys, there are bad attorneys out there, and even some of the most highly reputable attorneys actually, even though they have a great reputation, and may have a lot of experience, I know some very highly reputable attorneys that I would never send a client too, because they're not that good in my opinion. And if you're in a position, or maybe they're just not good with you, and your personality, and your case. And so if you're thinking about an attorney and your relationship with them, if you have issues, they might be real. You may have hired, I have some people who've hired and spend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal bills, and are very dissatisfied with their attorneys and rightly so. Because they're not oftentimes doing a good job representing them.
I also know people who spent $1000 on an attorney and who did a killer job for them. Or I should say a couple thousand dollars, it's very rare to get a $1000 attorney, but a very inexpensive relative to the cost of divorce amount, and attorneys do a great job. So it's not always money, or prestige, or anything else, just because they do a lot of branding or have a very nice office doesn't mean that they're going to be doing a good job for your situation. And so if you feel as if you're not being adequately represented, you should take stock of that feeling, and that intuition, and really understand and try to articulate what those things are.
The second thing is, once you understand that, is that you should address your concerns with your attorney. Now there's ways to address concerns without being confrontational. And what do I mean by that? Oftentimes if I have an issue with someone, particularly another professional, and particularly a professional that I have to work with closely, I will be very polite about it. And what I might say is, "Hey Mr. Smith," or, "Hey Miss Smith, here are some things I noticed about my situation. I have some questions about these, is this right?" And I'll say, "Here are my four concerns" or, "Here are my three concerns." One, two, and three, and I'll draft a nice E-mail. I'll make it very polite. And I'll say, "Hey, does this make sense?" Now if that person brushes off my concerns then that's a good indication in terms of what you should do. If they say, "Oh, those are very valid concerns. Let me address these for you," and they fix the situation, maybe that's all we need.
But maybe, you know you need to bring them up, and usually politely, to make sure that they understand what you're feeling, and make sure that they understand your perspective as politely as possible. Look, even though you've paid them and they're there to fight for you, every human has different styles, and attorneys have different styles. But you need to make sure that they understand your concerns, and you need to be forthcoming about them so they know that you have an issue. Sometimes, as I say, I'll talk to lawyers, or go to happy hour or something with an attorney, or dinner, and they'll tell me about this case or that case, and oftentimes they had no idea that a client had a concern with them, or that there was an issue that arose, or something else.
Or sometimes they'll say, "Man, this person really had unrealistic expectations and so we had to address these concerns one, two, and three." And it's one of those areas where if you say, "Hey I think on the house issue we're not doing a good enough job about protecting my interests. Are there some alternatives?" They might say, if you were to put that in an email, or put that into writing to your attorney, they might say, "Well, the law in our state says this is the way it's done. I understand your concern, but unfortunately the law is not on your side on this particularly issue," then that's a great way for the attorney to address your concern. However, if you were to send that same email saying, "I don't think we're doing enough about the house," and they were just to say, "Yeah well it is what it is. We need to focus on this other issue," maybe that's not ideal for you.
Or maybe they'll say, you wanna kind of test these issues and bring them up head on to really understand what is their reaction and are you justified. Sometimes, a lot of attorneys, and I do wanna defend them for a second, they do this all day, every day, and for a living, and they know the law inside and out, and sometimes they forget to communicate certain elements of it to you. And so you have to kind of usher them along in the sense of that relationship, and tell them your concerns, and bring up your concerns. 'Cause ultimately this is your divorce process, and you really wanna fix up and have a productive relationship with your attorney to the best of your ability.
Another thing I wanna bring up to that point is, you also need to make sure that your attorney knows what you want. Oftentimes in most of the calls I'll get is we'll talk for a little bit and I'll say, "Okay, well what do you want? Do you want this issue, or that issue. Or do you not want. What do you want to happen after explaining your concern." And if your attorney, or if I don't know what you want to happen, then it's hard at times for them to craft agreements in your interest, and in the interest of what you ultimately want and need.
Now the last thing is, sometimes you've done all this. And I know people in situations where they're having some concerns with their attorney, they've brought up, oftentimes over a series of coaching calls with me, we've gone through the relationship with the attorney. I've written emails for clients and say, "Hey, I hear what you're saying. Let me write up an email, you can copy and paste it, and change the language a little bit. But then you can send it off to your attorney and see what he or she says." But let's say we go through the steps and understand, and it turns out that your attorney is just not up for the job. Well, then you need to make a change. And making a change is very, very, tough, and it's not always easy, and it can be expensive.
But depending on your situation, if your attorney is not fighting for you, it only adds to problems over time. One of the things I like to say on coaching calls, I don't know if I've ever said it on the podcast before is, "A bad attorney does not magically get better just because you keep paying them." A bad attorney does not magically get better just because you keep paying them. And so oftentimes if that attorney is not doing a good job for you, you will get to a point where you need to make a change. I've worked with some people who had a bad attorney for years, and they keep paying the retainer checks, and bills, and bills, and bills, always with the hope that, well if they just do this it'll get better. And two, or three, or four, years go down the line and still the same situation, still the same poor representation. And you should have, when you first saw an issue, started to work on an adjustment then.
So there are things to be said about your attorney, and how things are going, and you gotta know that they don't magically turn around, and don't magically become better. And so you need to look for an alternative. Have a couple of consultations with some other attorneys in town, and get second opinions. Choosing an attorney is ... It's not something that you should feel bad about if you made the wrong decision. It is very, very, very, hard to choose an attorney correctly the first time. It's just tough right, you might've gotten a recommendation from a friend. You might've looked on-line. You might've this or that, but you never know, attorneys are people too.
I have an attorney friend, who one of the only negative reviews that they got, they're one of the best known attorneys in a very large city, one of the only negative reviews they got was, well my attorney got cancer, or this friend of mine got cancer right after they hired them. And well their case didn't go as smoothly as they would've hoped. But of course it wasn't going too. And that person, and that situation, probably should've gotten a different attorney for the duration of their case and it would've been okay. But it's one of those things where it's just tough, you never know, attorneys are people too, they have their own wishes, they have their own families, they have everything else. And it's hard to figure out what a relationship is going to be like with an attorney, during one of the most difficult times of your life, just from a few data points and writing someone a check for a lot of money.
And so you really just just need to kinda keep that in mind, and try to be objective, and professional about your situation. There's no need to scream and yell at your attorney. But if they're not doing a good job for you, you need to address and deal with those things upfront and clearly, 'cause it's going to have a big effect on your divorce and the rest of your life. As I like to say, "The decisions that you make today are going to affect you for the next decades," and so you really wanna make sure that you have a trusted team working on your behalf, and advocating for the things that you care about the most. And if there comes a point where they're not doing that, well, then you need to make a change, and find some people who will.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
This may be the one of the most important episodes that I've ever recorded. I spent a good chunk of my time in December at a conference for lawyers and a lot of the top family lawyers in the United States were there. And one evening we all went out to dinner and we spent three or four hours together, just discussing what's going on and what's going on in everyone's practice. What they're thinking about, whatever. It was fascinating because all of these lawyers, they're the top in their respective cities and states, from California to New York to Florida, and everywhere in between. They all universally had one big issue. One very important issue that they wish that their clients understood so people like you listening to this podcast.
They wish that everyone would get a better handle on and understand as it pertains to the divorce process. And what was that? That was you need to know who your judge is and how they think about decisions. Many times you come from this perspective thinking, well because we haven't come to a settlement I think we're just gonna fight it out in court and that's gonna lead to a judge listening to everything I have to say. They're going to take into everything into consideration my ex-spouse has done over the past year or 10 years or 20 years or whatever the case may be. Ultimately if they just hear my story that you are ... That that judge is going to listen, take it into account and rule in your favor.
It turns out that's not the case. What you really need to understand is most of the time if you can avoid court, you should. You need to understand how judges think, how they react, and how unique judges are and how much of a gamble going in front of a judge is for most people. I was talking with these lawyers at dinner and as I said we were together for three or four hours and it was just amazing how much time we talked about the judges and really a few issues came up when it comes to judges and thinking about what might happen in front of a judge. I wanna get into a few of these issues. The first is that many times in your county court you don't have a family law specific court. So if you are in certain ... Whatever county you're in, where your courthouse is, that county or the judge that you might see in a given day might have 10 other different types of issues that he or she may be dealing with on that same day.
That judge might be looking at traffic ticket cases. They may be looking at a criminal case. They may be looking at a business dispute. They may be looking at a neighbor dispute. Oh yeah, and then you stroll in and you wanna talk about this family law issue that you're having. Your divorce, this hugely important issue. But then as soon as you walk out of the room they're thinking again about the next five traffic cases. Then they have something with the police officer. Then they have some sort of meeting with attorneys and the point being is, they aren't just focused on family law often times. You can't expect them to know all the intricacies of the law, all the ends and outs and really understand and be able to critically analyze all of the things that you want them to think about because that's not their primary job.
They're either appointed in some places or elected or whatever the case may be. They have so many different responsibilities. Your case, even though it might be the center of your world is one of many things that they are dealing with and looking at on a given day. On top of that, there are some counties that do have family law courts. But what happens often times is what many of these attorneys were speaking with me about is that even when you have a family law court those judges often times don't come from a family law background. The ones that do, they might be there for a year or two before moving on to their next appointment or the next step in their career or different court entirely because family law issues can be exhausting and very tough to deal with day in and day out. So there's a lot of turnover there. So the first thing you need to understand is not all judges specialize in family law and the ones that do often don't have that much experience in family law.
So you shouldn't necessarily get your hopes up. The second, is I kind of eluded to this in the first point but judges don't have a lot of time. Almost in every courthouse across the country judges are overworked, underpaid and understaffed. And actually I'm gonna hold off on the underpaid part for a second. But I will say overworked. And so judges have an enormous case load of people that they have to get through on a given day and it's very tough for them to negotiate and deal with every intricacy of every case on a day because you might be one of 10 cases they're seeing that day. And maybe 50 different people they're seeing that week. Then maybe one of 200 people they're seeing that month. It could even be worse than that in terms of the numbers. And so trying to get them to really I don't wanna say care about you, 'cause not that they don't care but really be able to have the ability to get into the in's and outs from any judges is exceptionally difficult and nearly impossible.
Otherwise they'd be working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and still not get through the amount of work that's on their plate and that's being required of them. Therefore it puts them in a position where you don't get to share all of the facts and consider all of the facts that are relevant to you. The third thing is that judges have bias. Judges are humans. I mean often times I hear from you and we talk and it sounds like you feel as if the judge is going to be your savior. You almost speak in terms like that. That's just not the case. I'll use an interesting example from Dallas 'cause I'm based in Dallas and I know a lot of Dallas family lawyers and I get to speak with them pretty clear. And I have a decent sense of the Texas court scene, you know I'm not there every day by any means but one of the things that's fascinating is in one of ... I think in Dallas county, there's something like 32 judges or something to that effect, I don't remember the exact number off the top of my head.
But point is if you were to go in front of, you could be assigned any one of those 30 or so judges and on top of that is you could end up with 30 completely different results from any one of those judges on any given day. Which means even though there is a family law, even though there are facts to the case you could present those same facts and those same laws to each one of the judges and end up with a totally different outcome. It could be very much in your favor, it could be very much opposite of your favor. The point is, is that you don't necessarily know what that judge is going to do and how they're going to rule. Judges are people and they have certain things that they like and they dislike. I call them bias.
You might go in front of a judge ... A judge might not like your lawyer. And because they don't like your lawyer for whatever reason, they rule against you. Or it may be the case that a judge doesn't like what you're wearing. Or it could be the case that a judge tends to think that the mom should have primary custody and most of the time, so that's how they think about decisions. And so even if you're the father and you should probably have primary custody and maybe even during the divorce you had temporary custody of your children, the judge might say, "Well I think it's better for the mom," and therefore the mom gets it. And you're like, "But wait a second." You're left totally confused 'cause in your situation that just wasn't the way things are working or it could be the exact opposite. Is the judge might say, "Well I think the father should have primary custody." Or a judge might say, "Hey, you know what. My default position is that whether or not it's good or bad, custody should be split 50/50."
And you are SOL as we say is, "shoot out of luck." If that is the bias that your judge has even if it's not appropriate for you. Then the fourth thing that is very important is that judges often make decisions on things that are totally irrelevant. What do I mean by that? Well it's interesting, I don't know if you ever watched one of those ... I'm going to switch from family law to the criminal law for a second. But if you ever watched television and you ever watch one of those shows that's like what happens after a big jury verdict in the courthouse. So if someone gets committed for a crime of if someone gets acquitted from a crime and they go and interview the jurors and they'll say, "Juror #7, why did you say that that person was guilty and you gave them the death penalty?" And the juror will go, "Well I knew when he walked in that room he was a bad guy." Then the interviewer will be like, "Well but, there was this evidence that says he wasn't even in town the day of the murder." And the juror will say, "Yeah, well. He must have done something. That's why he's in front of here, right?"
You're just like, well wait a second. That has nothing to do with the facts of the case. Unfortunately in the family law world judges can often be the same. Judges can walk in and they'll say, "Oh, well I saw this piece of evidence and therefore I'm just gonna vote this way and this is how we're gonna split things." Or if you have something super complicated they might not wanna think about it and so they'll just make a decision based on what feels right to them. Whether the facts support it or not. Some judges ... You know, I caution myself when I was talking about pay increase or don't get paid enough. Some judges, becoming a judge is pay increase for them. That's why they became a judge and they get paid more to do less work often times. Or at least to have a shorter workday. 'Cause their legal careers weren't necessarily going the way that they thought they would.
You just never know the motivations of the judge that you're going in front of. And you never know what is going to resonate with them. Maybe they grew up in a single parent household and therefore they identify with one parent more than the other. You might not know that going in. So the decision they come to might not make any sense to you or to anyone but it is because it is what is it, because that's what you signed up for and that's what that judge believes. And so it's something that you really need to think about. So what's the point? The point is this, is I have nothing against judges by any means. That's not the point of this episode. But the point is this, is that most cases settle out of court. There's a reason for that is because there's a lot of things you can solve and come up with most of the time a semi-reasonable agreement. If you settle out of court.
Now it's not always going to be the case, but your position shouldn't be, I'm going to fight this out and I want to take this all the way to trial and that's the way things are going to be. It's not necessarily going to beneficial to you. Going to court is a gamble and it can be a very big and very expensive gamble. I was speaking with someone just yesterday and I said, "Look. You, instead of going to court, you may as well just put $100,000 on the roulette wheel." Your odds are going to be better then ... And having a good outcome rather than you going in front of a judge." Because you're just taking up ... This person was very close to a settlement agreement but just couldn't quite get over the finish line and they're now thinking about spending a bunch of money on an expensive trial and I was like well, that's a waste of money. Just go to Vegas, gamble it, put it on black and call it day because that's basically what you're doing in this case rather than just agreeing to something that may not be perfect but it pretty dang reasonable from what they had said.
So you need to really be careful about whether or not going to court is good for you. Now sometimes you're in a position where you have to. It just is the case, your spouse is unreasonable and everyone's gonna be better off unfortunately if you go to court. My point only is that you should not use that as your default position. Because court is a very dangerous game that you're playing and very expensive gamble that you may be making. Judges are the ones who are in charge of this process when you're in front of a court. And judges aren't always going to consider all of the things that you have in your head in terms of becoming a final, in terms of becoming a great arbitrator towards your case. Some judges out there are great but you need to really understand what's going on in your local court and really understand what judge you may get assigned. And how that judge feels about certain issues and how they generally like to rule on certain things and if you're going to be in a good position or a bad one by going in front of this judge.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
Chris: Hey everybody, it’s Chris Denmon with Denmon and Pearlman out of St. Petersburg, Florida and today I’m with Shawn Leamon. Did I pronounce that right Sean?
Shawn: You got it right.
Chris: All right. Shawn Leamon, who is a certified divorce financial analyst and the host of a podcast which is Divorce and Your Money. Which is how I found Shawn and we’re continuing our series today. We’re interviewing tangential professionals in other professions that can help our clients get through the divorce process in the best possible way and help them move onto their lives in the best possible way. And so Shawn, you’ll be talking to some of my future clients and my current clients. And take it away, what did I miss? What else about you should we let people know?
Shawn: No, I think that’s great. I’m a certified divorce financial analyst. I get to work with people all over the country. My podcast, Divorce and Your Money is probably the largest divorce podcast that’s out there. I like to help people as much as possible because you know, divorce in many aspects, financially, legally and emotionally as well, is a very complex process for someone. So I like to help at least in my small segment where I can.
Chris: Absolutely. And yeah, the same idea, right? So when I’m a lawyer and I do lawyer things, and my clients are going through the process, they’ll come to whether it’s for a figuring out a budgeting issue, or whether it’s a tax issue and I’m not an expert at that. That’s not what I know best, and I turn to people like you to help me answer those questions, and a lot of times, it’s easier for me to just introduce my clients to somebody like you, or you to you because then you can help them get the answers they need better than I can do it. And you and I were talking before we started, and I know you from your podcast. I also know you because I was looking up an answer to something that here I am, the divorce attorney, I didn’t know the answer, and you had answer it on a very detailed, excellent blog post that I was able to get the answer for me and then share it with my client. And you’re able to help that way.
Chris: So, thank you for taking some time to chat with me today. I appreciate it.
Shawn: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Chris: With my clients, I have two different phases where I think they need help and I’m going to kind of just mention that and let you kind of help educate in any way that you can. But I know that I have clients that right at the very beginning of the process, in anticipation of a divorce, or in anticipation really of a separation where they have one household and they’re getting ready to potentially move into two households, and they have to figure out how to budge for it. Plan for it and make the right decisions with their finances. That’s kind of one bucket where my clients need help.
Chris: And then the other bucket is when it’s all said and done, you know as a divorce lawyer I think we’re good at getting things done and then we shake hands and then we release our clients into the wild, right? And sometimes we have clients like maybe a needy spouse who for the last 20 years, she hasn’t really done any of the budgeting and I don’t want to leave them … I don’t want to shake hands and let them go off and have them ill-prepared. And that’s another, that’s an area where I think that they need help. Is that kind of your experience?
Shawn: Yeah. You know I think the main focus for anyone who’s thinking about divorce is already in the process, really boils down almost to two things. The first is knowing what you have. The number of conversations where people don’t know they have a retirement account, or you need to know … I mean, if you have a house, you need to know what it’s worth and have a good sense of that. If you have a mortgage, or if you have other debts somewhere. If you have credit cards. Regardless of whether you were the spouse who took care of the finances, or has never seen them at all, your first step is just to figure out, “Well, what are we splitting up?” And from that comes the second question which is, or a second answer that one should know the answer to is, what do you want?
Shawn: The other problem or other area I see everyday is that, well you know you have a house that’s worth a certain amount, you know you have these retirement accounts, you know you have maybe a little credit card debt or whatever the case may be, but you don’t really have a clear sense of, “Well, what do I want when this process is over? What will I need to live?” Most of the people, at least that I deal with getting divorced, I like to say, “Look, you’re going to probably die these days at 100 years old. So if you’re 50, you’ve got 50 years of thinking and planning to do. What are you going to be thinking about over the next two or three or five decades? And are the decisions that you’re making right now, splitting up your family and your assets and everything else, are these really kind of what you want for the long-term and are they working for you?”
Chris: Sure. And I mean, how do you help people engage in that conversation when … Because divorce is so life-changing, right? People tend to identify with what they’ve been for an extended period of time, especially in a long-term marriage. And then now, sometimes, am I right, would you say that sometimes they don’t even know what it is they want yet?
Shawn: Yeah, it’s a great point. And one of the things that I try and tell everyone, which is very hard to do in practice, but actually makes a lot of sense is to depersonalize what you’re going through when it comes to making your decisions. Or the way I like to phrase it is, pretend like you’re the CEO of this process and you’re the businessman, businesswoman and what would just a rational person looking from 30,000 feet think about and would recommend for you and your situation? Meaning, if you’re going through a divorce, there’s any number of overwhelming emotions that make it hard to have any sort of clarity of thought. You know you have got a million questions, you’ve got to figure out this process, let’s forget all of that for a moment. Let’s just pretend that we take … Or the way I do it, or the way I speak about it with people, is let’s just take at least the asset part, the financial part. Let’s just put it all on a piece of paper. Your name doesn’t even have to be on it. It can John Doe or Jane Doe. What would you recommend Jane Doe for their future given what they have right now? And what do you think makes sense?
Shawn: and once you kind of remove the you from it, I know it sounds weird, is to take yourself out of this process, but when it comes to making decisions, if you make emotions kind of cloud your judgment, that’s where people can go very far astray or end up making pretty poor decisions. Once you kind of depersonalize it a bit, you can really sit there and just treat them as X’s and O’s or numbers on a sheet of paper and say, “Hey! This person that I’m looking at on this piece of paper should probably do X instead of Y. Or take more of one asset or ask for more support, or ask for less support. And would be better off if we did whatever.”
Shawn: And it becomes actually, for most people, a lot clearer pretty quickly once they take the me out of it.
Chris: Sure. You got me thinking of the scenario where a party, they’re emotional to a home, and maybe the home is too big for the party by themselves,. The kids may be out of the house, the home might be too big already. But then you may have a, one of the party’s who are really attached to the home and they want to stay in the home but maybe the numbers don’t make sense and maybe if they were to keep the home, not only would they be keeping assets that are not going to generate any money for them in the future, I mean not really, unless you sell the house, it’s not a liquid asset.
