Breaking up is always hard to do. But divorce—with its negotiations and financial pitfalls—is a whole other level. Here, N.Y.C.-based divorce lawyer Jacqueline Newman provides a crash course in setting yourself up for post-marital success, from navigating common legal issues to finding the right attorney for you.
By Jacqueline Newman
As crazy as this may sound, I love being a divorce attorney (which is good, because I have been doing it for over 20 years). People often ask, “Isn’t it depressing, seeing marriages fall apart all the time?” But I actually view it differently. Being a divorce lawyer gives me the opportunity to help people get out of unhealthy relationships and become available for new, better ones. Not to sound cliché, but while you may feel that your life is falling apart now, remember that when one door closes—another opens.
COVID AND MARRIAGE
Quarantining has been amazing for some marriages, and disastrous for others. It gave families a break and allowed them to have dinners together, watch TV, and actually talk. But some couples realized that, when they sat down at the table together, they had nothing to say—or even worse, they had plenty to say, and none of it was nice.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I received a lot of phone calls that started with, “Get me out of here!” My initial response was almost always the same (assuming that the situation was not dangerous): if your marriage was not on the brink before, do not let this incredibly uncertain and stressful time decide your future. Back then, most people could not have imagined that COVID was going to continue for as long as it has, and I did not want couples filing for divorce based on a period of time that may wind up just being a blip on the radar.
These days, however, more people are telling me, “OK, I took your advice and did not leave right away. But a year plus later, I still do not see this marriage working. What now?”
While it is always emotionally difficult to separate two lives that have become one, it can be even more challenging to separate them financially.
And to do that in a fair and equitable manner, you will need a lawyer. You may never have hired a lawyer before—many people haven't. So how do you find one? What do you ask them? What should it cost? Below is a guide to just that—with answers not only to questions you may have, but also to ones you haven't even thought of yet.
READY TO DIVORCE—BUT HOW??
The first step after you've decided to divorce, is to figure out “how” you want to get divorced. There are three different process choices to consider—Mediation, Collaborative Law, and Litigation. No matter which process choice you and your spouse select, it is important that each of you have attorneys involved to guide you and ensure you are making educated decisions. While I know there are many apps out there promising to help users get an easy, cheap, and quick divorce, I often hear horror stories about disastrous results. Attorneys’ fees can be expensive, but knowing that you were properly represented, and that all of your divorce paperwork was handled correctly, will make it some of the best money you've ever spent.
In brief, Mediation involves the use of a neutral mediator who will help you and your spouse navigate divorce decisions together, often with an attorney assisting in the background. Collaborative Law utilizes a team of attorneys, a neutral financial expert, divorce coach(es) and a child specialist (if applicable) to ensure you reach an agreement that works for everyone. If these two voluntary processes are not a good match or do not result in a favorable outcome, then there is always Litigation, which means resolving any disputes through the court system. Please note, however, that even if you do not choose Mediation or Collaborative Law and go with Litigation, it is very possible that you may never see the inside of a courtroom—although the possibility does exist.
I usually recommend that people try Mediation first. (The worst that could happen is you waste an hour of your life and the mediator’s hourly rate.) Mediation is typically the least expensive and most amicable way to get divorced. However, if there is an extreme power imbalance in the relationship and/or you are not comfortable facing your spouse without counsel, then Collaborative Law may be the next process to try. Collaborative Law allows the spouses to have more of a voice in the process, but has the added perk that if someone has to say something that they're scared to say to their spouse’s face, they can whisper in their attorney’s ear, “Can you tell him/her this?” It is also important to note that, with Collaborative Law, if the process breaks down and one spouse wants to go to court, the attorneys and specialists that were working with the spouses can't represent them. This can be seen as a downside to the Collaborative Law process, but it is really an upside, because it keeps both spouses (and all of the experts) truly invested in getting to a settlement that works for everyone.
Of course, both Mediation and Collaborative Law are voluntary processes and somewhat self-selecting. If one person says, “I don’t want to participate in Mediation or the Collaborative process,” then you would each hire attorneys who would hopefully still try to settle. But if they cannot, you could be off to court. The downside of Litigation is that it is very often the most expensive, adversarial, and lengthy way to divorce, but if you have a spouse who is unable to settle and/or if you feel you need someone else to make the tough decisions in your divorce, it may be necessary.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN ATTORNEY
Once you have chosen your process, the next step is to select your attorney. Be sure to choose someone who specializes in matrimonial law (there are too many nuances to get someone who just dabbles) and who also practices in whatever process choice you have selected.