Chris: But they’re also, their standard of living is necessarily going down because they’re not going to have enough cash flow to do what they want to do. You know, so that’s a … Is that something, is that a problem that you … Is that a scenario –
Shawn: That’s one of the most common things that I have to deal with on a daily basis. And the way that I teach people to think about it is before you decide what you want, start with your expenses. And so, the divorce process for most people, as painful as it is for most, is really only going to be a year or two of their life. And as I said earlier, you have decades to think about. Well, let’s start with, what is your life going to cost after this divorce? What is your mortgage payment or rent going to be? How much are you spending on cars and telephone bills and everything else. Once you kind of know – or your kids as well. Once you know what your expenses are, then you can start to say, “Well, all right, now I know at least how much income I need to stay even.”
Shawn: And also you can say, “Well how much am I …”, and then you can start thinking about bigger questions like how much am I going to need for retirement or whatever else. But if you start with your expenses, things like that house that you have an emotional attachment to, you can see very quickly and very clearly that in many cases it’s not affordable. And you’ll see, like wow, you know if you’re spending … I’m just going to make up a number but if you’re spending 3,500 dollars a month on a house, and your income for a given year after a divorce is only going to be 5,000 dollars a month, it becomes very apparent that you don’t have much money for anything else.
Shawn: And, once you just kind of map out – and when I say map out, I do things very simply. I take a blank sheet of paper and a pen and I say, “Let’s just do some simple math. How much is the house? How much is the car? How much are you spending on kids, clothes, going out, travel, vacations, whatever?” I just take a pen and a paper, nothing fancy, and just start writing down these kinds of things. And then once you have that kind of rough number, doesn’t have to be precise, you can start to think about is, well what is that really look like for me and start making the right decisions based upon that.
Chris: Right, that’s a great way to do it, because … I think a lot about the stay at home mom because we represent a lot of stay at home moms and they just … Their responsibilities for the family have traditionally been kid-related stuff, maybe. Maybe the stay at home mom hasn’t traditionally had dollars and cents responsibilities. I mean, they’ll go out there and they’ll do the work and they’ll go do the shopping and all that stuff. But they may not be doing the budget and then it comes time, they have to now figure all of this out and they also have the great unknown of what their income is going to be when this is all said and done, and you know alimony will often play a big part in that.
Chris: But if you don’t know what your expenses are, how are you going to know what is the money that you need outside of just saying, “We’ll get you the most amount of money possible.” Which is great, but it’s not really a great way to solve the problem. You just gotta know what you need and then try to get that and maybe some more. And I like your idea of just putting pen to paper with it because sometimes there are lawyers will do things that become a little cumbersome. Spreadsheets and it doesn’t really work. Sometimes simpler is better to help people, especially with so much else that’s going on in a divorce. So many other things to worry about, you know?
Shawn: Yeah. There’s a lot to say about that point, particularly with the stay at home moms. I also work with many and there’s a variety of issues oftentimes with the stay at home moms. Sometimes a lack of confidence. I said you have to be the CEO of your divorce process. I’ll always say, because I talk to stay at home moms every day, everywhere, and I’ll say, “Hey, so, while your husband was working, who took care of the kids? Who took care of the house? Who took care of every other daily detail that happened?” And it was always them. And they have all of these skills in terms of managing a very complex life. They might not feel like they do, but they’ve been doing it for 10, or 20, or 30 years. And this is just one other challenge in that process. But they already have everything they need. They just need a little bit of guidance in terms of focusing that same energy they’ve had for a very, very long time.
Shawn: And, as part of that, sometimes it’s, you know when I think about things that you need to do when it comes for planning for the process. Well, one big question is, we talked about the house. Sometimes I’ll say, “Well, let’s take some action towards it and find out. If you want to stay in the same neighborhood, why don’t you contact a real estate agent. See what houses are available in your neighborhood. You know particularly if your kids need to stay in the same school district.” I’ll say, “Go check out some apartments in the area. Are any of them feasible? Find out what the rent is for something that you could live with.”
Shawn: It might not be the same, but sometimes just gathering some basic information that’s free, no cost to anyone, to call up a realtor and say, “Hey, I’m about to get divorced, or I’m in the divorce process, can you show me what some options are in the neighborhood?” Or, walking to the apartment building or driving over to the apartment building and say, “Hey, what’s a three bedroom in this area cost?” And those types of little steps, not very hard, and you can also start to crystallize, and you can say, “Hey, you know what? This three bedroom apartment actually could really work for me for the next few years while I get back on my feet.” Or you might say, “You know what? I’m priced out of my neighborhood. I need to think about what the right option for me in the long term.”
Shawn: And it gives you the ability to confront reality head-on. Good or bad or anywhere in between. But at least you come through, or you start the process with some solid information so that you can make the right decision when it comes to going to mediation or talking with you or whatever else. It’s just you have a real, clear picture of what the future might look like, instead of just guessing and hoping for the best.
Chris: a little bit of information goes a long way on the path. So that’s a great idea. And do you find yourself encouraging people to do that early in the process? In the middle of the process? When?
Shawn: Yeah, it’s a good question. The answer is as soon as you can. You know, divorce is challenging of course, to understate it. And, you know, it’s not an instantaneous process even to get to the point where the D word gets dropped, much less serving papers and everything else. So, you know, it really depends. What I say is, the sooner you can figure these things out, the better. But, I have people who, and I actually am talking to someone in just a few minutes, who has to, has their proposals, their settlement proposals on the table. Right? And so the question is, well, does this make sense or should I be trying to make some adjustments? And some of the things that we’ve already discussed are going to be exactly that.
Shawn: It’s like, “Hey, did you check to make sure that you’re going to be able to afford the house? Or be able to move to another place? Or be able to refinance? Or whatever the case may – or your spouse be able to refinance? If you go with this proposal, and if not, we gotta get these kind of details done now, so we make sure that we’re not walking you in to something that is not ideal for you.”
Shawn: You know, the sooner you can plan the better. For the people that I get to work with before even papers are filed, I’ll say, “This is awesome. You’re going to go into your consultation with an attorney, with almost everything prepared, and your attorney is going to be able to take this job and do everything for you and I won’t need to talk to you again.” Other people, if you’re kind of still in the middle of the process, figuring things out, it’s okay, if you’re in the middle, so long as you’re starting to formulate that picture of what it is that you’re really aiming for.
Shawn: I mean what I’m trying to say is that, if you don’t have a goal, you’re not shooting towards anything and you really need to have a clear sense of what your goal is for this process, otherwise your attorney, you aren’t as empowered as you could be to help them get to be where they need to be when this process is over.
Chris: An awesome way of framing it. And we, again as an attorney, we’re always, we’re goal oriented. We have a process from the very beginning of getting them to conceptualize our clients and focus on their goals. But it can be easy to focus on goals that are more related to the divorce process and maybe kids, and sometimes, for however, it works out, because maybe our clients when they’re coming in, some of the issues we’re addressing at the beginning are more emotional. Sometimes the financial goals outside of minimizing my alimony payment, or maximize my alimony award, which isn’t very concrete, it isn’t very helpful. But outside of some of that stuff, we tend to maybe miss some of those financial goals from the very beginning. Whereas, if we have them from the very beginning, makes it easier to get people to where we need to get them to.
Shawn: That’s exactly right. And you know the only thing that I would add to that is also if you have the goals, I say this all the time, is, once you have your goals written down, now’s a great time to talk to your attorney and make sure that your goals are reasonable. Because, you know, I see people who might say, “I don’t want to pay a dime of alimony and no child support and I want 100% custody.” And you’re like, “Your spouse is a decent human, even though the two of you don’t get along. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable case. You might want to think about those a little more.” But, you know, it’s having kind of a sense of what that is, so you know, my job, the way that I do view my job is to make them prepared for you.
Shawn: And to, so that whatever time you spend with the client is maximized and you can do your job more effectively. You as the attorney and as the people listening are the people in charge of this process. And you know I’m sort of a support person, but you know, I want to make sure that what you’re doing and what I’m doing can kind of help them get to the best position possible.
Chris: Absolutely. Before we go Shawn, do you have any like any tips to help somebody, whether it’s the husband or the wife, when they’re in the beginning of the process, maybe they’ve contacted me, maybe they haven’t, and they’re considering separation. And so, from a financial perspective, do you have any tips to help somebody who is thinking, “Hey, I think I need to get … I think for my own emotional wellbeing, I think I need to be in a separate household from my spouse. Obviously I’ll talk to a lawyer about things like custody and stuff like that. But what do I need to pull off from a financial perspective? And how do I get there?”
Shawn: Yeah. I think the two things when it comes to separation. Some of the things that we’ve already discussed, but one is your credit report. Knowing what’s on your credit report. I have clients who make 100,000 dollars a year. I have clients who make 100 million dollars a year. You’d be surprised what’s on a credit report, and there are always surprises. And so just kind of knowing what that is. And then also, knowing what your expenses are. I mean look, when you’re separating, we’ve talked about expenses before, but, your income is going to be the same more or less, whether you’re married or in the separation process. The income part is semi-fixed. The expenses part is now all of a sudden doubling. And so you need to really understand is can you afford that? And what that looks like. Do you have enough savings? Do you have enough income? Do you have enough whatever the case may be that you need to separate.
Shawn: And actually might add a third thing to that, is, separation can have other effects on the divorce process and so I always encourage my clients before taking that separation step, to talk to someone like you. You know, consultations are confidential. It’s not like, you know I have some clients who are afraid to step into an attorney’s office. I say, “Look, attorneys are confidential. No one’s going to know that you’re there. No one’s going to sign, put a billboard up in town that says, ‘They met with Christian’. It’s just so that you can understand your situation, the implications of what you’re doing and making sure that you ultimately protect yourself and don’t unintentionally run afoul of something that might come back to hurt you later.
Chris: Absolutely. That’s right. I can help them with the legal pros and cons of separating, but you can help them with the practical if you separate, can you do it, and how will you make it work? And what’s it going to cost? Shawn, thanks so much man. I had a great time. I really appreciate you taking a few minutes to chat with me and ultimately chat with my clients and some people that are watching this just for advice. If somebody needs to reach out to you, what do they do? How do they do that?
Shawn: Yeah you can visit me at divorceandyourmoney.com, and there’s a podcast by the same thing if you search any podcast player called Divorce and Your Money.
Chris: Sounds pretty simple. Shawn, thanks.
Chris: I appreciate it.
Shawn: Thank you, Christian. Take care.
Shawn Leamon: I want to start this episode off with a quote from Yogi Berra, in which he says, “If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up someplace else.” I think that's a good theme, particularly as we're starting the year, and thinking about the divorce process, or regardless of where you are. I want to discuss a little bit about setting goals.
Shawn Leamon: It's the beginning of 2019, at least when I record this. There's almost 200 episodes of the podcast, and 100,000 people listened in 2018. One of the goals I have, at least for the podcast, is to help as many people as possible go through the divorce process, and make sure that I can do it in an affordable, cost efficient manner for most people. One of the ways that I can do that, is having regular coaching calls, and for some people working in greater variation, and more hands on with others.
Shawn Leamon: When it comes to the divorce process you have to have your own goals. A lot of times goals, particularly at the beginning of the year, come up in the context of, oh well what's your new years resolution? Are you going to lose weight, or exercise, or stop smoking, or whatever the case may be? Ideally I should say, you should attach something specific to that. If you're trying to lose weight, it might be, I need to lose 15 pounds.
Shawn Leamon: Well the goal setting process, is equally relevant when it comes to your divorce, and understanding what you should be doing, and understand really what you want out of the process. That way once you set your goals for the divorce process, both you, your attorney, your divorce team, myself, can help you get in the best way possible, to the place that you're aiming for.
Shawn Leamon: As I said, we started with the Yogi Berra quote, “If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up someplace else.” One of the most important things you can do during the divorce process, is really set your specific goals for the things that you want. There's a concept out there called smart goals. Smart goals stand for smart is an acronym. Smart stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and the t is time bound. If you look up smart goals, if you type that online, you'll find the acronym.
Shawn Leamon: You should be setting up smart goals for your divorce, and in terms of the things that you want, when it comes to the divorce process. A lot of times I might speak with you, and either you're still in the planning phase, or you're midway through the divorce phase, or even you're right at the final settlement proposal, and I'll say, "Hey, that's all well and good, but what do you want?"
Shawn Leamon: One of the issues is, sometimes you don't know what you want. You want what's best for you, and what's best for you really depends on what your dreams and desires are. When it comes to the divorce process, it's temporary. It can feel overwhelming, I get that. It can be a lot on your plate, and of course it is, but at some point for some of you in a few months or others in a couple years, whatever the case may be, this process will be over, and you will have moved on with the rest of your life.
Shawn Leamon: Well, what do you want the rest of your life to look like? What does it look like? Of course this divorce and your money, so what does it look like financially for you? Are you receiving support? Are you paying support? Are you working? Are you retired, or planning to retire in a few years? Are you living in the same home? Are you living in a different home? Are you starting a new career? Are you traveling more? Are you doing all these other things in life, that you'll have to ultimately try and figure out in the best way possible about yourself?
Shawn Leamon: And so one of the things I say, regardless of where you are in the divorce process is, don't necessarily ... Or one of the starting points, is actually start after the divorce. Sit down with a pen and paper. If you ever see me in person, and I get to see a lot of you in person across the country. One of the things I carry with me, 100 percent of the time, is a notebook and a piece of paper. My notebook, actually I love blank white sheets of paper, and bring a pen with me.
Shawn Leamon: What I do is, I want to make sure that I always keep on top of my goals. I keep them very simple. But I sit alone, sometimes on a plane, or a coffee shop, or in my office, and I make sure that everything is written down. Sometimes my goals are just for the day, what do I want to achieve that day. Sometimes they are, what's going on that week, that month, that year, and in life. That way, at least when I'm presented with different options, I can say, "Hey, does this fit within my goals, and ultimately what I think I would have liked to do with my life?"
Shawn Leamon: When it comes to the divorce process, you should be thinking in many ways the same thing. Fast forward, the divorce process is over, you're envisioning you, and your kids, and your family. Even thought it's split, how do you want things to look, from a financial perspective, or a custody perspective, if you have children that you're going to have to be dealing with custody issues with? Do you want partial parenting time? Do you want split evenly? Other things to think about, how do you want to plan for college? Is that's something that's relevant and important to your kids? What does that look like, for you specifically? What do the holidays look like? Or all of those types of things, and types of questions.
Shawn Leamon: Once you start at that end goal, you need to have it clearly written down. When I say clearly written down, you should be able to email me, or send to your attorney, or send to a friend for all that matters, and say, "Hey, here are the goals that I am achieving." You've got to have it written down, specific, and posted up somewhere that you won't lose it.
Shawn Leamon: Then when it comes to your team, and the divorce process, you can say, "Hey, here's the stuff that I'm shooting for, can you help me get to those points as part of the divorce process?" You're sitting down with your lawyer, one of the things you should be doing, is saying, "Hey, Mr. or Ms. Attorney, here are the goals for my life. How can I, during this divorce process, get there the best way possible?" Your attorney might help you say, "Well, I think these are pretty reasonable, and we can get you there."
Shawn Leamon: I just had a lunch with someone in person, and we were looking at her goals. It was very clear, I was like, "Look, you're goals are going to be fine, so long as you just do these two or three things, you should be able to achieve your financial goals, and move where you want to move, and live the rest of your life the way you want to live it." Other times, I'll hear from you and I'll say, "Hey, what are your goals for your divorce?" I'll say, "You might need to adjust some things." Or, "Hey, you're going to actually probably need to get a job." Or, "Hey, you might really need to think about it, if you can really afford this house, if you're planning on saving for retirement, and whatever the case may be. Maybe there's another property in your school district that might be okay, so you can keep the kids in the same school, but you might need to move, so your monthly expenses are lower, and therefore you can actually afford a good life in the long term for you."
Shawn Leamon: We start with your future goals, and I think that's a great place to start, particularly at the beginning of the year. It doesn't matter where you are in the divorce process, but knowing what you want is crucially important.
Shawn Leamon: The other thing that's very important, is knowing your goals. Once you know what you're aiming for, knowing the best way to get there through the divorce process, is also something that is very relevant.
Shawn Leamon: The approach can be very different, depending upon who you are. And so sometimes you are in a situation where perhaps there is an abusive spouse, and you don't really have the option of sitting in a room with them, and mediating the divorce in a very civilized manner, pursuing like a collaborative divorce process, and so you have to take a tougher handed approach, to get through your divorce in the best way possible.
Shawn Leamon: Other times, in many cases, you and your spouse are actually very civil with each other, and you know that this divorce process is coming, and you can still talk to each other. Basically, your job should be, hey lets minimize the fees, lets minimize the damage, lets not make this more difficult than it needs to be. Maybe we can work out 70 percent of this on our own. We still might need attorneys for another 30 percent, or a mediator to help us for this last 30 percent. That's okay, but I think we can get to a pretty fair place, at a much cheaper price, than both of us fighting it out in an adversarial divorce process.
Shawn Leamon: For you, that might be the goal for this process, and the approach that you take. For others, it might the case that you end up in front of a judge somewhere at the end of the day, deciding upon where the judge is the one, who after many months and potentially years of fighting, litigating, and everything else, the judge is the one who has to ultimately make a final decision. Sometimes that's the approach that you have to take too for this process.
Shawn Leamon: To the extent possible is, you need to think and set goals for your divorce process. It could be as simple as, if you haven't chosen an attorney yet, you can say, "Hey, here are my goals in the choosing of an attorney process. This is what I want. Here are the goals when it comes to how I want to interact with my attorney. Here are the goals for how long I hope this process takes or doesn't take. Usually it's as little time as possible, but for some there's reasons to extend it out a little bit.
Shawn Leamon: There are different ways to set those goals. For everything in this process, take a sheet of paper, map them out, make them very clear, look up the smart goals framework, and really understand where you're going in this process, and what you want to achieve from it, so that everyone is on the same page, including you. You need to know where you are going. If you start the year off right with your goals, and where you want to go, you can set up every action that you take from this day forward, to make sure that you're doing the actions that fit within your goals.
Shawn Leamon: I'll give you an example that came up recently, this is a family friend who got divorced. They didn't have very clear goals for their divorce process, and they ended up spending 10's of thousands of dollars on who got what silverware, which was a waste, it went to the attorneys, and many years later they regret the way that they handled that divorce, but neither of them went in with the appropriate goals, and process to think about them.
Shawn Leamon: One of things you should be doing, is just making sure you always stick to those goals. You do that, you'll put yourself up for ... I'm not going to say that this process is ever easy. I'm not going to say it's always going to go in the way that you think it will. It rarely goes the way that you envision. But my objective for you, is to make sure that you're putting yourself in the best position possible, to achieve all of the things that matter most to you, and to do it in the best way possible.
Shawn Leamon: And so, start this process, start this year, regardless of where you are on the divorce process, either making your goals or reviewing your goals, to make sure that you are on the right path.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
When negotiating a divorce settlement, you need to understand what trade-offs you're making, and make sure that you're keeping the big picture in mind. When it comes to your assets, and the debts that you have in your financial life and your marriage, they are what they are. When you're thinking about your divorce settlement and your future, your goal, really, is to figure out what the best combination of assets is for you, so that you can move on with your life in the best way possible.
You need to be realistic and reasonable, and make sure you're negotiating for things that make sense for you. One of the biggest areas I see people having trouble is not being accepting of what the status quo, what today, what their actual financial picture is, and not confronting head-on what you actually have. I understand everyone wishes they had more money, more cash, less debt, higher income, or whatever it is. What I see, oftentimes, in the divorce process, when working with you, is that you might feel, or at least pretend to negotiate as if you have a higher income than you have, or as if you have more money than you actually have. I'll say this on calls all the time, it's okay to advocate for yourself and ask for a little bit more to that you get ... you have wiggle room. But at the same time, you need to be realistic about your financial picture is and what your future looks like, and be real about how that's going to work for you in the future.
One of the first steps when it comes to negotiating and thinking about your divorce settlement, and preparing and structuring things the way that you want to do, whether you're working with a lawyer, you're doing it yourself, going through the litigation process, doing collaborative divorce, or whatever, is you really need to understand what you have and what you're splitting with your soon to be ex-spouse. Not only do you need to know what exists, be it a house, a mortgage, rental property, investment accounts, cars, a business, all of the basic stuff that we talk about a lot on the show, but you need to understand the value of those things with clear numbers and specific. It's not enough just to say, "I have a house, and I think it's worth $400,000." That's not right. You need to do your homework and figure out either with a real estate agent, or an appraisal, or whatever the case may be, whether it's $400,000 or whether it's 375 because of something, or maybe it's 437,000 that you could sell it for. You need to understand the value of that. You need to understand, if you have a rental property, if you have a business, what is that worth? Because knowing that value could serve as a big impact on your divorce process.
When I comes to knowing the worth of things, you need to know what that means in total. One of the questions I'll ask you is, I'll say, "Hey, let's break down the major assets. Let's figure out what you have. We'll subtract out any debts." But what is your total marital pot worth? Is it $325,000? Is it 3.2 million dollars? Or more than that? Or somewhere in-between? Or somewhere less? Whatever the number is, you need to clearly understand and keep in mind the total value of all of your assets as you're thinking about your divorce settlement.
And then, from there, you also need to understand and have a clear sense of what support obligations you'll either be paying or receiving. This is an important point and is relevant to the total calculation of stuff that you're splitting up, and you need to understand that number. I'm going make you some simple numbers just for the sake of discussion on these two point; the total value of your assets, and then also the support discussion, to illustrate an example for you.
Let's say the total value of all of your assets is $200,000. That means any houses, bank accounts, retirement accounts, everything totals up to $200,000 between you and your soon to be ex-spouse. Now, let's say, on top of that, you're expecting to receive some sort of financial support obligations. For the sake of discussion, I'm going to assume that you're going to receive $5,000 a month for five years, which means $12,000 a year, times five years, is $60,000 in support. Now, if you think about that, that actually adds to the total amount of money that you are splitting up, because not only are you splitting up $60,000, but on top of that ... I'm sorry, not only are you splitting your $200,000 in marital assets, but there's also an additional $60,000 on top of that that you need to keep in mind.
Now, why is that such a big deal? Well, that's a big deal because when it comes to negotiating a divorce settlement and thinking about your options, is that you need to understand that regardless of what you do, there's always benefits and disadvantages and potentially trade-offs that may work better for you, that you haven't considered or are still thinking about.
Let's take this example: Let's just say, since you're going to be getting $60,000 in support over five years, on top of your share of the marital assets, what would I be thinking if I am doing a coaching session with you, or if we're working more in-depth together? One of the first things I would think, and just on my mental checklist, is all right, you're going to be getting ... Let's just say you're the person receiving support. You're going to be getting about $100,000 in assets that you're splitting, because you have a $200,000 pot, so you're going to split that in half, roughly. It varies, but let's just say for simplicity sake, you're going to be getting about 100,000, plus you're going to be getting about $60,000 in spousal support over five years. In total, you're going to be getting $160,000 from the marital pot.
Well, when I think about that, I say, "Okay, well, what ... Do you want all of that now? Would you like to take all of that upfront, or do you not mind getting support over the five years?" One thing I might say, particularly if you don't want to be reliant upon your example-spouse, or if you need cash upfront to get yourself back on your feet, I might say, "Hey, you know, the $100,000 is pretty easy to split because it's mostly coming from a retirement account or something. That extra 60, well, what if we made it $50,000 instead of 60, because you're going to it all upfront, and we just took out extra, and maybe your spouse keeps the house and just cashes out some of equity to pay you off." That's an option that I just kind of made up off the top of my head.
But the point is, sometimes you need to think about, well, you know what, it's actually a better scenario if I get more money upfront and take that money now, rather than delay the divorce process some. Excuse me, not delay the divorce process, but take that money over time. And your spouse actually might give you less money for that effect, but it could be worth it to you. You're no longer waiting on those monthly payments to clear every month. Who knows what happens. And on top of that, maybe you get some spending money upfront, because you moved to a new place, or moved to a new town, or are in school for a little while, and that additional support upfront could be very useful to you.
Also, the converse is true in terms of thinking of your trade-offs. Let's stick to this example. For some of you, if you know you've never really created and stuck to a budget before, and you think you're going to blow through all of that money upfront, maybe it's wiser for you to take those payments monthly, that $1,000 a month each month for the next five years, because it will help you plan and budget better. Someone like me, I know myself well enough, oftentimes that would be a much better deal for me personally, because of the way that I think about money and spending, and cashflow, etc. Sometimes, it's more valuable to kind of have that stable payment coming, rather than if you're one who is potentially tempted by having a lot of money sitting around in a bank account. Then it's better off if you take those payments over time, and it might be worth it for you.
Now, conversely, if you're on the other side of things, and you're the spouse making these payments, it can be very important and very well worth considering, do you really want to write a check every month for the next however many months you're going to be paying support? Or maybe you can buy out all of that support upfront, or a large chunk of that support upfront from your previous savings, be it retirement or from cashing out of a house, or otherwise, because that will give you the advantage of, maybe, having more flexibility later.
I'll give you an example. I have a friend of mine here in Texas who basically said, "Hey", to their spouse, "I'm going to give you 80% of the assets that we have, in exchange I'm not going to pay you any ongoing support." But this person, in particular, is an entrepreneur, and he knew he could made the money back, and so he did. He say, "Hey, you know what? It's worth it for me just to pay all my support obligations. Now, you'll be comfortable and you won't have any issues, and I'm not going to be writing that check every month. And then, I'll just have to find a way to re-earn and rebuild myself financially in that case."
If you're the one paying, it can also be a win for you to think about some of these trade-offs, because you can actually clean up your financial picture a lot by not having this ongoing monthly bill, or reducing that monthly support payment substantially over time, just by understanding some of your trade-offs. You have options and leeway in terms of thinking about, well, maybe a lump sum is better for all parties involved. Or maybe it's not. Or maybe a partial lump sum is better, where we front-load support a little bit; get more of it upfront and less later. Maybe there are other considerations where we structure a deal so that everyone ultimately is better off. You could have higher monthly payments for the first two years, and then a slightly lower the next two years, or something like that, so that everyone ends up in a better position possible.
When you're thinking about your finances, and your picture, and your divorce, and your settlement, I want you to look with a little bit more creativity, in terms of solutions. Understand, all right, well, here are all these numbers on a sheet of paper that you have. There're going to be assets and debts and everything else. What's the best way that we can come to an agreement using these assets? And what are some ways that I might not have thought about before, in terms of getting a benefit from these assets and things that we need to do? Something for you to think about.
And regardless of where you are in your divorce settlement process, if you haven't started, or you're in the middle of the process, what I want you to do is a little bit of homework. You have a picture in mind in terms of who's going to get what, and how those things are going to be split. Well, what I want you to do is come up with some alternate scenarios where, financially, everyone ends up just about the same, but you're getting a different set of assets and debts, and splitting it a different way. Come up with one or two or three more scenarios, or I can help you come up with those scenarios, as well, but different ways to think about your picture. Some of the best settlements that I've had the pleasure of working with, are literally that exercise, where you think you got to do things one way, but let's say, "Hey, let's split things a totally different way, and let's just see how that looks, and see if everyone is agreeable for it." There might be something to it that would satisfy everyone involved.
Just by, at least, doing the exercise, whether or not you ultimately stick to the path that you're on, or consider some other ones, you can often come up with some really useful solutions that you may not know existed. But, that's the nature of the divorce process. It's a complicated process. There's a lot of different moving parts, and sometimes you just need to use those moving parts and the complexity to your advantage to come up with something that's more creative than maybe you considered before, and actually it might be something that works better for everyone involved.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
A subject that's been coming up a lot recently in coaching calls is stock options, and many of you have them and you may not realize it, or you do know they exist, but you're trying to figure out what you should do with stock options. And stock options are actually a pretty complicated subject. They're one of the most complicated financial instruments even when the divorce process isn't involved. And when you add divorce on top of it, trying to decide what you do with the stock option, whether you keep them, split them, how do you negotiate for them? They're tough.
I remember when I was much younger, I still have on my bookshelf an old book about stock options and it is one of the hardest to read books that I've ever purchased because they are a very complicated subject. But because it's the podcast, I'm going to, of course, simplify it for you and try and make it as easy as possible. And I want to give you an overview of stock options, what to think about with them in the divorce context.
Some of you may have them and not realize you have them. Some of you might not have them at all, and which point this episode might just be some general education on stock options, or maybe you know someone who's a friend who has them. But I'm going to go through kind of what they are, how they work, why they're important. They're one of those assets in divorce that if you have them, they can be very, very valuable. In some cases, I've had cases were stock options are the most valuable asset in the divorce and other times, stock options can be worthless. They are a very fascinating subject in that regard.
But let's start with the basics. And by the way, in my book, Divorce And Your Money, The No Nonsense Guide, I have a short chapter on stock options that explains what these are and why you need to be thinking about them. What stock options are, I call them stock options or employee stock options, it's a form of compensation and basically, it gives you a right but not an obligation to buy a certain number of shares in a company, in the company that you work for usually, at a specified price.
Now, what does all of that mean? It basically means that stock options give an employee the benefit or give employees the opportunity or the ability to benefit when a company goes up in value. Stock options also give an incentive for an employee to stick around at a company rather than leave. And the way it does that is it says, "Hey, you get a certain percentage or you can buy shares of stock at a discounted," I won't call it a discounted price, but you can get stock in this company and appreciate in its growth.
And if you are or your spouse is an executive in a company, but don't have to be an executive, can be at many different levels, but most of my clients are generally executives or pretty high up in a company when they think about options. You can have these stock options there and it says you're a part owner in a company, basically. There's some specific mechanics to it that make them a little bit more complicated than just being a normal owner, but they basically give you ownership.
And if you're at a public company, in a company will usually have thousands of employees, it has a stock market ticker. You can look up the price for it. I know lots of people who have stock options at public companies. They're a very common form of compensation. Actually, even when I was working at my very first job out of college, I was working at JP Morgan and they gave stock options basically to everyone as a form of compensation and to keep you at the company longer. You get a big bonus of stock options.
And then if you work at a private company, and so this is the private company side is actually pretty complicated when it comes to stock options, but if you work at a private company like a tech startup. At the time of this recording, I'll give you an example of a big name. Uber is a tech startup that you've all heard of. Well, most of their employees have lots and lots of stock options that could be very, very valuable. They are a sign of ownership in the company and it's a big form of compensation for the company.
And so at the end of the year, or at a certain time during the year, a company might say, "We're gonna give you part of your bonus in cash and part of your bonus in stock," and those stock are usually in the form of options. Now, the reason options are tricky is because of something called vesting. I'm not going to get into all the mechanics of vesting because it's just so complicated and it really varies on a case by case basis. But just because you have these stock options doesn't mean you have ownership in the company yet. As I said, they're still called options.
And because of this term vesting, it's basically just says that you don't own, you don't get a full value of your options just because you have them. You might get your options awarded to you the longer you stay at a company. So if you got $100 worth of stock options, well maybe only $10 have value today, but if you stay at the company for five years, you earn the rest of that money and you get the full value of those options.
So the point is that, I know this is difficult to grasp, but stock options are a piece of ownership in a company. They have a vesting schedule, they call it, but they vest and so you earn that ownership usually the longer you stay at that company over time. And if you leave the company before your stock has vested, that stock becomes useless.
That's not a point we're going to get into for the sake of this episode, but oftentimes in negotiations, when you're thinking about stock options and what you should do with them, if you or your spouse or whomever is going to leave the company with unvested stock, then that will become useless to you. Something very important to think about as well.
So whenever you have stock options, you're going to need to know that they exist and also you're going to need to know their vesting schedule. Now, that's just some basics on the stock options. Now, the real question is, what happens in a divorce context? The real thing to understand in a divorce context is the way you treat stock options in divorce varies substantially on one factor.
And that is, if your spouse is working for a private company, a company that's not listed on a stock market, whose shares don't trade every day, then the way you approach stock options in divorce is very different than if your spouse works for a public company. If your spouse works for a company like Bank of America, or Walgreens, or Best Buy or Walmart, or any number of big companies, there's also tons of publicly traded companies you may have never heard of before, but you can go online, you can look up their stock symbol, and you'll see a specific price for the share.
If your spouse works for a publicly traded company, then stock options are much, much easier to deal with. If your spouse works for a private company, then the stock, or you I should say, then the stock options are much more complicated in terms of how to split them in the considerations you should be thinking about as you try and figure out what to do with them.
Now, I was going to start with a public company example. So when I worked at JP Morgan, they gave stock options a lot. And basically, you can go online and you can type in, you can go to Yahoo Finance or Google Finance. You can type in "JP Morgan stock price" and you can look up the exact value of what each stock option is worth. And so if I had 10 ... So as of the time I record this, JP Morgan stock is worth about $100. Very easy. It's good for our math.
Let's just say they gave me a 10 shares of stock as part of my bonus. They actually give much, much more than that, but let's just say they gave 10 shares of stock as part of my bonus and options. And so I have 10 shares of stock at a stock price of $100, which means I have $1,000 worth of stock options. Well, if you are trying to figure out what to do with those stock options, that is a pretty easy thing to figure out because one of the biggest challenges with any asset is trying to figure out what it's worth.
Well, with a publicly traded stock, you know what the stock price is, you know how many shares of stock you have, and you just do some basic math and you come up with a value. In my case, I've got 10 shares of stock at about $100 a share. So I've got $1,000 of stock that I would have to split. Not much fancier than that. The only thing that's complicated is usually the math isn't that easy, but it's not much harder than that.
Where the complication comes is if your spouse works for a private company, and I've actually had this discussion on calls quite a bit, is the difference between a private company and a public company. Just so that you know, is private companies aren't listed on a stock exchange like the New York Stock Exchange, or the American Stock Exchange, or the Nasdaq or whatever. And so the value of the company isn't traded every day. And if you want to ... You can't just look up how much the company is worth.
A public company has a share price and you can buy and sell the stock every day, but the good thing about a public company is you can always look up what the market value is at any given time. With a private company, it might just be a few people who own it, might just be the employees who own it, or might just be an investment firm that owns it, and they won't necessarily tell you the exact value. And so when you're dealing with private company stock, the considerations get much, much more complicated.
The reason is you don't know how much that stock is worth. The challenge with private company stock is valuing it. Private company stock, I'm not going to get into all the mechanics of it because it's way beyond what we could do and talk about in an episode that's useful to you, but one thing to consider, one thing that's weird about private company stock is it has no value until someone gives it a value. Now what does that mean?
Well, you can have private company stock. You can have 10,000 shares of private company stock that's worth one penny a share. So in theory, it's not worth that much, but what happens is with private companies, they might raise money from investors, in which case that penny a share that I talked about could become worth, all of a sudden, $2 a share instead of a penny a share. And so what was almost worthless before is now worth millions of dollars.
Or if that company gets bought, or if that company does any number of different transactions, those stock options, while initially on paper aren't worth anything, could become very valuable in the future. Private company stock is very weird in that regard. And when we think about it in a divorce context, it's one of the areas that causes a ton of complication because of this very issue. I had to work with a lot of attorneys on it, a lot of clients directly, and educate you that private company stock is a very complex area and thing to deal with and you have to be careful with it.
Let's just go through quickly what the difference is between private and public company stock in a divorce context and how you think about what you should do with it and try and come up with the best decision for you. If you have a public company stock or the company's traded, you can look up its value, you know the value. The value is clear. There's no real reason to split the stock and go through the complicated splitting process for stock options. It's usually not worth it.
Best thing to do is the person who has the stock keeps it. The person who doesn't have the stock gets credit for it, and you give up a little bit more of another asset to make up the value. But that's it. When it comes to ... It's simple. You treat the stock like a car. If you really want part of a publicly traded stock or you really wanted to split it, here's what I always say.
You can open up an e-Trade account, or a TD Ameritrade account, or a Schwab account or whatever and in five minutes, purchase that publicly traded stock. It's a very easy thing to purchase and there's no reason to add thousands of dollars of fees and complication trying to split publicly traded stock most of the time, or stock options most of the time. It's just not worth the effort. There's so many simpler ways to deal with it than splitting it.
When you're dealing with a private company stock, that is a very tricky area because we don't know what the value is. And so in general, most of the time when we're dealing with private company stock, you split it in half or you split it in whatever proportion you're splitting the assets. The reason is private company stocks value can fluctuate so quickly, so instantaneously that if you don't take your half the value, you could end up losing out quite a bit.
And there's definitely a lot of complications around it because it depends on how big the private company is and the mechanics of splitting the stock, et cetera, et cetera, but what the current value is of that stock. But many times, I see cases where the spouse who has stock options says, "Oh, these are worthless. We don't need to worry about the stock options. Let's just move on." And in theory, at the time they say that, they actually might be true, but the reason they have stock options is because they could have a lot of value later.
And so at this private company, it's a tech startup or whatever. I had a case like this this year where the person works at a tech company, the stock options aren't worth very much, but all of a sudden, a big investment firm in the middle of the divorce process, thankfully, comes in and says, "Hey, we're going to buy this company." And all of a sudden, those stock options which were worth a few thousand dollars at best, became worth hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight and became a much bigger issue.
It sounds weird because it is, but that's also how stock options work, is oftentimes their value can fluctuate substantially, particularly with private companies where they're fast growth, valuing them as very, very difficult. And so the easiest way to get around that is by just splitting them evenly and therefore no one can lose out.
I'll give you another example, is if you are, say your spouse have stock options and the stock options are currently worth $1,000. Well you say, "Oh, I'm going to skip the stock options. I'm just going to get my share in the house and move on." Well, what if two years from now those stock options are worth a million dollars? How are you gonna feel about that? It's such a weird example, but that's how stock options can work.
Now also on the opposite side with stock options, this is something to consider, is they can also lose value. So you could say, "Actually, I want my share of those stock options," and it turns out the company goes bankrupt and they're worth nothing. So that's also a consideration as well. The point is there's a lot to think about if you have stock options. And if you're in the divorce process, you need to make sure you know that they exist and you really need to think through all of the different scenarios that could happen with these stock options so you can figure out, well, what is the best course of action for you later down the line with the options?
There's a lot of creative solutions that you can come up with for this very complicated asset. I hope I gave you a basic overview. It's not an intuitive subject and it's tough to explain and tough to explain clearly, but give you a basic overview of stock options. And if you have them, it's definitely an area, whether you have them or your spouse has them or you think you have them, it's definitely an area where you need to raise a red flag, make sure everyone has clear information as to exactly how they work, and from there, there's a lot to be thought about in terms of the divorce process, in terms of stock options and what the best strategy is for handling them.
It's an area that most attorneys, actually, I know aren't super well equipped to handle. Some are. There are definitely a handful of great attorneys out there who are super financially savvy who know the ins and outs of stock options better than me, but the average attorney off the street, certainly not. And actually, even many financial advisors, even good ones, don't know how to handle stock options well. And there's only a handful of people who really have good expertise in the stock option world.
If I were actually going to ... I'm going to leave you with a nugget. I love to give you resources and things to check out. One area or one person who's very, very good with stock options is a certified financial planner, a CFP. If you or your spouse have stock options and you're thinking about what to do with them in divorce, of course you can call me.
But there's also local certified financial planners who can help you think about the calculations, walk you through all the ins and outs of stock options in your specific scenario, and help you figure out, what are the best courses of action given this highly complicated, highly unusual asset that actually, a lot more of you have and you don't even realize that you have it or maybe you have an inclination that you have it but haven't really given thought to it in the divorce process.
So you can get a CFP, certified financial planner, contact me, or make sure you have an attorney who is very savvy in terms of the ins and outs of stock options because they are one of the most complicated areas for you to think about.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode I want to discuss refinancing the house in the divorce process and some considerations that you need to be thinking about as part of this process. Now, whether you're the person who's going to be keeping my house or if you're the person giving it up, there's going to be some information in here that is going to be helpful for you. Another thing I just want to mention right off the bat is if you go to the store and you get the quick start guide, I have 9 or 10 episodes dedicated just to considerations regarding your house in divorce and there's a lot of great information in there. It's a whole section in the quickstart guide and if you haven't checked that out, definitely go and get it because only some of the episodes are here available wherever you listen to podcasts. But the vast majority of them with a lot of great information a part of the quickstart guide.
Now, what we're talking about in this episode is house refinancing. It's a very common topic that comes up on coaching calls almost every day. And what we're talking about is basically transferring the name of the house from one person to another but there is a mortgage involved. I'd say 9 out of 10 times you have a mortgage on a house, some people in their houses outright, but most of the time there's some sort of outstanding mortgage balance. And the question is how do you actually get that mortgage out of one person's name and onto another. And so the house could be in both of your names, both you and your spouse's name and you want to put it in just one person's name afterwards or it could be in one spouse's name and they want to transfer the home and the mortgage to the other spouses of name.
And the reason I want to talk about this topic is there's a lot of considerations and things you need to be thinking about today and implementing today to make sure that you're thinking about your future and you're thinking about the refinancing process properly because there's a lot of common knowledge that I share on pod or on the coaching calls that people don't really know and so I want to bring that up for all of you who are listening. I'm going to use some examples to clarify what is important in this process and to give you some nuggets to think about. So I'm going to use the example of a husband and wife couple and the husband or the house I should say, is in both of your names. Both the husband and the wife's name's on the house and guess what? Both the husband and the wife are on the mortgage.
Let's say you have some young kids and so it's going to be better you think for one of you to keep the house. We're going to use the stereotypical example of the mom staying at home with the kids or at least wanting to keep the house with the kids and having primary custody. So the husband in this just sake of example, I deal with everything in between, but for the sake of this example we're going to assume the husband wants to transfer the house and the mortgage to the wife's name and how that process is supposed to happen. And actually it's not a simple process. I'm going to get into some further descriptions on the wife or the mom in this case because it's going to be relevant in terms of whether or not you can refinance.
What you do when you refinance a mortgage is you're basically getting a new loan out, paying off the old loan and then just the new loan remains in place. So I'm going to give you an example. I'll use some very simple math, keep it easy. Let's say you have $100,000 of a mortgage on your house and both of your names, well we're going to give it out. In this example we're giving the mortgage to the wife and so as the wife or soon to be ex wife and soon to be custodian with the kids, that person has to get a new mortgage and they are going to have to refinance and pay off the old mortgage and get the new one. And so with the new one, they are probably going to have to get a mortgage for about $105,000.
What I mean is there's going to be some fees and some expenses associated with getting the mortgage, but you have $100,000 outstanding. The wife is going to have to go to a mortgage lender and see if she can qualify and get a mortgage for $105,000. They'll take out $5,000 in fees and then what you're going to do is you're going to repay the mortgage with both your names on it. So it's going to be a zero balance. And then the wife is just going to have a mortgage in her name outstanding. Now, there's a lot to cover in that relatively straightforward example. So I want to dig into some details and some things that you should be thinking about if this is going to be an element of your divorce process.
First and most importantly, and this is where almost everyone goes wrong that I talk to and doesn't think about, is if you're planning on refinancing a mortgage and just putting one person's name on that mortgage, that person needs to be able to qualify mortgage on their own. It means that person needs to have enough credit and enough income to qualify and fully pay off that new mortgage. Many people do not have this point. If you are trying to take the house yourself, you're going to need to refinance and get a mortgage in your name or if you're trying to give it to your spouse, you're going need to refinance and get a mortgage in your name. Often times the spouse who wants the house will not qualify for it because you not only need good credit, but also you will need income to prove that you can repay those funds.