Often, people will meet attorneys they have heard about from their brother’s cousin’s neighbor. Meeting an attorney through a friend or family member can provide an understanding of this professional from an inside perspective. It is possible, however, that you do not know anyone who has gone through a divorce, or more likely, that you don't want others to know you are contemplating one yourself. In these cases, many people search the Internet to find divorce attorneys.
Reviews and peer recognition are good criteria to use when choosing a divorce lawyer online. Be sure to see if the attorneys are recognized and rated by formal legal organizations such as Superlawyers.com, Lawyers.com, or Bestlawyers.com. Read an attorney’s bio on their website (make sure there is a website) and seek out anything that the attorney has published to get a sense of that person’s style.
Initial consultations are also incredibly important here. You need to make sure that you are 1000 percent comfortable with this person, since you are going to be telling them your deepest, darkest secrets. But while you need to be comfortable, you also do not need this attorney to be your BFF. Basically, you do not want to feel judged, but you do want to feel secure that this person will be able to handle your case in the manner you want it handled. Be wary of any attorney who has a “hard sell” and anyone who makes promises or guarantees results. Feel free to have initial consultations with more than one attorney, so you have a sense of comparison. Think of it like dating—you usually want to date a few people before you get married.
THE INITIAL CONSULTATION
Many attorneys charge for your initial consultation, which is typically the cost of that attorney’s hourly rate—depending on the state and level of experience, this rate could be as low as $150 or as high as $1,500+—so you want to be as prepared as possible for this meeting, making sure you are spending that expensive time wisely. Gather as much financial information as you can (lists of assets, liabilities, income, and expenses), so you will be ready to answer all of the money questions that will undoubtedly be asked. That said, if you are in the dark financially and do not know anything about your family’s money situation, all is not lost. The attorney you hire will ultimately be able to figure it all out. Don't be embarrassed, just be honest right away about not knowing.
The most common questions that 98.7 percent of my potential clients ask are, “How much will this cost?” followed by, “How long will it take?” I often respond by saying, “If you can tell me how long it will take for you and your soon-to-be-ex to agree on terms, I can tell you how long and how much.” The fact is, it is almost impossible to answer those questions accurately at a first meeting. While I know you probably will not be able to resist asking anyway, here are some other questions you will also want to ask at your initial consultation with a divorce attorney:
1.What is your hourly rate and your retainer (an up-front fee that the attorney draws upon as the work is completed), and do you refund any unused portion of my retainer?
2. Do you specialize in matrimonial law, and how much experience do you have with cases like mine?
3. Will you be the attorney on my case or will I be working with other partners/associates at your firm, and will I be billed for everyone’s time?
4. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of my case?
5. Is there anything I should or should not be doing while I am figuring out whether I want to divorce?
Be sure to have all of your questions (financial and otherwise) written out and organized before the meeting—no question is too small or stupid. Think of what keeps you up at night—How does alimony/spousal support get decided? What are the rules about moving out of state? Who gets the cat?—and jot everything down. The goal of the initial consultation is not only to make sure you and the attorney are a good match, but also to hopefully give you the peace-of-mind you need to rest easy, knowing you are in good hands.
SHOW ME THE $$$
The obvious thing you're going to want to know from the attorney is how much money you will walk away with. While no one can provide you with guarantees (and a lot depends on the ways in which assets are divided and support is awarded in your state), the attorney you are meeting with should be able to give you some rough idea of what the financial picture could look like after all is said and done.
When dealing with money, there are four financial categories to a divorce: asset distribution, spousal support, child support, and child-related extra expenses. The basic definitions are:
- Asset/Debt Distribution—how your assets and debts are divided.
- Spousal Support—how much and how long the lower-earning spouse may receive financial support from the other spouse.
- Child Support—how much support the primary caretaker will receive for the support of the children.
- Extra Expenses—payments made to third parties on behalf of the children that are not covered in the basic child-support payments. In some states, this bucket can sometimes be merged into the child support bucket.
Depending on where you live and your income/asset levels, there are various formulas that may address the categories above. One thing you need to be sure of when dealing with money is that you are as familiar as possible with your expenses. To that end, the more concrete info you can gather about your and your children’s (if applicable) expenses, the better position you will be in to see whether the money you will be walking away with leaves you with enough to make ends meet.
DEBUNKING MYTHS AND HELPFUL TIPS
Stay off social media while divorcing.