So if you are a stay at home parent and have not had income and your only income is going to be potentially some form of spousal support, you may not qualify for refinancing the house or if your spouse has bad credit and they're about to take over the house, they may not qualify to refinance the mortgage in their name only. And if you are a bank you want to be certain that the person who's going to be taking this refinancing loan out can actually pay for it. Look at the time, well, you are married and both people's names are on the house. If you stop paying, the bank has the option and will not just the option, they will pursue both of you aggressively until they get their money back and there's two people that they can pursue and two people's assets and income and everything else that they can over.
Now, if you're making it just one person, well the risk to the bank is much higher because now there's only one person whose assets and income they can go over and try and take and so they're going to want to make sure that if that one person is only on the hook that that one person can repay for things. But if you don't, if you're a stay at home parent and you don't necessarily have a clear source of income for the foreseeable future of your refinancing time, then it is very likely that you won't be able to refinance the home and therefore won't be able to take your spouse's name off the home and therefore either going to have to sell the home or figure out another arrangement. There's a lot of risks to that and a lot of things you need to think about and conversely if you're on the other side of it.
Let's talk about the other side because I work with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations. Let's say you are the person who wants to take their name off the house and so your spouse is the one who's going to have to qualify for the mortgage. Well, there are some issues with that because if your spouse is unable to qualify for a house refinancing, you are putting yourself in a world of risk and potential liability if you leave your name on the house and the mortgage. And so here's what I'm getting at. Let's just say you come up with some great divorce settlement, you think you're pretty good and as part of the divorce settlement you write in my now ex spouse is going to be responsible for any future mortgage payments on the house, but we're not going to refinance it we'll leave it as is and keep both of our names on it.
Well, let's just say three years down the line something happens and your spouse misses a mortgage payment and then maybe starts missing two mortgage payments or three. All of a sudden you're going to be getting calls about mortgage payments being behind, your credit's going to fall substantially and you're going to put yourself into a lot of risk and liability for this outstanding mortgage that you should have refinanced or at least gotten rid of one way or another down the line later. And so there are some things for you to think about. I almost never encourage people to leave their names on the house if they're not living in it after divorce because it just presents too much risk down the line. But oftentimes you have to make sure your spouse can qualify for a that refinancing.
Now, I've talked a lot about some of the circumstances and situations and considerations as you think about refinancing your mortgage in divorce. The good news is now that you have a little bit of a handle on it, there's an easy solution to this whole thing that all of you, if this is going to be a question in your divorce, either you or your soon to be ex spouse needs to do this sooner over later. It's not hard. You contact a mortgage broker or a mortgage lender and you see if you will qualify for refinancing or you could say prequalify for a refinancing. You can't actually do this process in most cases until the divorce is signed. But you can find out if this process is actually feasible for you before that. And what do I mean? You do this, you contact a loan company. I don't endorse this company. I don't know much about them, but they advertise a lot so Quicken Loans.
Quicken Loans I see their ads all the time. You can contact Quicken Loans and say, "Hey, here's the situation. I'm about to get divorced. I want to make sure I can qualify to refinance for refinance my mortgage and put the house in my name as part of this process." They do this thousands of times a day with tens of thousands of people, they're very used to this conversation. You can go to them and they'll ask you for your information, your income, etc. And they'll say, "Hey, you can be approved up to X amount of mortgage." And so you can take that amount to them and they might say, "All is good. Yeah, I think this will work out for you. You're looking good." Or they'll say, "Actually, you don't meet the qualifications at all for what we require and this probably won't work out for you." And you have to go back to the drawing board or you go to the company that originally did your mortgage and contact them.
Whoever you want to contact, it takes an hour or two or whatever, but you apply and just say it's for preapproval to see if you can do this thing. You don't have to take it, there's usually no fee just to preapprove yourself. It's an hour or two of your time, very straightforward and if you meet the information they'll send you a document that says, "Yeah, you prequalify for this refinancing. Here's all the terms, here's the fees, everything laid out." It's usually on a couple pages and you're good to go and you know what your options are, whether or not you pursue it or not. Or if you go and you find out and you say, "Hey sorry, given the house, given your credit, given your income, given whatever their issue may be, you don't qualify for this refinancing." Well now you know your options in terms of the divorce process or if it's your spouse who's the one who needs to go through this process.
I would say, "Hey spouse, look, I'm happy to give you the house, but you need to just make sure that we can actually refinance it. Just go call this company or call one of these three companies to make sure that this process is doable." And so there are things to consider and you just go and get an answer. If the answer is yeah, you could refinance this mortgage, then you know the answer. If the answer is no, you can't refinance this mortgage, then you know that answer too and you can make an appropriate decision in terms of all of the other issues in your divorce process and really come up with a divorce settlement. The worst thing that I see, and I see this happen many times down the line, is when you have an idea in your head or you're deep in the negotiating process and you book a coaching call or whatever else and you say, "Hey, here's what we're going to do. Here's what we're thinking about. How does this sound?"
And I'll say, "Hey, this whole transferring the house and refinancing isn't as simple as it sounds. Have you been pre qualified yet? Have you contacted a mortgage broker?" And you'll say, "No." We'll say, "Hey, why don't you just take the next two days, I'm going to give you some homework, go contact a mortgage lender and see if this is actually feasible." And many times you are very surprised with the answer or what is required and you have to really adjust what you're thinking about. Now, it's not all bad news either. Maybe you find out that everything's on target and you're okay and you have the definitive answer and you're good. But the sooner that you can figure out and contact someone about a refinancing the better. The other thing I want to just toss out there is there are also other creative solutions when it comes to refinancing a house.
I've worked with some people where we can partially pay down the mortgage with retirement funds as part of this process and refinance a chunk of the mortgage and if you do a chunk of it, you're in good shape and can refinance or can come up with a creative solution. It really just depends on individual circumstances. One of the reasons I do this podcast is this stuff is complicated and oftentimes there's many different ways at looking at things and that's some of the things we get on coaching calls or with the people I work with on a longer term. But you could come up with some pretty interesting solutions down the line for things that you might not have thought about when it comes to the mortgage. And so the other thing when it comes to a refinancing, and as I said you should really contact some mortgage firms or some banks that provide mortgages and explain the situation.
I promise you all of them have dealt with hundreds or thousands of divorces each year and are very familiar with the circumstances involved in the moving part of the process. There's nothing scary about it, it's just taking the time to do it. But you could be in a position where, well, let's just say using $100,000 mortgage that we were talking about before, they could say, "Hey, given your part time work and your income and whatever else, maybe you can only refinance $40,000 of that mortgage." Well maybe that's sufficient because if you have $60,000 on other assets, you might be able to pay off with using a retirement plan or something else. There are ways to structure it so it's tax advantageous if you know the laws and work with an accountant or work with me or whatever else, the ways to structure a creative solution so that, all right, well we're going to take $60,000 from this retirement account.
We're going to refinance for $40,000 and that way we're going to get rid of this mortgage, you're only going to have a $40,000 mortgage outstanding. Everyone's going to be happy, no weird liability, etc. We've done that time to time with people as well because that's just the solution that makes sense. It's really about and this podcast is about and what I'm here to help you with is understanding your options, understanding the complexity involved, understanding that some of these decisions even though conceptually they're pretty basic, refinancing a mortgage actually in practice, they have a lot more complications to them that you don't often think about. And I want you to be informed and really understand, hey, I need to think about this decision further and really make sure that whatever my spouse and I decide is really the appropriate financial decision and feasible financial decision for both of us and puts us in the best position possible.
And making sure that you're not forgetting anything that is a very important as part of this process. And refinancing the house in theory very simple, in practice very complicated. And it's been coming up every week on calls and so I want to make sure you're all informed as to how much there is to such a very, in theory, simple decision.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
Most of the information on this podcast is focused on leveling the playing field in divorce and making sure that if you aren't the person who was in control of the finances, that you make sure that you're able to get the information you need so you can create and structure a reasonable settlement for the rest of your life and ultimately, to put it bluntly, so you don't get screwed, as they say, in the divorce process. As part of that, and part of the coaching calls that I do every week, one of the recurring themes is that many times you don't have access to essentially information that you'll need so that you can make an informed decision about your financial picture and what the best things are for you to do.
One of the things I want to discuss in this episode is a few ways to get the appropriate financial information in your divorce and make sure that you have a clear and full financial picture. This could be for many reasons and many situations this comes up. Sometimes your spouse is deliberately hiding assets and hiding money from you or misstating your financial picture. That's a very common one., sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big way. Sometimes it could be the case that your spouse made a mistake and forgot about something. Or maybe you have a complicated financial picture and there are just a lot of different moving parts that you have to keep track of. Or maybe you just didn't really even know what existed and you're just trying to get a sense of what actually do I have. You're just trying to figure out the whole thing and get some information.
What I want to do in this episode is go through some specific tactics to help you get a clearer financial picture of what you have and what you need so that you, and your attorney, and perhaps me if I'm working with you, you can make those informed financial decisions or at least the things in this episode, I want to help you start to figure out where to look so that you can start digging and start getting on the right path financially. I'm going to go through five tips, tools, tricks, whatever you want to call them, in order to help you get financial information in your divorce if you don't have direct access to it otherwise. Five things. The first one is ask. Second is check your tax return. The third is use your memory or any clues that you may have. The fourth is a subpoena. Finally, the last one is using a forensic accountant. The forensic accountant is going to be last because it's a combination of many of these things.
Let's jump in and go through these tactics. The first one, as I said, is you just need to ask. Sometimes if you ask the question, "Hey, can you provide the latest account statements for this retirement account, or this mortgage, or this whatever?" either through your attorney or in writing in some manner, your spouse will do so. I always encourage people to ask in writing with any specifics you may have because it's good to have a record of times if your spouse doesn't comply. It's nice to have a record of all of the times you've asked and all of the times they have not provided full and complete information because that will look bad to them later on. You always start with an ask. Asking is easy, but it doesn't mean you're going to get a response. We're going to go through the other areas and eventually some of the ones that will mandate that they provide a response.
The second thing is related to getting your access to your tax returns. One of the very common things I hear actually usually multiple times a week is that your spouse or that a spouse basically forged a signature on a tax return, and you're unsure if the information in the tax return is correct, if you have some additional liability you might not know about, if the taxes are reported correctly. You never signed them yourself. You don't really know what's in there, and you're worried about the contents of the tax report. The other thing that's relevant about a tax report is that assuming that everything is in order on those tax forms that you file, tax reports are one of the most useful areas to get a sense of what assets that you have. Here's what I mean. If there is a bank account somewhere that you might not know about, let's just say at Bank of America because it's the largest bank, I think, in the US, and if there's a bank account that you don't know about and it earns a dollar in interest over the course of a year, guess what? That bank account and that dollar of interest should show up on the tax forms. If it does not, there are some bigger issues. Oftentimes you will find a lot of assets you don't know about if you're used to knowing what you're looking for on a tax return.
Here's the challenge, of course. We're talking about getting access to information. The challenge is that how do you get your tax reports if you don't sign them, if you don't have a copy of them, your signature was forged, you don't have them handy laying around, and your spouse isn't being forthcoming about them? Actually, it's pretty easy. If you go to the IRS website, they have something called Get a Tax Transcript. If you type in get your tax transcript or transcript from the IRS on Google search or online, the IRS website will pop up, and they have a form you can provide to get a copy of your transcript and your taxes. You can get, I think, three to five years worth of your tax returns. They will provide either an electronic copy or a physical copy in the mail of those tax returns. Of course, you have to fill out some information to get those tax returns, but the point is if your name was signed on a joint tax return, it's a record that you can get from the IRS as a government service. It's free, and you can get copies of your tax returns by requesting that transcript.
The other thing that you can do is IRS offices are everywhere across the country. I've had many people do this. You can go to your IRS office, identify yourself, and request copies of the tax transcript. They will provide those for you if you go into the office and ask them in person. This is one of the most important ways. I think I say it on every call where someone asks, "Well, where do I get this information? I think I don't have a full picture of our accounts." I always say, any forensic accountant, any lawyer will ask this question as well, is start with the tax returns. From there you will be able to have a lot of clues that show up in a myriad of ways on the tax returns.
I could talk about this point for a while. Even with my personal taxes, I filed my taxes. Because I've traveled quite a bit and I have a few different addresses, I missed a document. I didn't sent it to my accountant, and I filed my taxes, and the IRS rejected them. I was like, "Oh, well what's going on?" They said, "Well, you're missing this form." What happened is I had to add in this form. I went and dug it out, and I added in this form. Then I resubmit my tax. The point being is all of these items that you might be looking for, these accounts, these interest retirement accounts, contributions, other investments, whatever, will show up or should show up on your tax form somewhere, particularly if you're looking for outside assets or outside investments that you don't know about. If they don't show up on your tax form, then it might not be there or your spouse is substantially cheating on their taxes, in which you have a lot of other considerations to think about. But let's move on.
You can get copies of your tax transcript. That's important. The third thing on my list is use your memory. If you have any inclination of accounts you may have had, be it investments, be it real estate, be it a bank account statement, be it something you remember coming in the mail, it could've been a credit card, it could've been anything, any account firm that you've seen, or have a clue about, or have thought of, try and jot down as much information about those things as you can because ultimately you might actually find a way to get access to that information and use those clues or breadcrumbs just from memory. Oftentimes you know more than you think you will. Then you're going to be able to use that information to help your attorney, me, your accountant to know where to look, and know who to ask, and where to start digging. Anything you can dig up by memory, or if you remember an email, or an account, or whatever, make a list of those and collect just as much information about them as you can because they're going to be useful for the next point, which is point number four.
This is the big one. This is the subpoena. I'm sure if you've ever watched a television show that talks about legal stuff, you've heard the term subpoena. Subpoena is a very important word and legal time. Basically it is a legal document that says that the person receiving it or company receiving it needs to act in a specific way or provide specific information. I'll give you an example of what this is. Let's return to Bank of America. Let's just say, "Hey, I remember some sort of account from Bank of America that we had for a few years. I don't have the account number of information on it, and my spouse isn't providing the information willingly." You can say or your attorney can say, "All right, well we're going to issue a subpoena to Bank of America to provide all of the records related to an account with this person's name on it." Bank of America will be legally obligated to provide that information to you. It's not always mandatory, but it's 99% of the time mandatory. You can fight a subpoena, but that only happens in very rare circumstances.
I have a case now where there is a real estate under question. One of the ways we got some information from them is we had to subpoena the building management company and everyone who was connected to this real estate. They were legally required to provide certain records about who owns it, what percentages, what financial information there was about this building. They provided that information, and now we have it and can make much better decisions during the divorce process. If you don't reply or your spouse doesn't reply to the subpoena, subpoenas come with a wide variety of potential punishments as part of the case. It can include fines, jail time, and many other things depending upon your state and what's going on. Subpoenas are a great way to force or require access to information.
The reason I put subpoena fourth on this list, and this list is in a particular order for a reason, is if you've asked about some accounts and maybe you get some information, you look at your tax returns and you get a little bit more information, you use your memory and you get some more information, with all of those clues if you're starting to put together this puzzle, it's big pizzle and you're starting to put it together piece by piece, ultimately a subpoena is that tool that attorneys can use to force you to get a much larger section or pieces of that puzzle, particularly when you know where to look. If you don't know where to look, your attorney can't subpoena, I guess he or she in theory could, Every bank in town or every financial institution in the country, we're talking about tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of different places.
What you need to do is be able to say, "Hey, I have this breadcrumb that I saw on my tax return on page eight. I have this breadcrumb from my memory that we had an account here at one point. I have this breadcrumb from whatever else that I think we need to follow up on, and there's more to the story here." Let's take that information and leverage a subpoena to see if we can get some more information out of it and get a more complete picture of those things.
Then the last thing on the list after subpoena is a forensic accountant. I have episodes on the podcast with forensic accountants. I have a large series in the store in the Quick Start Guide, as it's called, with information about finding hidden assets and how to use a forensic accountant. A forensic accountant is one who is an accountant whose expertise is taking all of these breadcrumbs and putting together a coherent financial picture. A forensic accountant can look at page 17, or I'll use an example. I have some clients with tax returns that are 180 pages because there's lots of supporting documentation. They have complicated financial pictures. A forensic accountant can take a 180-page tax return and look on page 79, line 16 and say, "Hey, there is something to this account. We need to do a lot more digging. Let's track down more information about it. Here's what I know from this account, and it's probably a big one."
A forensic accountant is specialized in doing those types of analysis and basically taking all of these breadcrumbs and putting together a clear and coherent picture to the best of their ability to help you track down all of these assets that may be missing, hidden, or some other way financially questionable in terms of things that are going on. It's a very specific niche of accounting that requires a good deal of expertise. It's not cheap, so one of the things I always say before hiring a forensic accountant is, "How much money do you think is realistically missing?" because I've seen forensic accountant bills go up into the tens of thousands of dollars easily, particularly when there's a lot of complication and it's hard to get things. If you have hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars at stake, then oftentimes it is well worth the investment. Think of all these things as an investment. If you have to invest some money to get a lot more money, then it can be worth it. A forensic accountant will ask for all of these tax returns, all of the things that you remember from memory, things from a subpoena. They might help your attorney craft an appropriate one. All of these things a forensic accountant, a good one, will ultimately put together a comprehensive picture for you when it comes to finding that money or assets that are missing.
The thing about this process, and I want to step back for a little bit, if assets are hidden, it's not a guarantee that you're going to find them. Even if you do find them, it's not a guarantee that you are entitled to those assets. It can be a complicated process, and there can be a lot more to it. But you do need to oftentimes know that these assets exist. The good thing I will say in the modern world, unless your spouse was a drug dealer or had a cash business, you can find a trace of assets everywhere from an email, from a wire transfer, from a public document, from whatever. There is a transaction record of everything. The question is how much it's going to cost you to get access to it, and is it really worth it for you. If your spouse is being forthcoming, and you think they're being forthcoming, and everything seems to make sense, you won't have to go down this path of getting a forensic accountant, and issuing subpoenas, and everything else. This process takes a very long time to put together, sometimes years, when it comes to all of these things. You have to really wonder and think about what the right decision is for you.
But if your spouse is not being forthcoming and there are a lot of things, and questions, and concerns that you have, I know because I talk to you every day on coaching calls, you ask me these things. Sometimes I'll talk to you and say, "Hey, that sounds a little suspicious. I think there's more to it. Let's dig in further." I say this as well. I try and be as honest and frank with you as I can. I'll say, "Look, from what you're telling me, I understand that some stuff is missing or this sounds a little bit questionable, but I don't know if it's worth it emotionally, financially, time-wise and everything else to drag on this process given what else you've told me to date. Maybe it's not the best idea to pursue this path." Whatever the case is, you have to think about what's right for you. I just want to give you the tools and the information so that you can think about these things and ultimately make the appropriate decision.
Just to summarize quickly again how to get access to information, I talked about five things. The first is you ask. Second is get copies of your tax return, and specifically your tax transcript. The third is use your memory. You probably know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Fourth is a subpoena, which is issued by an attorney. You can ask your attorney about that and if it's appropriate for you. Then finally is employing the services of a forensic accountant. For many people, that may be an essential item. I've seen some great work from a forensic accountant that's just unbelievable, particularly where there is a lot of money and financial complications. Forensic accountants can be the essential part of this divorce process.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode I want to discuss mediation. It's a topic that I haven't talked about in a little while, and mediation is very important for many of you. You end up hearing your attorney talking about mediation, or you end up going for it, or you're preparing for mediation, or you've just heard about it and you want to know what it is, what it's like, and whether it's right for you.
One thing I will toss out there is, mediation for many of you can be a very useful way to resolve many of the issues in your divorce. I want to go through a little bit about how it works, and why it exists, and provide some information in terms of whether mediation is something that you should consider during your divorce process.
Now, the reason people pick mediation, or even consider this mediation process is, it's one of the tools, not the only tool. But, it's one of the tools, and one of the most common tools people have to avoid going to court. Anything you can do to avoid going to court, and avoid going to trial, is generally speaking beneficial for you. The goal is, in the divorce process. I mean, aside from getting out of this process as quickly, efficiently, and in a best position possible for you and your family. The goal of this process is not to end up in front of a judge.
Now, for some of you, it's inevitable. I deal with a lot of cases, probably a higher percentage than most end up going in front of a judge just because the issues that you're dealing with are so contentious that, and you can't come to a satisfactory resolution. But, for those who can, you don't want ... You want to use, or at least consider mediation as one of your options.
I've talked about judges and courts before on the podcast, and just the one thing I'll say about it is, imagine a stranger who knows nothing about you, making in just a few minutes, the decisions that'll affect you, your assets, your kids, your support, for the rest of your life. They determine that as just a stranger. They're in charge of making some pivotal, life decisions. They don't know you, they don't necessarily care about you. You're one of hundreds or thousands of people they have to decide upon each year, and they don't spend a lot of time with you, and they're not really getting to know you. Is that how you want your divorce to be decided? That's why people don't want to go to court, and mediation is a very useful process for some of you.
Now, how does mediation work, what is it like? What is it? Well, mediation is basically the process where you, your spouse, and a neutral third party, usually a neutral attorney, or retired judge, or professional mediator. Helps you work through the issues in your divorce, and helps you come to a point where you can find middle ground, or some sort of reasonable compromise on the key things that you're thinking about, and trying to decide in your divorce.
What do I mean? Well, there are several things that we could consider and think about. You have issues in your divorce. Some things might be very clear, right? I'll just use a very simple example I see all the time. You and your spouse both probably have separate cars. In most of the cases, nine times out of 10, it's not really a dispute over who gets what car. If you drive a truck, I don't know why I said truck, I don't. But, if you drive a truck and your spouse drives the Toyota, the Toyota Corolla car. Well, you probably will keep the truck, your spouse will probably keep the car, and we move on. Nine times out of 10, or probably 99 out of 100 times, that's not going to be a contentious issue.
But, something that might be an issue is, how much of that retirement account are you really entitled to, or is your spouse really entitled to? What's the appropriate amount of support to consider? How much parenting time, and how should we work out some of the custody issues? Or, whatever other issue or consideration you may have on the table, mediation could be a way, a place, a format for you to resolve those issues. As I said, there is a neutral third person in the mediation. At a minimum level it's you, your spouse, and that neutral person talking it out.
Perhaps in a conference room, or in someone's office, to figure out these discussions.
But, alternatively, there are more ways to ... More formats to mediation. You could both have attorney's to help you during the mediation process. That would mean five people involved. You, your attorney, your spouse, your spouses attorney, and the mediator. Or, you could ... There's different options. Sometimes mediation takes place in the same room, where you book a half a day, a full day, several days, even a week to sit and negotiate the issues around the table.
Now, for some of you, being in the same room with your spouse probably is not going to be the most productive way to reach a resolution, so they have options for mediation where you're in separate conference rooms. What happens is you and your attorney, or you by yourself, are in one conference room. Your spouse and your spouses attorney are in a separate, or in another conference room. During that process your spouse ... Or so, the mediator might come into your room first. The mediator will come in and say, "Hey, what do you care about, what do we need to work through?" Let's say you go through your top three issues. Your mediators say, "Hey, you know what? I think on this point number two, you're not being totally realistic. You need to have a little bit of leeway here. Can you give up something?"
You'll listen, you'll say, "I don't know if I want to do that." The point being is you'll come up with some sort of resolution and move on. Then the mediator will say, "Okay, I'm going to go to your spouses room and let's see if we can bring these issues closer." The mediator will leave, go to your spouses room, and the spouse will ... Will say, "Hey, what's important to you? Can we work towards these kind of things?" Then the mediator will kind of go through and they'll say, "Oh, you know, you're doing well here. You might have to give up some more," whatever else. Then they might come back to your room. Or, if you're doing it all live or in the same room, whatever the case may be.
Then, the other thing to think about too with the mediators is, so their goal is as a mediator, to get you to a resolution. That is the whole point of mediation. Sometimes even the court mandates that you have to go to mediation before going to trial. The goal is to resolve as much as you can, as soon as you can, without going to court. The mediator also, if you have a good mediator. As I said, they're often a retired judge, an attorney, or a professional mediator. Part of the things they will do aside from being very good negotiators, and helping you come to a resolution, is that they will also make sure that you're doing within the bounds, understanding what's in the bounds of the law.
I've heard a mediator say, "Hey, that issue that you're thinking about." Be it, let's just say you're asking for a particular amount of support. The mediator might say, "Look, I've been a judge for the last 20 years, and now I'm a mediator. The courts in your county won't give you that much support, so you need to lower your expectations, and lower that amount. Let's go to something that's reasonable, within the bounds of the law."
Or, that judge might say, or that mediator might say, "Hey, I don't think you're asking for enough here. I think it's reasonable for you to ask for more." Something like that. Just, the overall point of this is to say is, the mediator is there. They're not there to be your friend, they're not there to favor one spouse or the other. They are there just to help you negotiate, work through thorny issues, and get to a place that's often times much more productive than just your two attorney's, or just you and your spouse going at it from opposite angles. Their goal is to get you to that agreement.
I hope that provides a good general overview of the mediation process. Some other things I want you to consider, is there are some benefits to mediation. One very clear benefit, is that you get to avoid court. I already discussed that. The second is that, it's a less expensive process in general. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, court by itself is all consuming on your part, your attorney's part, and everything else. That's already on top of the normal divorce process. It just adds an extra layer of very intense complication to everything.
Mediation is, if you're preparing for court and you're paying your attorney, that's the times when I see legal bills go into the 50, 100, 150 $500,000 mark, even when you don't have that much in assets. I've seen some astronomical legal bills, and almost all the time it's because of court. The only other time is if your finances are really, really complicated. But, most of the time it is because you are going to trial. It is such a high stakes event for everyone involved, the legal bills are expensive.
Now, mediation is a way to avoid that. Now, I'm not going to say that mediation is cheap. It is not. Mediation, a day of mediation can cost $3,000 a person often times, or more. That's on the low end. If I were called into the mediation and you wanted a day of my time, it would be several thousands dollars. It's not cheap. But, it is a way to break through, and often not only get through these issues faster, but also much cheaper than if you had gone through every issue back and forth with your attorney over months, and lots of letters, and lots of phone calls, and lots of arguments. Mediation can be very effective in that category. It's a very efficient way to come to a resolution.
Then there's the third thing for mediation. Now, if you and your spouse are on reasonable terms, I strongly recommend mediation instead of fighting it out through your attorney's. Mediation can be a very inexpensive way for some of you to resolve just one or ... If you have just one or two issues, or that you're thinking about that you just kind of need to have a third person chime in. Or, if you and your spouse are just generally civil, and you think you can kind of work it out pretty reasonably. Then, mediation could be a very exceptional process for you, and a good way to resolve things without a third party interfering, and over complicating the process.
Now, that's just a basic overview of mediation. If you get the quick start guide in the store, or work with me on the coaching calls, we have a lot of information about how do you prepare for a mediation? How do you think about negotiating? How do you really make sure that your wishes are clear, and you're coming up with some creative solutions? The nice thing about mediation is that you have a lot of options that you can, flexible options that you can work through and use. Mediation is an effective way to pursue some things you might not have thought about, that get you into the position that you always wanted all along, and everyone is as happy as they can be given that you're talking about divorce.
I would encourage you to check out some of those episodes, and some of the ways to prepare. Also, for a lot of you, you call me and say, "Hey, I got mediation in a month." Or, "I've got mediation in a couple weeks." Or, "Mediation in three months down the line. How do we prepare for this, and how do we put some information together so that you walk into the room, the mediation room ..." 'Cause remember, this might be a half a day, a day, a week at the most for most of you. How do you really prepare for that, really get clear on your goals, the things you want, and acceptable bans? When I say bans I should say, acceptable proposals that will really work for you.
Some other things to consider. Then the last thing I forgot to bring up is that, mediation isn't always a binding process. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not. Often times you can, and most of the time you can go into a mediation voluntarily and you say, "Hey, we're going to work really hard to get to this agreement. But, if it does not happen, then we're not forced to sign anything that you don't want to sign." Often times it's very good, and I encourage most of you, even if you do come to a pretty good solution in the mediation room, to take a day, or two, or three just to think about it.
Just from experience, going through mediation can produce a lot of adrenaline. You can feel very wired on mediation day. Often times there's emotions, there's a lot. There's just an extraordinary amount of feelings, and moving parts, and it can often feel overwhelming. I hate to use the word exhilarating, but almost in a way. There's a lot going on. Sometimes after that's over, you might need a night of sleep, or two, or three before you sign that final agreement, unless you're just getting everything that you want in the room.
Mediation has a lot of dynamics to it, but I do and want you to, if you have the ability to, consider using it as a process as you consider your divorce. And, the options that might be best for you, whether you're still preparing for the process, in the middle of it, or are trying to work out some of the issues. Often times, mediation can be a great route to go.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, we're going to discuss how to divorce a narcissist and when, or I should say at least survive the divorce process, and really come in in one piece, and come through this situation in the best position possible given a particularly difficult spouse to handle during the divorce process.
The reason I bring this topic up, I haven't talked about it in a while, and through the coaching calls I've had over the past few weeks, many of you are identifying that your spouses have some form of pretty severe or extreme narcissism, and are wondering, and have been asking, "Well, how do I deal with that, and what kind of strategies can I employ? What are some things that I should be thinking about?"
I'll say of course individual circumstances always matter, and if you want to talk about your case, we can do that via a coaching call, but I also want to give you some general tips and strategies and things to think about, and also for those who haven't really thought about narcissism with any depth and thinking about that in the context of your spouse, I want to go through some of the characteristics of what someone with narcissistic personality disorder, or what a narcissist is, and then also go through really just three very specific strategies to help you get through that situation.
Let's first start with what a narcissist is. The technical term, you heard me mention it earlier, is narcissistic personality disorder. It is a disorder, and it does have a clinical and psychological definition that's very specific, and I'm going to actually read off some of the symptoms of that.
One of the things I do want to bring up though, is it's a continuum, so what that means is some people would score, if I wanted to keep the language simple, some people might score 100 out of 100, as they are an extreme narcissist, but some of us, including some of us listening, still have forms of narcissism, we all do, but we might be a five, or we might be a 10, or might be a 20, but your spouse could be an 80, or a 90, or 100, or I bet some of you think your spouse might be off the charts.
What I'm going to do, is I'm going to read the definition of some of the symptoms. These come from the Mayo Clinic website, and it says that, "People with narcissistic disorder can have some of the following," and I know some of you are going to be nodding your heads as you listen to these descriptions, so here we go.
So people with the disorder can have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration, expect to be recognized as superior without achievements that warrant it, exaggerate their achievements and talents, be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty, or the perfect mate, believe they are superior, and only can associate with equally special people, monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior, expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations, take advantage of others to get what they want, have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others, be envious of others, and believe others envy them, have an arrogant, or I should behave, in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful, and pretentious, insist on having the best of everything.
That is the first set of characteristics. Believe it or not there are more, but I know just from that reading, some of you have a pretty clear sense and probably know where those behaviors come in with your spouse. Maybe it's not your spouse, and that wouldn't be relevant to the divorce context, but I know we all have friends or might know some people in popular culture who you can clearly identify these characteristics with. I will not name any names, but I think it's pretty obvious for some.
Now, the definition from the Mayo Clinic also has some other characteristics they say, and it says, "People with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism," that's very important, "and they can become inpatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment."
Now, I'm just going to give you all a little insight into me. That one definitely falls in my category. I do love special treatment, and that one's me. But anyways, other things is that they have significant interpersonal problems and feel slighted, react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person or make themselves appear superior, have difficultly regulating emotions and behavior, experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change, feel depressed and moody because they feel short of perfection, and have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability, or humiliation.
That's a lot. That is a ton of different things, but in conversations I have with you every day, I know a lot of you are living with spouses that share these characteristics. These are daily behaviors that you are living with, and you're trying to figure out how this process is going. One of the extra challenges with someone who shares these narcissistic characteristics is that most narcissists don't think that anything is wrong with them.
One of the challenges with diagnosing narcissistic personality disorder is someone who is a narcissist will not sit down to be diagnosed, and they won't think that anything is wrong. In the divorce process in particular, which is what we're talking about, it really drags on the divorce process, because everything becomes bigger than it needs to be.
Now, while I'm not saying that the issues that you're facing in divorce are small, they are big, but what happens is usually you, the person who are listening, has pretty reasonable expectations, and needs, and wants during this process, whereas dealing with the narcissist can be just complicated, and their expectations are the opposite of unreasonable. Every time you force them to give an inch or ask that they give an inch, they react in ... they overreact, I should say, kind of in an out of control manner, and it just becomes a much bigger fight than necessary.
Compounding that is I like to say ... I had this funny thing. One of my first jobs I had when I was working on Wall Street, I was a financial advisor at a very good firm, and there were lots of financial advisors working there. I noticed something very interesting that applies to the narcissist in the divorce context.
What was interesting is the personality of the financial advisors, their clients would also share a similar personality to that advisor. What do I mean by that? So there would be a financial advisor who was very ADD, always wanted things really snappy, was kind of all over the place, and when their clients called, their clients were the same way, very ADD, a little bit all over the place, kind of snappy, and that was interesting.
Then conversely is there would be an advisor there, and he would be very thoughtful, very deep thinker, very analytical, relatively quiet, not kind of a big sales personality, and when that person's clients called, that's what they were like, the clients. They were generally very thoughtful, very analytical, very deep thinkers. It was interesting because I was sitting around, I don't know, 20 or 30 very successful financial advisors, and in general, all of their clients matched their personalities, and it was one of the weirdest things I had noticed.
Why do I bring this up? Well, in the divorce context, it turns out that narcissists tend to find lawyers with those same personality traits. What could have been even a reasonable process becomes that much harder, because not only is the spouse suffering on the scale of narcissism to an extreme degree, but their attorneys are often further complicating that situation rather than helping it.
It turns out, at least in my experience, I can't speak for everyone, but oftentimes, those with narcissistic personality disorder tend to have very narcissistic attorneys who are just a pain and a half to deal with. I can't stand them, to be quite frank. Least favorite people to deal with in the legal process.
I don't mind a mean attorney, I don't mind any form of attorney except for the narcissistic ones. I can deal with the mean ones, but those who are just full of themselves and have clients who are equally that level are the biggest pain. I think if you were to talk to any very good divorce attorney, they would say the exact same thing. Every town and every city across America, there are attorneys who share these capabilities, and also attract those very frustrating clients who are probably like your spouse if you're listening to this.
Now, all that said, let's shift gears a little bit. What do you do? What are the strategies ... and I'm really just going to go through three ... strategies that you can put into place to deal with a narcissist during the divorce process? I like to only discuss three strategies, because if you focus on these three things, you will be focused on the right things, and actually, I use the word, "focus," because one of the challenges with dealing with a narcissist is small things become big, and you can quickly lose sight of the big picture, or as I like to say, "You can't see the forest for the trees."
I only want you to focus on a few things, and if you focus on those few things, you will get through in the grand scheme of things in the best position possible. So what are those three things? The first is document everything and get organized. The second is make sure you get an experienced attorney, and the third is you're the CEO. Remove emotions from this process.
Now, I'm going to get into each one of these three things, and intentionally, this is a little bit longer episode, because I think it's a very important one, and I'm going to go through these three topics. First one, document everything and get organized. Even though you're dealing with a narcissistic spouse, it's only one part of the process.
You still have everything that you're dealing with in divorce. Your spouse's personality characteristics are just something on top of that. It's a little frustrating, but you still have to deal with all the custody issues, hidden assets, unwillingness to compromise, trying to come up with a settlement agreement.
One of the things that really helps during this process is staying ... not only staying organized, but documenting everything that's going on, and everything that's happening. When I say, "document everything that's happening," is it can be overwhelming trying to keep up with all of the major events in your divorce process, particularly with a narcissistic spouse. Sometimes I'll talk to you or work with you over a long period of time, and you'll have 100 specific examples of things that have happened.
Of those 100 examples, it's just really hard to keep track, like what's going on, because you're living with these things, but we're trying to help you from the outside, and trying to catch up on these stories, and make sure that we do the best we can for you. So here's what I suggest you do when dealing with a narcissistic spouse, is you put together a timeline, a very, very simple timeline in chronological order, of the things that are happening. If you have evidence of those things, you supply the evidence of them. I really mean one or two pages of just the main things in the divorce.
What would I do? I would take a document, or a spreadsheet, or write it by hand, you put the date. So you're going to put June 4th and the year, and you're going to say, "Spouse yelled at me for this, and this happened," or whatever. Then you're going to say, "June 18th, X amount of money was suspiciously withdrawn from bank account. Unsure of where it went." And you're going to put behind that, is you're going to put a bank statement with that withdrawal on June ... I forgot what date I already said, we'll just say June 20th.
Then you're going to go to July, and say, "In July kids were with spouse. They did not eat for 18 hours according to them. Came home hungry, no food, and were unhappy," and you're going to write that down. You might say, "On July 17th," and whatever happened. You might say, "Police were called." Sometimes that happens with many of you. You'll say, "Here's the police copy of the police report."
Whatever the different things are, I'm just making up those examples off the top of my head, but you'll have a very simple timeline with the date, one sentence or two sentences of what happened, and if you have evidence of it, any evidence of what happened. Might be text messages, might be photos, might be bank statements, might be any number of things that could have happened, and you're just going to put that together in one file, and keep it organized.
One of the biggest challenges for your attorney or for me when it comes to helping you through this process is not only ... The most frustrating thing about dealing with a narcissist is it can be very isolating for you, and very overwhelming for us trying to help you. The goal is ... and I'm going to talk about each of those.
Let me talk about overwhelming for a second. So many things are going on, it's hard for me or hard for your attorney to keep things straight sometimes in terms of all of these different things that happen. If you have proof of them, if they're relevant for the divorce process, if they're he said she said type things, and we just need to keep them in order. So maybe we show this to a judge later, or maybe something's not relevant, or maybe it is particularly relevant, but we need to be able to keep those things straight.
The other thing that's relevant about that, is I said it can be very isolating. The other thing that's particular ... many things are particularly frustrating with dealing with a narcissist, but almost universally, narcissists are loved except by their family, or I should say their spouse in particular.
I know that everyone who might interact with your spouse might love that person. They might think, "Oh, Johnny's great," or, "Oh, Jill is awesome. Love getting a beer with Jill," or, "Have a great relationship with Johnny, I always say hi to him. I know he's the best." Always walking around the restaurant, or walking around town greeting people, and everyone knows who they are, and very well liked, but when they come home, they're a terror to you, and they don't treat you well, and it's awful, and it's very isolating, because you might feel that people don't believe that this person is actually not as good as everyone thinks.
One of the ways to combat that is to really prepare yourself, and document all of these things that are happening. If you have evidence of these things that are happening, and documented clearly, it's easy to change the narrative in this divorce process about who this person is, and really get the truth about them out, and advocate yourself and fight back. Narcissists are often bullies, and they like to yell and scream and everything else, but there is a truth that is happening, and you can expose that truth when you have the appropriate evidence together.
A lot about point number one, document everything, get organized. That is crucial in this process. Point number two is get an experienced attorney. Now, I talk about attorneys a lot on this show, and I don't have a ton of additional things to add, but I do want to talk about an attorney in the context of the divorce process.
Now, my last episode was how to find an attorney if you don't know anyone, so listen to that. Also in the store, if you get the Quick Start Guide, I have a big section on how to manage and improve your relationship with your attorney. Even with some of the coaching clients, particularly those I work with over a longer basis, I'll help you strategize, well, what's the best communication process with this attorney, and how do we do it effectively?
What I wanted to bring up though, is if you follow my resources on picking an attorney, one of the questions if you know, and if you're listening to this episode, doing some additional research, and you figure out that your spouse really has some pretty severe narcissistic tendencies, well, that really comes into play as you pick your attorney.
In particular, in your initial consultation, you should be asking ... well, one is you should have this beautiful timeline that's clearly documented, and you should say, "Look, I'm dealing with a narcissistic spouse," one question you should ask, "Have you dealt with spouses like this before? Do you have strategies in place? How do you feel like we should approach this given the information we have? If this were to go in front of a judge, what do you think? Will the cost of this divorce be more because of the nature of my spouse? Can you tell me how things would change, or what I should be thinking about? Will the length of time be longer because of my spouse? If my spouse weren't like this, would you have a different approach?"
These are kind of questions that you should be asking your attorney during your initial consultation or your early consultations, because it can be very relevant as you think about who you hire as your divorce attorney. Now, I know some of you will look for attorneys that specialize in narcissism, or will have it on their website. I'll tell you this, that's probably not the best method.
Most attorneys that I know that are very good that I work with who are super experienced, they are not ... they don't necessarily have a section of their website dedicated to narcissistic spouses. That said, I guarantee you, they have all dealt with them all the time, because that is just part of this process, and part of what they do. Just because someone's website doesn't say it, I wouldn't say that's a cause for concern. I would just look for a generally very good, very competent attorney, and I promise you, they will have seen it dozens or hundreds of times, unfortunately.
So the second thing was getting an experienced attorney. Now, the third thing is you are the CEO of your divorce, now remove your emotions from this process. Much easier said than done, but let me tell you what I'm getting at. Whether you are a stay at home mom, or dad, or maybe you're the one who was out working, it doesn't really matter.
If you were a stay at home parent and you've been running the household this whole time for the last two years, or 25 years, whatever it is, you have been the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer of your household. If you've been the one at work every day for the last two or 25 years, however long you've been married, you have been the financial earner out after it, earning the money, and earning the lifestyle.
Whatever the case is, you have a lot more experience and a lot more capabilities than you probably give yourself credit for. When it comes to dealing with a narcissist, or a narcissistic spouse, one of the things that you should be doing is really treating this divorce process as if you are the CEO of this divorce process, which you are. You have many more skills, regardless of what your spouse might say to you. Oftentimes they're trying to belittle you, or they're berating you, or they're just a terror at home.
I get it, but it doesn't lower your individual value, and it actually ... you have a lot more to it than you think, and a lot more skills than you think. When it comes to deciding what the best courses of action are during the divorce, you need to take that individual person out of it to the extent you can. It's almost impossible to remove emotions from the process, but go to therapists, talk to friends. I give lots of different advice in this podcast or via the Quick Start Guide in the store, or via coaching calls on this subject, but the point is, is when you try and decide what's best for you, you need to treat it through the lens of, "All right, I have to ... this divorce process will end one day."
It might not feel like it now. For some of you it might be a few months, and for others it might be a few years, but whatever that time period is, it will be over at some point. Really, your main goals should be, "Well, when this process is over, I'm going to have 10, or 30, or 50, or 70 years life left ahead of me. How do I make the smartest decisions today regarding my finances, regarding my kids, regarding my family today, that will set me up for the next 10, or 20, or 50, or 70 years of life?"
When you think about those decisions, you have to take the emotions out of them. You have to think, "Well, what are the dollars and cents? What are realistically the best options for me, my children? If I were a third party thinking about this, and if I were giving myself advice 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, what would I say to myself today as I go through this process, or what advice should I be getting from a third party that will really ... If I were just the boss of this process, the CEO of this process, what decisions would I be making to get me through it?"
If you make decisions from emotions, your emotions can easily lead you astray during this time, but if you make your decisions through logic, you can start to cut through all the fluff, cut through the bullying, cut through the rough nights, cut through all of this, and really focus on, "Hey, here's what I want. Here are my three goals," or, "Here are my five goals." I've talked about goals on this in the podcast.
"Here's what I want for my future. I know he or she is going to say this or that, or whatever in this process, but that doesn't matter. Here's what I'm focused on, here's what I'm going to fight for for myself, here's what I need to get through this process in one piece. That is what I'm going to fight for, regardless of what my spouse decides to do or tries to do, because I'm the CEO. I'm the boss of this process, and I'm going to put myself in the best position possible for my future, and for my kids' future."
When you start to adopt that attitude, you will really shift the way that you think about dealing with divorce with a narcissist, and it will be a much better position for you for the future, and for the long-term in setting up things the way that you need to set them up. You will be putting yourself in a position to fight back, and to make the smartest decisions you can to put yourself into a position to get you into a good spot not just for the next six months or the next year, but really for the rest of your life.
So as I said, three pieces of advice for dealing with a narcissist. The first is document everything and get extra organized. The second is make sure you get an experienced attorney who has the knowledge and strategic thought and thinking, and knows how to handle a narcissist, and the third is remember that you are the CEO of this process, and you need to treat yourself as such.
Try to use logic and smart thinking over emotions during this process, even though it is a tough time for you unquestionably, but know that if you think about it, the smartest way possible, you will get through this process in one piece, and you will get yourself through this process in a position to set yourself up for a great future.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
How do you pick a divorce attorney if you don't know anyone? A lot of people just guess, they'll search online, type in “divorce attorney near me”, and that's the attorney you pick. Well I don't think that's necessarily the best option. I wanna give you some guiding principles in terms of how you can pick a good divorce attorney without having to know anyone in advance. A divorce attorney is one of the most important, if not the most important, decision you make during the divorce process.
Finding a good attorney can be tough, I mean how do you know that that firm that you're going to call is really good? Are there any ways that you can narrow down your search to at least improve your chances of getting a good attorney? The way I think about some of the information in here is I know an attorney, so I'm here in Dallas, and I know an attorney who might be looking for someone in Florida. And I'm going to tell you the same methods that the good attorneys will use to recommend an attorney to someone if they aren't in the right state.
It's actually not that complicated, there's a few things that you can look for that will very easily help you pick a very good, very competent attorney. I'm gonna go through those ... Four issues that I'm gonna go through, and I'm just gonna go through them quickly, and this should be your framework if you don't know what attorney to choose, or if you're looking for a new attorney for any reason.
Here they are, the first one is they should be a member of the AAML. That is the American Academy for Matrimonial Lawyers, AAML. Every family lawyer knows what that is, and if they don't that's a problem. But there's a website, aaml.org. If you find ... The AAML is a group of attorneys, they vote each other in as I understand it, but they all have a minimum level of experience and they are all respected by their peers. So what you can do is you go to the AAML website, you type in your city and state, and they will provide a list of their fellows within them.
Of 1,000 attorneys, maybe 20 actually get into the AAML in a given place, and so most, if not all, but most of the attorneys in that group are very, very good and very respected. So you go the website and you pick one out.
The second thing that you should do is look for board-certified attorneys. Many states, not all states, but many states have a state board that certifies an attorney in a particular practice area. Could be family law, could be personal injury, could be trial law, could be education law, could be estate planning. But if your state has a board certification you should type in “board-certified family lawyer Missouri”, or “board-certified family lawyer California”, or “board-certified family lawyer Virginia”, and the attorneys who pass the board exams, it's always a very rigorous process and only a small percentage of people pass it. I think the number for Texas is less than 3% of attorneys in an area pass the board certification.
There's minimum requirements they have to make in terms of length of time, experience, etc. But if you do that, then those people will also often be very, very good attorneys. So we have number one is the AAML, number two is board certification.
Number three is you should, or can, ask another lawyer. If you know other attorneys, then they can help provide recommendations for you. This method is not foolproof, because everyone has their friends, and you can be steered astray. So if you ask an attorney I would still check number one and number two to make sure they fit those minimum criteria.
Then the fourth thing I want to recommend is reviews and testimonials. Check them out. If your attorney does not have reviews and testimonials, that can be a red flag. You need to see what other people are saying about that attorney. If they don't have any, that may be they're just not very good at their online marketing. But if they have a bunch of negative ones, you should read those negative comments, and conversely if they have lots of positive ones you should see what people like about that attorney. But you should check the reviews.
So the perfect attorney, if I had to find the perfect attorney, I would ask all of my lawyer friends that I have, I'd say, “Hey, can you recommend me a family law attorney?” I would double check to see if they're part of the AAML. If they are they will usually have that badge right on their website. I would check to see if they're board-certified, if they are that's awesome, it's right on their website. I would check their reviews, if they have lots of great reviews then that is perfect, and it's right on their website. And then if I have those four things, you are 95% of the time going to have a very, very good attorney in your corner.
You can still end up with someone who might not be a good fit for you, now that's a separate conversation, and actually in the store if you get the divorce quickstart guide, I have tons of resources on how to manage your attorney, making sure your attorney's doing the right things for you, and other elements of the attorney relationship that I haven't talked about for a while are all available in the store under the quickstart guide, which is the archives for the podcast. It has almost 50 hours of information, and it's one of the best resources available out there in terms of having a wealth of information at your fingertips.
I know some people who have listened to the podcast more times than I have, and they got it at the quickstart guide. There are questions about fit for your attorney, but if you get an attorney that has lots of good reviews, AAML, board-certified, and recommended from other attorneys, you are going to be most of the time, 95% of the time, in very good hands in terms of negotiating your book ... Or sorry, negotiating your divorce and the future settlement.
Now, there's something that I do want to bring to your attention, and sometimes people ask me, is they say, “Hey, can you recommend an attorney for me in city and state here?” Well, I'm very upfront with people, I have a handful of about 10 attorneys, less than 10 actually, across the whole United States that I've worked with closely for a while that I can truly recommend to you. You just happen to be in one of those areas for me to recommend someone to you, but I still get to recommend an attorney once or twice a week of that handful of people on the list.
That said, in a coaching call one of the things that we will do is we will go through these methods and help you narrow down that list of potential attorneys, or I'll follow up with you after a coaching call to say, “Hey, why don't you call these three firms or two firms, schedule an initial consultation, see what you like the best, and go from there.”
But ultimately I'm going to be doing exactly what I just went through with you. I'm gonna figure out where you live, I'm gonna go to the AAML website, I'm going to see if they're board-certified as well, I'm gonna check their reviews. And if I happen to know a lawyer in that part of the country I'm gonna ask my lawyer friends and say, “Hey, do you know anything about Jane Doe or John Smith?”
But it's not that much more complicated than what I just said. You need to ... There's no guarantee in this process unfortunately. It's tough, and it can be a challenge to find that attorney, and even if you do everything perfectly, it can be off. And you might end up with someone who's not good for you.
But if you follow these four steps, you're in a very good position going forward, and if you're still trying to choose your attorney, or you're still early in the divorce process, or maybe you just want an initial consultation with someone, these are the steps that I would tell my best friend to follow to find someone good for them.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, I want to discuss do it yourself divorce and specifically whether or not it can work. Do it yourself divorce, just to make sure we're all on the same page, means not having an attorney represent you or your spouse during the divorce process. Basically, the two of you decide to work out all of the issues together yourself and you don't involve lawyers in the process and it actually has a term also called Pro Se divorce. If you ever see the term Pro Se divorce, it's a form or it's the same thing as do it yourself divorce and a lot of people choose this process and actually, I was speaking to several attorneys recently and they said it's becoming a more and more common practice and for good reason. In many cases, depending upon your situation, you might not need an attorney.
So in this episode I want to discuss some of the situations in which do it yourself divorce can work and some little tips to help you navigate that process should you proceed with do it yourself divorce, and also just some other considerations to think about. Now, when you go the do it yourself divorce route, there are three specific benefits that I like for people to keep in mind. Number one is that it is generally a much cheaper process. Look, you can pursue a do it yourself divorce if in the base level for only the court filing fees. I'm gonna talk about that in a little bit about going to the court, but basically, you are saving perhaps many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars by doing the process yourself. Just cheaper. You're not paying hundreds of dollars per hour for lawyers fees.
The second thing, the second benefit is that it's usually a less contentious process. Now, in the context of divorce, almost everything is contentious and let's get that out of the way. But there are degrees of fighting, you're getting divorced for a reason. Things aren't working out. We got it. So when I say a less contentious process, when you go do it yourself divorce route, it means that you and your spouse can have civil conversations, and even though this is a painful process, you can work things out between the two of you in a civilized manner. Yes, there are still emotions involved. Yes, you probably aren't going to be happy about all of this, but you can talk with each other and talk to each other and therefore work things out. Also as part of that is you can split your stuff up in a reasonable way. You're not going to be spending $5,000 trying to determine who gets the blender that's in the house or the food processor or whatever else.
Then the third benefit is, or I'll just say the third, this isn't necessarily a benefit, but the third thing to keep in mind is that almost anyone who's against do it yourself divorce is an attorney and there's a reason for that is because the attorneys do not get their fees as part of the process. So, there are downsides to do it yourself divorce, and I'm going to get into those in a little bit, but most of the time it can work if you think it can work and you fit the right conditions. Now, what are those conditions for do it yourself divorce? There are some things that really should be in place, otherwise you're going to run into trouble and the money you save is not going to be worth the effort of doing this yourself, and it's probably a better, probably would've been a better solution to pursue another divorce methods.
So, I like to keep things simple. I'm going to keep it a list of three things, three conditions that you should have before pursuing do it yourself divorce. The first one is both of you should have a very clear understanding of all of your assets and your debts. Or to put it another way, you both need to have a clear picture of everything that you own and that you owe. You need to know, if you have a house, how much is the house is worth and be able to agree upon that. If you have a mortgage, if you have credit cards, if you have a 401k or a pension plan or other retirement accounts, if you have cars, if you have other assets around, you need to know what those things are and both of you need to be on the same page regarding them. If you're not, do it yourself divorce is probably not the best option for you.
The second thing is you cannot have complex custody issues. Complex custody issues are a challenge to say the least. An attorney I work very closely with who will probably be on the podcast in the coming months, specializes in complex custody cases and just from knowing her and the types of issues she deals with and the book that she just wrote on the subject, it is one of the toughest things that you can deal with as part of the divorce process, and if you have a complex custody issue, do it yourself divorce is not for you. Now, the third condition that you need to have is the ability to negotiate a reasonable agreement with your soon to be ex-spouse. Now, I didn't say you have to like your soon to be ex-spouse, but you have to both be in a position to understand and agree to something that's fair.
Now, there is no divorce agreement in the history of divorce agreements that's perfect, right? Almost never do I see two people smiling at the end of the divorce settlement and saying, "I got everything I wanted, I'm ready to go," and if that does happen, there's probably an issue and someone got cheated. Most of the time, this has to be some sort of an agreement where neither one of you are perfectly happy, but you can live with the results of the process and if one of you is trying to "win" in the divorce process or trying to punish the other spouse or has some other issues that prevent you from negotiating something reasonable, then do it yourself divorce is not for you and you should most likely pursue other methods.
So let's say you have those three things, look, you have, you understand what you own and what you owe, and the other thing I meant to say about that one is that if you have complicated assets, do it yourself divorce is usually not the right idea. Second is you don't have complex custody issues, and third is you think you and your spouse can work out something reasonable. So what do you do if you're going to pursue a do it yourself divorce? Well, what I recommend is you write up your agreement. You put it all on paper. I've seen spouses negotiate it and sit down around the kitchen table and come up with an agreement. I've seen spouses do it by email. I have a number of people that I've worked with over the years who will email each other back and forth some detailed agreements.
I know spouses who do it in any number of methods and ways, but whatever it is, you need to put it on paper and you need to work out, you say, "Hey, here's what we're going to do." I like to do things big to small, so if your biggest asset for most people is a house, second big asset is a retirement account, but if that, let's just assume for a moment your house is the biggest thing, you'd say, "All right, here's what we're going to do about the house. We're going to put it up for sale. We're going to split the proceeds 50-50," or whatever you think is right or one is going to keep the house or whatever else, and then when you come to agreement about the house, you move on to the next asset and the next asset then the next asset, and or maybe if you have debts to consider, then you go through down the line on the debts. But the point is is you negotiate something reasonable and you go through each thing and you put these items on paper and you come up with what you want your agreement to be.
Now it doesn't stop there. Next thing you have to do is you have to figure out how you're going to actually file the paperwork. One complexity about the divorce process that's really challenging is that every county has a different divorce procedure in the United States. I'm going to give you an example. I'm based in Dallas, but I travel very frequently. Dallas, where I am in the city of Dallas, there is about four to five counties within a 20-minute drive of where I live. Each one of those counties handles divorce totally differently, even though they're all in the city of Dallas or the Dallas metroplex, each county has different rules, different procedures, different judges, different processes, so that's one issue.
Another issue that's involved is they have different paperwork and so you need to understand what county you're going to file in and how to do that. Now, one, there's a few solutions that are out there in terms of figuring out the right paperwork to get. One thing you can do if you really want to keep costs to a minimum is drive to your county courthouse. If you go to your county courthouse, you go to one of the clerks at the windows and you can ask them, "What divorce paperwork do I need?" and they can point you in the right direction. Some counties actually have it on their county website, but you need to make sure you get your appropriate county's paperwork because even though the laws might apply on a statewide basis, the exact procedures occur county by county.
Second thing you need to or so one method I said is is going to the clerk. Another method potentially is going online. Now, aside from going to the court's website, you can also use one of the online divorce services. There are many do it yourself divorce services that guarantee that they'll provide you the right paperwork and it'll be filled out correctly and whatever else, and usually those services go anywhere from I've seen $150 upwards to about a thousand dollars and, if you get a reputable one, there's a lot of questionable ones out there, but if you get a reputable one, they can help you in that process and through that process.
Now, another thing you can do is either work with a paralegal or an attorney on an uncontested divorce package. Many attorneys in just about any city have an uncontested divorce pack, uncontested divorce package where it is usually a fixed fee package that you pay and they guarantee that the paperwork works or will be handled appropriately for you. So it's usually between a thousand and $3,000 depending upon where you are, but you get to guarantee that everything you've done is ... That everything that you've done and submitted is correct. Here's why this might be a good option. You might have all the paperwork, you might go to the court, you might have everything correct, you might submit it in the right way, but guess what? Unfortunately, this is a complicated process and papers can get rejected for oftentimes some of the silliest, smallest reasons.
Court paperwork, I've almost never ... I'm sure there's a state somewhere that's good, but I haven't found it yet. Almost no court paperwork is easy to navigate. It is complicated. I haven't talked about this example in a while, but the state of New York where I have lots of clients, New York, California, Texas are my three biggest but all across the country, lots of clients. But in New York, the New York paperwork is so difficult to complete. Even just the basic paperwork, I hate looking at it. It's necessary, but it is not very user-friendly. The point being is if you have a little bit of money saved aside, it can be cost efficient just to say, "Hey, we want an uncontested divorce, here's everything we've already agreed to. Can you just check over it and fill out the paperwork for us, please, attorney," and you can do that for a fixed fee.
So it's okay if you're going through a do it yourself divorce to get limited help. So that's the other thing I would say is so those are the options for filing the paperwork but just my last tips for those considering do it yourself divorce is consider getting some additional help, what I call as the sanity check. One of the most common things or the biggest things I recommend is maybe once you've come up with a full agreement and you got everything down, it can be worth having an attorney or an associate or a paralegal or me, via a coaching session say, "Hey, this is everything that we've agreed to. I think it looks good. Why don't you read over it? Give it a check and let me know what you think," and oftentimes you might see something. Someone who looks at these, hopefully for you, this is the only time you have to deal with this, but someone who sees hundreds or thousands of divorces can say, "Hey, you're missing one, two and three," or "Hey, it might be better if you consider this thing for a tax purpose," or "Hey, you're going to both end up in the same position, but maybe we should split stuff in this manner instead of the way you propose."
It can be pretty quick for someone who looks at these things all the time to figure out what the best options are. So I might say for some people, and I tell people all the time, go sit down for an hour with someone or 30 minutes with someone just to get a second opinion just to make sure that everything is okay. It doesn't mean that what you've done is bad, but sometimes it can be helpful just to have that other set of eyes. Look, do it yourself divorce, if the issues at hand are not too complicated, I'm a big proponent of it. I mean, I think you should by all means save money in your divorce. It's not for everyone and it won't work in every situation, but if you are in a position where you think it can work for you, definitely start by pursuing that path.
It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to. There's options you can pursue the do it yourself divorce path and then, looks like things aren't working out the way you would have wanted them to and therefore you switch up and you do both get attorneys. But if you think you can start with the do it yourself divorce and resolve things that way, by all means, check it out because it could be a good solution for your situation.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
The most important decisions you can make, during the divorce process is, choosing a good attorney, and having a good attorney work for you and on behalf of you. One of the main questions I get with a lot of people is, is my attorney doing a good job? I have the fortune of working with attorneys, family law attorneys, seven days a week. I can tell you which attorneys are good and which are less good. Actually, even from time to time on the coaching calls, I will make a recommendation for an attorney if you happen to live in a city where I know an attorney, who is a good one. But that happens only on the coaching calls.
If you don't have a good attorney yet and you're looking for one, I'm going to record an episode on how to choose ... another episode on how to choose an attorney. I already have lots in the archives. But I can also help, sometimes, on coaching calls, help you figure out, hey, who are the best two or three attorneys near you that can help you through your divorce process.
But the subject of today's episode is for all of you who already have attorneys, are they doing a good job for you? What I want to go through is I want to give basically four characteristics that pretty much every great law firm, in general, but particularly during the divorce process, has when it comes to an attorney ... and providing a good service. I want to go through these four things that you should be looking out for, and asking yourself if they apply to your attorney and to your case. If they don't, you need to think hard about what the best way is to proceed for you.
So, here are the four things. The first is your attorney advocates on your behalf and creates a good game plan for your case. The second is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is that there are no surprise bills that come due for you. And the fourth is they help you through the case closing process. I'm going to jump in and discuss each one of these four things in a little bit more depth.
Let's start with part one, is that your attorney advocates for you and executes a clear game plan for your case. Well, what does that mean? Well, I think 100% of the people that are listening to this want ... if you have an attorney, you want your attorney to be in your corner. Simple as that. And a lot of times, you will say, "Hey, I don't think ... " and here's the phrase that I hear far more often than I should is they say, "I don't think that my attorney is fighting for me." And that's unacceptable. When you pick an attorney, you're hiring that person, you're paying them a lot of money, and you want them to feel like or that they're fighting for your best interest, and getting what you deserve as part of this process. You want your attorney to set you up in the best position possible for your future.
Sometimes ... you know, I say all the time, your state laws vary and what your attorney can and can't do, in certain situations, can be very different, depending upon your individual circumstances, what's going on in your case, what the law says, et cetera, the particular dynamics. But, one of the most frustrating things I hear is you'll say, "Hey, I brought this up to my attorney, and they ignored me." Or they said, "It won't work," but didn't explain why. Or they said, "Well, I should just do this." And you don't want your attorney ... it's okay if you suggest something that might be outside of the course of the law, or maybe incorrect, but you want your attorney to at least understand your position on certain items, and make sure that even if you are presenting something that might not be logical or might not be in your best interest, that your attorney sits down and explains, "Hey, John ... Hey, Jane, here's ... I understand your concern. I understand what you're getting at, but here's why the law says otherwise." Or, "This is what the judge says." Or, "Here's why I don't think that's the best example in your case and here's a better solution for you." You always want that person to be advocating for you and on your behalf.
The other thing that's very important as part of this advocate process, is you want your attorney to have a clear game plan for you. One question I ask ... or I encourage you to ask every attorney in every initial consultation, or even if you've already hired that person, you should say, "Hey," ... this is a very important question. You should write this down. "Given what you know about my case, what do you think are the range of outcomes that I could be looking at?" And what does that mean? I'll say it again.
I'll say the question again, then I'll get to what I'm getting at. "Given the circumstances, and the facts of my case that you know now, what do you think are the likely range of outcomes, based on your experience?" And here's what we are going for. The question is, is your attorney should be able to say, "Hey, based on the facts of the case, you'll probably get about ... between 40% and 60% of these assets. The exact split may be a little bit different. I think your child support will come in around this amount. Your spousal support will come in around this amount. Here's probably how the custody will work itself out. And ultimately, here's what the court will likely say, if we were to go in front of a judge. And so, the goal is, is given this information, I think this is how we should proceed through the case and negotiate and get what you deserve." I think this is the best option.
If your attorney doesn't explain something like that to you, then that's a real problem. You should have a very good sense of what your game plan is, at all times throughout your case. Now, the game plan doesn't have to be fixed, but you should know, from the very first appointment, what that overall strategy looks like. That strategy certainly changes as the dynamics on the ground change, and certain tactics pop up, and whatever else. But, if your attorney doesn't have a clear game plan for you, then that can be problematic. Sometimes, the game plan is we're just going to have to go to court to deal with some of these issues because the spouse is being unresponsive. Other times, the game plan is ... actually, sometimes the game plan is ... and I have this with a lot of people that I work with ... is, I don't know what the game plan is quite yet. Here's what I know, is we know that there's these assets thus far. We need to get more information. So, the game plan for now is we're going to subpoena, or request, a bunch of additional information, and once we have that information, we will have a much clearer picture of what we should be asking for, and I can update you with more then.
There could be other game plans in between, that are very specific, that say, "Hey, here's what the state laws are. This case is pretty clear cut. This is what we should get to, and ask for, and as long as everyone's reasonable, this is what you should probably end with at the end of this process." Your attorney should have some form of an answer for that question. They should be, at every step of the way, helping you get to that position. So, that's enough on number one, which is advocating and executing a clear game plan for your case.
The second thing is providing responsive customer service. What do I mean by that? Responsive customer service really just boils down to some very simple things that bad attorneys don't do. Very simple, is they should be returning your phone calls and messages within a timely fashion. I usually say within 24 hours. Even if it's to say, "Hey, I need some more time to look into this." But, I know ... and I hear from you ... attorneys that do not reply to you for a week or two at a time. That is unacceptable under any circumstance. For most of the people I work with closely ... and I try and practice what I preach ... you'll hear from me within the hour, or certainly within the day. If something's urgent that comes up, you call me immediately and I'll try and stop whatever I'm doing to help you, if I can.
Your attorneys should be doing the same thing. We're all busy, all trying to help you, but if you have a question, and you say, "Hey, here's my list of questions," they should be able to say, "Hey, let's schedule some time later this week to talk about it," or they should reply to that email, or they should have an assistant say, "Hey, these are the things that you should ... that we'll get back to you with some answers soon."
The other thing they should be doing is they need to be keeping you updated with deadlines. The legal process is filled with deadlines. Courts or documents that you need to submit to the court, or depositions, or requests for information, or any number of things that you should be thinking about, you need to be keeping track of those and keep updated with those items as things go along.
And the worst thing that can happen is ... actually is ... I hear this from time to time, is there's attorneys out there that won't tell their clients that there's a big deadline coming up. Or, they'll tell you the day before. So, I'll have a client say ... we'll be speaking on a Wednesday, and then on Thursday, they get an email that says, "Hey, on Friday, we have a big court date." And that is unacceptable. You need to know ... these things are scheduled, oftentimes, months in advance, and you should know months in advance, or weeks in advance, or as soon as possible, what deadlines you need to mark on your calendar and be prepared for.
And the other thing, when it comes to responsive customer service, is just keeping you informed on what's going on. Now, unfortunately, the divorce process isn't just a continual step-by-step thing, in most cases, and there's often gaps of weeks, sometimes even months, between things that happen. That's okay. But, you need to know what's going on. One of the best attorneys that I know in the country, that I work with, who's based in Florida, in Orlando, he does this cool thing. At the end of each month, he goes through every case that he has open, and he sends a short video, two minute video that he records at his computer screen, and says, "Hey, John, just want to send you a monthly wrap-up. Here's what's going on in your case. We did X, Y, and Z, this month. Next month, here's what you should expect. Just wanted to make sure that you keep updated." Two minutes. That's all he sends, even if nothing's going on, but if something's happening, or whatever, he can just say ... just do a quick check in, just to know that he's still thinking about you and your situation. If there's a lot more going on in your case, then he'll record a longer video, but you always know where you stand, and you're always informed on what's going on.
Now, speaking of staying informed, we're going to switch to point number three, is that you don't get a surprise bill. This one is one of those shockers. I know attorneys who will rack up ... if this has not happened to you, I guarantee all of you know someone who this has happened to ... is you pay your retainer, and the retainer gets exhausted, and the attorney keeps working for you for a while. Next thing you know is you get a bill for $17,000, or $24,000, and no explanation happens. You're looking there, and you're like, what ... you're just dumbfounded. It's like, where did this bill come from?
I know a lot of attorneys who might lure you in with a, "Oh, we'll just pay a $5,000 retainer and we'll get working," but that $5,000 lasts a week and a half, and then they start asking you for a lot more money. And then I also know attorneys who say, "Hey, you're going to pay me $25,000 up front." Guess what though, there's not going to be a surprise bill. We're going to get this done for $25,000. It might take a week. It might take two years, but you know, there's nothing that ... there's not going to be any surprises. If it only takes a week, you're going to be happy, 'cause you know that the exposure wasn't ... you know, you paid $25,000 for a fast week, but if it takes longer than that, you already know that things are good. But, in any case, they communicate very clearly the cost of what is going on, and you're never in shock when you receive a bill.
Doesn't mean that this process going to be cheap. I was having dinner with an attorney I work closely with, a few weeks ago. And she told me that she has a client that has a very complex custody battle, that was over a million dollars in legal fees. So, it's not necessarily going to be cheap, and hopefully you're not going to spend a million dollars in legal fees, but sometimes it is necessary. But, there were no surprises and believe it or not, this person who spent a million dollars in legal fees is one of the happiest clients that can exist because they were able to get what they needed out of the divorce process. It was a long and complicated battle. There were no surprises. It was going to be expensive. But, it was what it was.
And while I think about billing, as well as the other thing that you should make sure you really understand, is how your attorney charges for billing. You should try and get a sense ... and it's okay if you have to ask this question after you've hired the attorney but, try and get a sense. Do they bill by the quarter hour? Do they bill every six minutes. How do they bill you if you send a quick email? Is that a 15 minute bill minimum charge? Or is it something else? You should figure out what that billing is, so you're not surprised down the line. 'Cause even a 15 minute conversation, for an attorney, who is $600 an hour, can cost you $150 for 15 minutes, which can be a lot of money. And that adds up. And so you want to make sure you maximize the time and the interactions with your attorney.
And finally, the last thing you should be thinking about, and what a good attorney will do for you, is help you out through the case closing process. This is very important, which is just because you sign a divorce decree, doesn't mean the divorce is over. I talked about this on previous episodes, very recent previous episodes. It can be very tempting to just put on the brakes and ... I wish you could see my hand motion, but pretend like your hands are clean, and you can move on.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. There's a lot of stuff that has to happen after the case is over, or at least after you've signed the divorce decree. And there's a lot of assets that have to move, custody schedules, support that has to be paid, et cetera, et cetera, that need to be documented and done. Every great attorney that I work with has a very specific case closing process, that is quite robust and substantial, and probably has 30 or 40 things on it. And they will help you still through that case closing process, and then make sure that all of the things that you were supposed to get as part of this process, actually happen. And if there is an issue ... and sometimes there are ... that you get those resolved, and so you're not stuck, years down the line, saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Wasn't I supposed to do this or that?" And I actually have some people that I do coaching sessions with, who will say, "Hey, three years ago, I signed this, but I never got this asset. What do I do?" And we have to walk through how to make sure we get those things done. But, the important part is, is all of these things can be resolved right after you sign the divorce decree, so you should be paying attention to that very closely.
So, four things for you to remember. That your attorney advocates and executes ... sorry, I should say advocates for you, and executes a clear game plan for your case. The second thing is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is there's no surprise bills that pop up as part of the divorce process. And fourth, is they help you when the case is closing.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, we're talking about a major tax change to alimony coming in December. And I wanna go through what's happening, what you need to know, and how you need to plan for it. And why this could apply to your divorce if you are thinking about getting divorced this year. So at the end of 2017, the Tax Cuts and Job Act passed. This was right at the very end of last year. And there were a lot of different tax changes that occurred to many people. This was one of the biggest tax bills that passed. But, there was a small provision in there that affects alimony. And this small provision can affect many of you in a big way. And so what happens is that certain tax benefits in divorce are being eliminated effective December 31st, 2018. And this is the biggest change in alimony in about 75 years or so. And many people have forgotten about it.
As it is today ... Or actually, I'm gonna tell you what's happening. What is going to happen is from a tax perspective, alimony is going to be treated exactly the same way that child support is. What does that mean? It means a person who pays alimony will not get any tax benefits for paying alimony. And the person who receives alimony will not have to claim that alimony as income starting next year. Now, that is what happens on January 1 of 2019. What happens today? Well, if you get divorced during 2018, there are some important things that happen from a tax perspective. If you are the person paying alimony, and I know many of my listeners are the ones who are going to be paying, then you get to deduct that money from your taxes each year. So, if your income ... And I'm gonna give you an example in just a moment. And conversely, if you are the person receiving alimony, you have to when you file your taxes each year say, "I've got X amount in alimony." And you have to pay taxes on that amount just like it is income.
Now, here's why this is a big deal. And I wish more people were talking about this. The big effect of this is that there is less incentive for someone to pay alimony. And I'm going to give you some examples so we can work with some easy to understand numbers. Let's say someone is going to be paying $10,000 or a little under $10,000 a month. But, we're gonna say $100,000 a year in alimony over a 12 month period. So over one year, they're going to be paying over $8,000 and some a month in alimony. I'm using $100,000 total just to make the numbers very simple. So, someone's paying $100,000 in alimony. That means that person can deduct from their taxes $100,000 in income. Which means they have a substantial tax savings on their income each year. 'Cause they don't have to pay taxes on $100,000 of their income. It's a simplified explanation. And the reason that's beneficial for them is when they are in a divorce situation, that gives them an incentive to pay some of that alimony instead of purpose structuring a settlement in a different way.
But, here's what happens starting January 1 of 2019. That same person who was paying $100,000 in alimony will not get that tax benefit anymore. And so, if they were going to think about what their divorce settlement looks like, that person does not get any tax benefit for paying that $100,000 a year. And now this is only if ... And I should bring up a very important caveat. It depends on when your divorce decree is signed. If you sign your divorce decree this year, then you will still get the tax benefits if you are the person paying alimony.
And if you sign the divorce decree starting January 1 of 2019 or anytime beyond that is when the law changes. And the tax rules change. And so that same person who was paying $100,000, or who was willing to pay $100,000 a year in alimony, may no longer be willing to make that same commitment. Because they don't get any tax benefits for paying that alimony amount. Now, it could be depending upon who's listening. Some of you, we could be talking about $10,000 a year. Others of you, we could be talking about $100,000 a year or a million dollars a year. I have a wide range of listeners in terms of the incomes that you all have. But, regardless of your income, it will affect most of you in one way or another.
Now, here's the reason this is extra important. So, basically what happens is the person who would be paying alimony will at least try to pay less alimony in the future. The reason that's unfortunate is according to the census, 97 percent of the people receiving alimony are women. And so, that will disproportionately affect many of the people listening who are facing or who would in theory be getting alimony. Now, it doesn't mean you should panic. It doesn't mean that you're screwed, or you should get upset and worry, or whatever else. There are many ways around this issue and ways to still get to a good position. And I'll get into some of those. But, you should be aware that things are changing. And things are changing in a big way. And you need to be cognizant of the change.
And one of the things that's very important about this is timing. And this is why we're putting this episode now in August. Because there's only a few months left in the year. And so, if you are facing divorce and you're in a place where ... Maybe you're in the middle of divorce. Or you're in a position where you think you can get this wrapped up before the end of the year. Then this is something that you should consider, because it can help with the negotiating process. If you're already in the middle of the process, great. Now, if you haven't filed for divorce yet ... I'm never one to even endorse divorce, but this is one of those times where you need to decide and think hard. Is now the time to file divorce and get this process going? Because I think I may be better off given what's happening with the alimony rules.
And I'm gonna look at this from both side's perspective in a little bit greater detail so you really understand the consequences and what we're getting to. And the reason when you hear this episode this is particularly important is we're in August as I record this. Some of you maybe listening to this later down the line. But, many states have some version of a cooling off period when it comes to divorce. And what that means is is from the moment you file divorce to the soonest your divorce can be over, depending upon where you live, can be two or three months in some cases. Because that's what the state requires. So, some states will say, "All right. Well even if you agree to 100 percent of the issues in your divorce, it'll take you 90 days before we'll sign off on a divorce. Because that's what the law says." Or some states, it might be 60 days. Or other states, it may be 30 days. I actually have a blog post if you type in quickie divorce. There's only a handful of states where it actually can happen reasonably fast.
But, given that we're in August, some of you August, September, will be the last chance you have if you are in the position to take advantage of these issues. Now, if your divorce process is already commencing. Some of you, it's been going on for many months. Some of you many years. Well, you're actually okay. The real goal would be in your perspective, in most cases, will be to wrap it up before the end of the year to benefit from these ... before the tax law changes.
And why all of a sudden this big tax change? Why did this happen? Well, the simple answer is actually a lot of people were cheating on their taxes. Not saying a lot of you were. But, what happened was there was a multi billion dollar gap every year according to the IRS records of people who were paying for divorce ... Or I'm sorry. So, there was a multi billion dollar gap. So, billions of dollars people were reporting that they were paying in alimony. But, a lot of people weren't saying they were receiving alimony. And therefore, could hide or not have to pay taxes on that money. So the IRS said, as part of the tax bill, that we're gonna change the law. And so, no one's going to get a tax break. And therefore, no one can cheat on alimony.
And so, what I wanna do in this episode .... It's gonna be a little bit longer than the normal ones. But, I wanna go through the scenarios depending upon who you are. And just some things to think about. All of this is complicated. It just is. And it depends on your individual circumstances which decision is best for you. There's no universal right or wrong. Ultimately you should be consulting with maybe an accountant, maybe your attorney, maybe with me. And we can think through what makes the most sense for you if you have these options on the table.
So, I'm gonna start with the person who is paying alimony. If you were the person paying alimony, or will be paying alimony as part of the divorce process, or spousal support or maintenance. It just depending on what state you live in what they call it. It is in your best interest from a tax perspective to wrap up the divorce before the end of the year. Because every dollar you pay in alimony for now and forever in the future, barring some sort of major unexpected tax change, you get a tax benefit for paying alimony. Simple as that. You'll pay less in taxes at the end of each year if you pay alimony. I'll give you a very simple example. If you're paying $1,000 a month in alimony, you get at the end of the year $12,000 deduction in your taxes. Now, if you don't finalize your divorce until sometime in 2019 or beyond, you no longer get that benefit. So for most of the people who are paying alimony, this might be a good reason to start that process.
Now, if you're the person receiving alimony, or will be receiving alimony. I know that one of my most popular videos with many, many thousands of views is on stay-at-home moms and divorce advice for stay-at-home moms. Which is one of the most common populations that I work with and people I get to help. And now some of you, I know from talk to you, might be panicked at this point. But as I said before, don't panic. The situation's actually more complicated if you're the person receiving alimony. I'm going to go through a few scenarios. A few things and notes for you to think about.
Now, if you're negotiating ... Let's just give you an example. Let's say you're negotiating or thinking about getting about $2,000 a month in spousal support as part of the divorce settlement. And you think you're gonna get this down in 2018. But for whatever reason, your divorce isn't finalized this year. And you're gonna be looking at 2019. Well actually if you still get $2,000 a month in 2019, you're in a better position. Because you don't have to pay income tax on that $2,000 a month you would have received. You're better off than you were before. If you get that same amount in pure dollar terms. Hope that makes sense. So, if you get divorced in 2018 and you get $2,000 a month, what happens is you're gonna be paying on income tax on what's going to be $24,000 a year. But, if you were in theory to get the same $2,000 next year in 2019 or beyond, you don't have to pay income tax on that. And therefore, you get to keep all of it. That's a plus.
But, there's a downside. Let's say if you were thinking about or you were probably gonna get $2,000 a month in spousal support this year. Well if your spouse is savvy or your spouse has a decent attorney, they'll say, "Well, hey. I don't get that tax break anymore for it. And you're actually gonna get less. So, we're gonna make some adjustments in terms of what we pay. And maybe we're only going to pay you $1,500 a month instead of $2,000 a month." That could be substantial. Or whatever the equivalent is for them. But, that is something that will certainly happen in the divorce scenario for some people who understand the way that this calculation works.
Now as I always said, there is a way around it. There are always clever ways to structure your divorce settlement. And I speak with you almost everyday about certain avenues you might not have thought about. But, one of them is a lump sum distribution. I've talked about this on the podcast before. If you haven't gotten the archives, you should definitely check that out. There is the ability to get as much money up front. And therefore, you won't have the tax consequences at all. Or they'll be substantially reduced. And you can ultimately, now it's a tricky calculation, but you can ultimately get to the same place you would've gotten all at once instead of doing it over months and over years. Now, you have to go back and listen to the lump sum distribution podcast episode, which is in the store, to understand all the mechanics of that. But is a very good solution, one of several, that could work for you.
So tax law or not, depending on your situation, you could still end up in the exact same place you would have if you structure things the right way. Ultimately, this is a complicated issue. I just wanna bring it up and make you aware of it. There's state laws you have to deal with. There's tax laws you're gonna have to deal with. There's just the divorce process you're gonna have to deal with. Certain states are considering different measures to counteract these changes.
And ultimately, if I were to say anything, you need to bring these up with your attorney. Bring these up with me. Bring these up with your accountant. If you don't have an accountant, this would be a good time to pay for a one off consultation with an accountant. It's interesting. Definitely bring it up with whoever you are working with. I know some very expensive and otherwise very good attorneys who have not said a word about this. Or who were less informed. Or have not brought it up with their clients. It's not because they are bad attorneys. They just have other things going on. One of the things you need to do is bring it up and take charge yourself.
I also know some great attorneys who have called all their clients and are saying, "Hey, here's what we're doing. Here's what we're thinking about. Here's the tax law change. Here's how it could affect you. Here's how I recommend we proceed to either get this done or delay it." It really just depends on your individual case. But, one way or another if you have not had this conversation with your attorney, I strongly suggest that you have it. And also, feel free to reach out to me. Book a coaching call and we can walk through your scenario in a half hour or so. And get the important details with you.
Just some last messages. I wanna reiterate multiple times during this episode, is it's not the end of the world if you don't wrap things up this year. And for some of you, it's just not going to be feasible to wrap up your divorce this year. You might not have started in the process. Maybe you're still gathering information. Or any number. It's not right for your family, or for your life, or for any number of things. And you're still doing your research. It's okay. You will come out through the other side. I'll still be here next year. And we'll still be coming up with good solutions to help you. And interesting and useful information.
But, if you think there's a benefit for you and your scenario to get things done this year, this is a ... We're kind of at crunch time. And this is a good time to really start getting the ball rolling. And making the important solutions and decisions that you need to be making. So, you end up in the best place possible for the long term.
In this episode, I want to discuss what happens after you sign a divorce settlement. The past month has been one of the busiest I've had in a while and the end of the year is looking to continue down that path. You know, as I've mentioned on a previous episode, the tax laws regarding alimony in divorce change in six months, and so that's creating a lot of pressure for people to get their divorces wrapped up before the end of the year, because there's often tax benefits to both sides, for wrapping up this year instead of delaying a year when the law changes in a big way.
If you don't know what I'm talking about, be sure to listen to episode 170 for some of the details and I'll be discussing it more in future episodes. But one of the things that's happened over the past month or so is that a lot of cases I've been working on are wrapping up, which is a bittersweet feeling for me.
I'm of course always happy that people are finishing their divorce and they get to move on with their life. But also, I feel a little bit of sadness because I get to work closely, closely with you during the process, during a tough time and then, many cases, we part ways and we don't have to speak with each other any more, which is also fine, but I do very much enjoy working with you. It is the nature of what I do.
And one of the things that a couple people have mentioned as their cases have wrapped up and they said, "Shawn, you don't really speak much about what to expect after the settlement's assigned. What should I be doing?" And I want to provide you some guidance to that effect. Now, of course, it varies for everyone, but I do want to outline some of the details of the divorce process once you have that settlement signed.
Most of you are going to go through the process where you negotiate a settlement and you sign the settlement, versus where a judge makes the final decree in terms of who gets what. Now, some of you do have to go that way, particularly in the tough divorces, but I expect most of you will be negotiating and signing some form of settlement.
And so what does that look like? And then what do you do afterwards? What kind of things should you be thinking about after divorce? One other thing I want to bring up is I have a, I think it's a seven or eight part series on choosing a financial advisor and financial topics you should know after divorce in the quick start guide. It's in the store. It's part of the full archive of the podcast. That might be something for you to check out because that is some critical information.
I mean, it's hours of information just of like basic financial concepts, how you choose a financial advisor, how do you know what to look for, how do you make sure you make the right option? But anyways, one of the things I want to talk about is, so how does the settlement process wrap up and then what do you do afterwards?
Now, for some of you, your settlement process actually might occur in two phases before you get to the settlement agreement. There's the part of the settlement that I might call the term sheet, which is ... in this part of the settlement, you outline basically everything that you want and your spouse wants on a sheet of paper or a few sheets of paper, without really legal terminology in there.
The way to think about the term sheet in a way is like, if you ... and I've had some clients do this, if you and your spouse, were to negotiate by email and you say, "I want this house," or "I want the house, you can keep this car, I want this car, we're going to split custody in this way," but you just go back and forth by email.
And then you say, alright, here's the final email with everything that we want. And you say, okay, good. That's the kind of the term sheet part of it. And what you do with that term sheet, I call it, because that's what you use, that's what you call it in the investing world. You say, all right, we have a term sheet, let's make it legal.
And so the term sheet is here's all the details that we've agreed to, and then you take it to your attorney and say, "Can you please draw this up in the appropriate legal framework so the court can sign off on it?" And so, for some of you, that's the first phase. Now, not everyone goes through that step of negotiating a term sheet first. Some of you go straight to the actual legal settlement document.
In which, you're going to get to this document in one way or the other, but sometimes it's just depending upon your process, you go through the term sheet phase first. But when you get to the legal documentation, this is when the attorney drafts up exactly what each of you is getting.
And the legal documentation, you're going to really want to pour over every word, every phrase, every sentence in this document to make sure that it not only matches what you agreed to, but also is what you want. I've seen cases where people sign settlements and they don't read it closely and you go back a few months later and you look at it and you're like, "What did that paragraph mean?" Or, "That's not what I wanted it to say. I thought it was supposed to be this," and that can easily be avoided by studying your settlement in the first place.
And let's just say you've gotten through those two phases. So you've got your term sheet, you've gotten a settlement and everything is wrapped up and you submit the paper to the court. That's an important step three, remember, just because you signed the settlement agreement ... This is an interesting topic that I actually will get into now; I didn't anticipate talking about it now.
So depending upon what's going on, you can sign and agree to the settlement agreement and sign it, have everything done, but not submit it to the court. And if you don't submit it to the court, you will never be divorced. But there are reasons sometimes that you might not want to submit that settlement agreement to the court and you might want to delay. Now, there's many moving parts when it comes to delaying, particularly with the tax law changes and other things.
But, if you wanted to delay, you can, and I'll give you reasons that people delay that come up pretty regularly. One is for tax purposes for filing jointly. So let's just say, you know, we're getting to the end of 2018 as I record this and, you know for tax purposes or you think for tax purposes, you want to file just one more time as a married couple because it makes sense for you. I know plenty of people who will negotiate their full settlement, sign the paperwork and not submit it to the court and just say, "Hey, we'll submit it to the court in 2019," the next year. Because for tax purposes, it'll save them many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
I've had some lesser common reasons, so one of my favorite reasons, I had a client who I'll just say lives in a town with one golf course and in order to keep their membership active at the only golf course in town, they wanted to stay one more year on the married membership because as soon as they became a divorced couple, they would be doubling their membership dues.
And if you know anything about golf courses, those dues can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. So to save one more year playing golf, they decided to save some expense. They decided to keep their membership, or themselves divorced, or excuse me, I should say, let me restart. They kept themselves married until they renewed their membership as a married couple for one more year, so they could save up the extra money for the golf course and the increased golf dues they were facing.
There could be any number of reasons that you may want to delay your divorce. And so, some people may do that, but you also need to keep in mind that if you have not submitted the paperwork to the court, you cannot get divorced and you should not be making other major financial decisions until you know exactly what is planned. And I'll give you an example of why that's a big deal.
I have a client who needs to ... I actually have several people in this category, who need to refinance their home. And as part of the refinancing process, the first thing the mortgage lender says is, "Hey, where's the paperwork that says you are divorced?" And so, they will ask for, that court signed, judge signed, county signed document that says I am officially divorced before they can make any major financial moves.
But let's say you submit the paperwork and you have everything in the court and everything is good to go. What do you do? Well, you wait. Unfortunately, just because you've signed the paperwork, just because you submit the paperwork, still doesn't mean you're divorced. And depending upon where you live, it could still be many, many months before you are divorced in the eyes of the law. I'm going to give you an example.
I spend a lot of time in New York, in New York City, and have several clients there. Some cases, this is crazy, even as I think about explaining it, you can file for divorce and submit the paperwork in August, so the eighth month of the year, and I'll tell you why this is relevant in just a second. We can file the paperwork then. You can get through the end of the year and not have official divorce paperwork.
I've had cases where someone files paperwork and August and they don't get the divorce paperwork until February or March of the next year. And because the New York court is so backed up and there's so many cases and not enough judges and not enough resources, unfortunately, in many cases, that it takes the court six months or can take the court six months to officially recognize the divorce.
Now, of course, they know that they'd be causing a lot of trouble for people if the divorce didn't go through until February. What happens is the New York court is so busy and they understand how much turmoil that could cause is they will backdate the divorce papers oftentimes. So if you file for divorce in August and they don't get to it until February, they'll say, "Hey, sorry, we just got to it. But because you filed it an August, we're going to consider you legally divorced as of December 31st of the previous year."
But the point is to bring up is that just because you filed the paperwork still means you need to wait. And from a practical perspective, you've just gone through a very intense process. And even though it's not over yet, one of the first things I recommend you do is you wait.
No need to rush into major decisions. Right after you file the divorce paperwork and you submit it to the court. First thing I say is breathe. Relax. Take a week or two. Focus on yourself, focus on your kids, your family, your work, whatever you've been neglecting during this process. Now that you've gotten this major step involved, take some time to get back to normal or to prepare for the future and don't make any major decisions unless you absolutely have to. If you take some time to breathe, you will get into a position where you can think clearly about the next steps of your life and the next phases of your life and get organized and prepare for the things that we need to do and that you will need to do as you go forward.
Once you've taken some time to breathe, decompress, relax a little bit. I want to cover two main areas that you're going to need to focus on going forward. I'm going to cover these in the next episode. The first thing you're going to need to do is you're going to make sure that you get and give up everything that you agree agreed to as part of the divorce process. And the second thing you should do is update all of your accounts to make sure they reflect your new reality.
Stay tuned for the next episode. I'm going to get into those very soon and get into some of the nitty gritty details of what those two things mean.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In the previous episode I gave you a high level overview of a balance sheet and if you haven't listened to that episode, be sure to go back and hear it because the balance sheet is one of the most important documents that exists in divorce, so I want to make sure that you get it and you understand the key details of the balance sheet. It's so important as I said in the previous episode that it's something that I update every month and have for many years and probably will continue to until, for the rest of my life. It's that important of a financial document to keep track of.
In this episode I want to discuss a little bit about specifically how you prepare a balance sheet and how you go about it. If you were going to prepare a balance sheet from scratch, how would you do that process? What do you need to know to prepare your balance sheet? Well, one thing I'll say is a balance sheet easier to produce when you ... it's easier to produce when you a computer specifically if you use Microsoft Excel. You don't need to be super fancy at Microsoft Excel, but if you know the basics of adding and summarizing columns, over the long term it's a much easier method to do. That said, you can do your balance sheet by hand on a couple of sheets of paper. If you have good handwriting and a calculator and you can keep things organized. That is a very legitimate method and people ... I'm a firm believer in doing things by hand.
I still have a lot of old schoolness in me, even though I run basically an online business, but some things like a balance sheet I still do by hand all the time. Particularly if I don't feel like updating every number, but just want to get a sensor if I'm in a meeting with a new person, I can just pull out a sheet of paper and say "Hey, let's just go through the balance sheet and we can put it together on a slider of paper just like that", but in even case you're going to want to have a calculator and what you should do if I were going to create a balance sheet from scratch is I would think about all of your most valuable things.
What are you most valuable things? Oh, I forgot to mention something important. One thing about a balance sheet is that a balance sheet is a snapshot in time, so the numbers on a balance sheet, you know I said I update it all the time, well whenever I update a balance sheet it's as of that particular day. In divorce situations usually you prepare your balance sheet as of the date of separation, but you can always update the time periods related to the balance sheet, so you have to pick a day. So that day might be June 1st. That day might by October 22nd of the previous year. That day might be today. Whatever day you pick is the day that you're going to value all of your accounts and all of your assets, that's what account balance you're going to use and when that's really important is if you have an investment account for example.
Let's just say you're listening to this towards the end of the year and let's just say at the beginning of the year the investment account had $100 in it, but later in the year that investment account made some money and now it's got $120 in it. Well if you got separated earlier in the year, you might have to use on the balance sheet the $100 number even though it's worth a $120. Depending upon your divorce situation, you have make the call as to whether you want to change that separation date. If that's even possible, like that's a big statement I just kind of slid in there, but you have to determine what day is most advantageous for you in terms of valuing assets like that, so you got to pick a day. For me I just pick you know whatever day of the month I decided to open and update my balance sheet, but something that you need to keep in mind.
Now when you're preparing a balance sheet, I was saying you need to think about all the stuff that you own. All of your assets, so if you own a house that's an easy one. Almost everyone has a bank account, so you put your bank accounts on there. If you have retirement accounts, you go through each one of your retirement accounts and list the total value of the retirement accounts and if you have a 41K, I usually write down on the line John Smith 41K, so I know what type of account it is and I'll say value, $237,556 and I will make a note as to what date I did it, so if it's June 1st, I'll just put the June 1st date on there and hopefully I said when you do it you keep every account on the same date, but you start with ... if I were to start with the assets.
Start with the house because everyone's going to have, most everyone's going to have a house. If you rent then you're not going to list it as an asset, but if you own a home of some kind, then you will put the home value and if you have a mortgage the home is a little bit tricky because you all have debt attached to it, but you have a mortgage also put the mortgage value on there and put if you have a second mortgage or something else, put that value on there as well and that way you can get a total home value minus mortgage and any other debt, so you can start there.
Then I say all right, well here's all my bank accounts, so I go through each one of my bank statements. I put in the amount of money that's in there, easy enough and I just list out each account, who's name is on it, so if you're doing it for you and your spouse, you should make a note as to who owns said account. So you do bank accounts. You do your house. You do any investment or retirement accounts, list every one of those.
Then you go to vehicles. You put all your vehicles. You can put ... oh other real estates, so I forgot, if you have a second home or you have a rental property or whatever else, don't forget to include that and then think about all of your other stuff. Could be furniture, collectibles, intellectual property, who knows what, but whatever that thing may be, you add it on and go from there and you add them all up. You put them nice and neat into a column. You group them by category and that way you know all of your assets. You take the sum total of all your assets. Maybe it's $100,000. Maybe it's $100 million, who knows. Likely somewhere in between there and you know the total value of your assets and who owns them.
Second thing you do is now you got to think about your debts. As I said some of you have debts. Some of you don't. It really just depends on your situation, but on the next side of the page, so if I split it down the middle. I have the left side with all my assets, the right side of the page with all my debts and so you list out every credit card you have or if you have a student loan, you list out a student loan. Or, if you have a personal loan that you have, you write that in there and you would go from that point and start working on your debts and you list them all out and you summarize your debts. I'm just going to use some basic examples.
Let's just say on the left side of the page, I like using $100 because everyone hopefully can follow $100 math. Let's say you have $100 of assets in between your houses and cars and retirement accounts and everything else. Let's say you have $20 of debt, what does that make your net worth on your balance sheet? Well your net worth on your balance sheet is $80. You're going to take all of your assets subtract out your debts and you're going to end up with a net worth of $80 and then you're going to have your balance sheet.
Now one of the things that's very important is making sure you attach the right value to the different assets and debts that you have. What do I mean? Well one thing I ask everyone. I will ask 100% of you when we prepare a balance sheet, how did you come with the value for your home? If you went to Zillow and said "Hey I typed in my address and Zillow said it was worth $357,000", I will say "Okay, thanks" and we may use that value for now, but I will say we need to get an appraisal to figure out how much this house is actually worth or I'll say you need to talk to a real estate agent to determine a much better value for this house because Zillow is not the most accurate place to go.
If you have a car and you have a 1997 Mercedes E300, I don't know if they may an E300 in 1997, but if you had bought that car in 1997 that would have been a $60,000 car. If you list that asset as $60,000 in 2018 when I'm recording this, I will say "Hey, you know that car was worth $60,000 something then. It may sadly only be worth $3,500 now", so we need to make an adjustment there and so you need to be cognizant of the actual values for certain accounts. Bank accounts are easy. You'll align again, you'll get the number on your bank account and you're good to go.
Same with investment accounts, but for any assets that don't have a clear value like homes and cars and jewelry, we will need specific appraisals for those types of assets, so just something to think about in that regard and then as I said, once you prepare your balance sheet what happens next?
Well you have to understand the information. Look at it. Make sure it all makes sense. Ensure that it meets your expectations or maybe there are some surprising things in there, which happen. The second thing is you have to really internalize your balance sheet, particularly when you're going through divorce and you have to think and what assets are most valuable for me to keep, or what do I want to keep? What assets do I not want to keep? What do I want to give away? How do we handle the debt situation?
So I've worked on many a client who had debt and we had to write in the divorce agreement we're going to sell you know if I were just going to toss out an example. Let's just say "Hey we're going to sell the house, the proceeds are going first to pay off the outstanding credit card debt" and then second whatever remains after we're going to split between us 50/50. That something that we start thinking about, but we got to start thinking about "Hey, what's the best settlement that we can get for you in that situation?" I'll give you a case that I've been working on lately where there were a lot of real estate properties, but in this situation the person who was determining their settlement wanted all the real estate, but they were going to be left with zero dollars in cash, which is not a good position to be in and I said "Hey, I understand that you're going to have all this real assets, it's great, but you're going to need to have some cash in a bank account" and so, while you might want to keep all these real estate assets, maybe left's find a way for you to get either from a retirement account or something else, some day to day funds that you have so that you can live your life normally and plan for some expenses that you're going to have after the divorce process is over.
You don't want to be real estate rich and cash poor. That's not always the best position to be in depending upon your life goals and what your immediate needs are and this person had some tuition payments coming up and so they were going to need the cash one way or the other. Trying live off the cash from the rental income plus save up enough for tuition, it just didn't make financial sense and so, that's one of the listings that we can look at. If you remember the previous episode I mention that we split up the assets and we said there's $100 in assets total and one spouse is getting $80 in assets, the other is getting $20 in assets. Well if you look at the balance sheet you can start to figure out, well maybe that actually makes sense given their situation or maybe that's a terrible deal and we need to make some adjustments, but when you prepare your balance sheet correctly you can quickly and easily identify all of the things that you need to know in a very usable format.
The balance sheet is meant to be a very simple asset and simple analysis I should say for you to review and have a clear picture of how your finances will look and so you use it all the time to understand hey, if this scenario happens and we adjust the balance sheet, does that leave me in a good position? That's a lot. The balance sheet I could talk about for a lot of time and the ins and the outs and it's actually one of those things that differs so much between each individual person. It's hard to sometimes cover all the different nuances of a balance sheet, but you know if you Google balance sheet you'll find some details on it yourself, but I want to give you just an overview of kind of what it is and how to start thinking about it and how you can prepare yourself on a sheet of paper and it's something that should be at the forefront of taking control of your life both during the divorce process and afterwards as you go through this time and as I said, it's something that we work with with 100% of the clients that I get to work with as we prepare that balance sheet so you always know where you will stand financially during and after the divorce process.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
We're almost 200 episodes into the Divorce and Your Money show. There's a lot that I've covered, but there's still a handful of topics that I haven't gotten a lot of depth on. Sometimes you might notice that there's a little bit of a gap between recordings, and that's actually just simply because I'm working with you. So sometimes, particularly on busy weeks or sometimes busy months, I don't always get to record a ton of helpful episodes. But in this one, we're covering one of the most important topics that I can't believe I waited so long to cover.
This is something that ... This topic is something that we do with 100% of the clients that I work with on the ongoing coaching packages. Now, in a coaching call we can't do this topic, but anyone I work with longer term throughout their divorce process, we start by what we're going to cover in this episode. And, I realized I haven't really explained it in depth to you and why it is so important. Actually, what we're going to talk about is a financial document that is so important that I do it myself and check mine every month. For you, we'll do it every time something happen in the divorce process. For some of my clients who I work with after divorce is over, we do it for the foreseeable future every quarter or every half a year to make sure that everything is on track.
This is to me perhaps the most important financial document that exists, particularly when you're thinking about the divorce process or even the rest of your life. And what is that? It is a document that we call the balance sheet. A balance sheet, if you work in the corporate world, has to do with .... Every one of your companies, if you work for a company or if your spouse works for a company, prepares a balance sheet or at least they should be. Basically what's on that balance sheet is all of that company's assets and their debts at a certain period of time.
What we do is we take that same concept. So if a company owns a building, for example, an office building, well, that office building gets recorded as an asset on their balance sheet. Well, let's say that company has a loan from a bank. Well, that gets reported as a debt on that balance sheet. Basically, what a balance sheet does is it tracks the value of a business over time over specific periods.
Well, one of the things that we do in the divorce context is take the explanation or the utility of a balance sheet in the corporate world and apply that to your personal finances. So, we do a personal balance sheet. That personal balance sheet summarizes all of your, either individually or as a married couple, all of your assets and your debts and puts it into one handy page. Basically we take all of the stuff that you own, could be houses, could be cars, could be furniture, it could be jewelry, could be other valuables, and we put ... It could be retirement accounts. We put all of that on a page, and then we take a list of all the things that you owe. It could be a mortgage, could be credit card debt, could be a personal loan, could be a student loan, could be some other ... could be tax payments that you have that are outstanding. We put those on the other side of the page.
Basically, what we're trying to figure out is two things. One is what does your total financial picture look like? Just very simply is if we put everything on one page, what does it look like? Then, second is as we're going through the divorce process, how do we make that as people are negotiating different settlement options and different settlement proposals, well, how does that adjust your personal summary and does that leave you in a position in the future where your personal assets and debts are in a good spot? And I'm going to get into those questions a little bit more later, but I want to talk a little bit more broadly about the balance sheet.
As I said, basically it's just all the stuff that you own and all the stuff you owe. Some people I work with don't owe much. So actually, you might have nothing on your owe side of the balance sheet. But what you do know is if you have everything you own and you add it up and every ... minus, everything that you owe, you have your total net worth. It is basically like ... Now, be very ... I'm gonna have to clarify my language with my next sentence. A balance sheet is basically like your statement of net worth with a big but. The statement of net worth or the financial affidavit that you complete is usually directed in the form of a court document or a particular format that your attorney uses.
Unfortunately, while that document is useful to start gathering the information, if you ever look at a financial affidavit or statement of net worth, they're not very usable on an ongoing basis. They are a legal document. So what we do with a balance sheet, and why it takes a lot of time to custom create these for each one of you when we work together, is we take all of that information and put it onto one or two pages so that you can easily see a quick and clean snapshots of your assets and your debts on one page. That way we can see your net worth in an immediate snapshot.
That's very important because when you look at a ... I'm going to take the New York form because I have a lot of clients in New York and one of the ... If you ever look at the New York financial affidavit, the New York statement of net worth form ... I did a calculation one day. I went and added it up because I was curious myself. There's something like, if I remember the number correctly, somewhere around 170 different individual line items that you have to go through on your New York financial affidavit.
Well, most people, even those with a super complex financial lives do not have 170 different line items that they need to keep track of. Really, the most that most people have is about 20 to 30 things in terms of accounts, and assets, and debts that we need to keep track of. If I had to just guess on average, somewhere between 20 to 30 things. Some people have a few more, some people have a few less.
But what we do is we take the 20 to 30 most important things. Sometimes if they're smaller items on there, we just lumped them into another category. But we just take those key items, put them on one sheet of paper that's easy to read, group them by asset type. What do I mean? So if you have five bank accounts, we put them into the cash grouping. If you have three retirement accounts, we put them into the retirement account category. If you have a house we might put it on its own, particularly if you have a mortgage or two. We might put just a house or a real estate category.
Ultimately, you're going to have one sheet of printer paper that says here is all of your assets and your debts. It's very clean, very easy to understand. 100% of people find it useful. And as I said, it's something that is so important that I do my own balance sheet myself every month just to make sure that I am on track and to see how things are changing. And in the divorce process, it's exceptionally important because you get to see on one clear page where all of your assets and your debts are, how much they're worth.
And what ultimately happens is, as I was alluding to earlier, as you get to start to evaluate different settlement proposals, you get to see. So what we'll do is we'll do, you know, assuming you're a heterosexual couple, which is most people that listen to this, but not all, you will have a husband side and a wife side. On the husband side, there'll be a settlement proposal on the table. I don't know if you're the husband or the wife, depends on who's listening at the moment. But we'll put here's what's proposed for the husband on one side, here's what's proposed for the wife on the other side and we'll look.
I'm going to use some simple numbers for the sake of discussion of the balance sheet, but let's just say there's a total pot of $100 on assets. Well, if the husband is getting $80 in assets and the wife is getting $20 in assets, we might say, "That doesn't look so fair." But, actually, maybe it does. Because what if, you know, the ... But or maybe we'd say, "Actually, that is fair," and there could be a reason for that because the wife in this situation, even though she's getting $20 an asset, or an in assets, and the husband's getting 80, maybe the husband's unable to work and so he needs extra assets to live on, whereas the wife is going to have a bunch of income down the line. Or maybe this is the way that they structured a lump sum payment instead of paying ongoing support.
But, you can see that immediately when you have a balance sheet. It gives you an instant ability to understand, "All right. Here's my financial picture and here's what it's going to look like after the divorce, assuming we go through this proposal. Looking at this proposal, I think it's fair or I think it's not fair, and we need to make some adjustments or whatever." Then, after the divorce is over, you can keep updating your balance sheet every few months and you can say, "Hey, am I adding to my savings or subtracting from my savings? Are my investment accounts going up or are they going down? Is my house worth approximately what I thought it was?" You can keep refining these things to know how you're doing financially. That is the short, short introduction to the balance sheet.
So what I want to talk about in the next episode is some of the mechanics of the balance sheet, and really how do you make your own balance sheet. It's something that I do with all of you all of the time, but one of the questions is also always, you know, how do you do it yourself. I do have a handful of clients who've actually already prepared their balance sheet before I work with them, and I want to teach you the important stuff and the important elements of the balance sheet because it's going to be very useful for you going forward.
And you know, even if you don't do it yourself, you say, "Hey, Shawn. I want you to do my balance sheet," or, "Hey, other local certified divorce financial analyst. I want you to do my balance sheet," or if you find a financial advisor you like just in general that you want to work with after the divorce process over, say, "Hey, can you prepare a balance sheet for me?" even if you don't ultimately do it, you need to understand what's going on behind the scenes, or at least I would like you to understand what's going on behind the scenes so you understand why this is so important to me and why it's something that can be useful for you for literally the rest of your life. So, make sure you listen to the next episode coming out in a couple of weeks and stay tuned.