Nothing good comes from it. I know it may feel good in the moment to bash your soon-to-be-ex, but believe me, it can only come back to bite you. Do not brag about your new beau, your new car, your new promotion, or the amazing time you are having now that you are free. Keep quiet on social media until after your divorce papers are signed. (And if you share children, probably even then, too.) Many times, I’ve seen a social media post used in court to prove that someone is not telling the truth. Unless you are comfortable showing the judge in your case (or your kids) everything you have posted, do not do it!
Just because it is in your name, does not mean it is yours.
A common myth is that when an asset is titled in your name or your spouse’s name, it is automatically owned by that person. That is simply not true (in most states). It is where the money came from that bought or funded the asset that matters.
Mom does not always get full custody.
The every-other-weekend-and-Wednesday-dinner Dads are pretty much a thing of the past.
Not every state demands an automatic 50/50 split of assets.
While some states do automatically split assets equally, many do not (especially in short-term marriages), so check with your attorney about how your assets will be divided.
The engagement ring is separate property, but the wedding ring is marital.
An engagement ring is a conditional gift (the condition being that you go through with the wedding). However, the wedding ring is given after the marriage, so it’s considered to be marital property.
BUILDING BACK BETTER
One big-budget category that is often forgotten when financially planning for divorce is expenses associated with self-care. If you do not take care of yourself during your divorce, you will not be well equipped to take care of anyone else afterwards. When clients are figuring out their budgets, I often remind them to consider the expenses of things like therapy, massages, a physical trainer, yoga, meditation, brunching/drinks with friends, and whatever else you may need to help get you through this stage of life.
In order to survive and thrive during the divorce process, you need to focus your energies on the things that you enjoy doing (that maybe you could not do before). Eat potato chips in bed, stay up all night watching trashy TV, walk around the house naked, take a pottery class, work late at the office and feel zero guilt, connect with an old flame…whatever you want. You are now free to be you without judgment. Take this opportunity and run with it! Explore whatever options are out there for a healthier future—maybe with someone else, but definitely with yourself. While it is always emotionally difficult to separate two lives that have become one, it can be even more challenging to separate them financially.
Have a life-after-marriage movie marathon
by Callie Watts
Waiting to Exhale (1995): This romance starring Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon not only gave us one of the best breakup soundtracks ever, but also one of the most memorable “fuck you” scenes ever—when Bernadine fills her cheating husband’s car with his belongings, lights it on fire, and proudly walks away as the car is rapidly engulfed behind her.
Life of the Party (2018): Melissa McCarthy co-wrote and stars in this comedy about a recent divorcee who returns to college after 22 years and attends her daughter’s school. It won a Golden Raspberry award for “Worst Actress” but fuck that noise. If you’re in bed crying into a cheese plate, this lighthearted tale might just motivate you to get up, get out, and do something new.
Carol (2015): Set in 1952 New York, this period drama stars Cate Blanchett as a woman who, amid a divorce, begins an affair with a much younger shop girl played by Rooney Mara. Beautifully shot and critically acclaimed, Carol is not just a break-up film—it is queer canon.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998): If the roles in this comedy were reversed, we’d think this was some creepy Woody Allen shit. But we aren’t here for ethics, we are here to watch Stella get her fucking groove back in Jamaica with Taye Diggs. Starring Angela Bassett, Whoopi Goldberg, and Regina King, this film is a delicious reminder that sometimes the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.
Death Becomes Her (1992): A tale of jealousy and vanity, this dark comedy stars Meryl Streep as a novelist whose fiancé (Bruce Willis) dumps her to marry her friend (Goldie Hawn). After a wild series of events precipitated by a witchy socialite (Isabella Rossellini), the rivals ultimately learn to support and depend upon each other again. Because divorces happen, but some female friendships last forever.
I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016): Li Xuelian (Fan Bingbing) and her husband fake a divorce to get around a Chinese law that states a couple can only own one property. But when Xuelian’s partner treats it as a real divorce, re-marries, and attempts to ruin her reputation, Xuelian goes on an infuriating odyssey to clear her name. I Am Not Madame Bovary will get you fired up to keep fighting for what you deserve.
The First Wives Club (1996): This classic revenge comedy stars Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton as three old college friends whose husbands have all left them for younger women. Reunited after 30 years, the trio joins forces to hit their exes where it hurts most—in the wallet. As Ivana Trump says in her cameo, “Don’t get mad, get everything.”
Top Illustration by Sol Cotti
Screenshot of Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale