Dealing with a divorce is hard, and the process can be emotionally draining. However, having a strong support system in place can make things significantly easier to navigate. In my experience, there are three key pillars that, when combined, can create an effective support network:
- legal support
- emotional support
- financial support
In this article, I want to discuss each of these support systems and some considerations when building your own team. In doing so, I encourage you to jump ahead to the section of this article that feels most relevant for where you are at today. Hopefully, these ideas help you or someone you know who is navigating the divorce process.
Divorce is, first and foremost, a legal proceeding, so effective legal representation is a must. Your divorce attorney should be the quarterback of your team: directing the other team members, telling them what to do and when, and really driving the entire process.
Think of the divorce process like building a house: your attorney is the foundation, and you don’t want to rush into a decision or feel pressured to settle on someone who may not be the right fit. And while the right attorney is worth their weight in gold, it might take some time to identify the best fit for you. In my case, I worked with two different attorneys before finding the right one — so the third time really was the charm.
How can we define the “right fit” when it comes to legal counsel? Well, that can be challenging, but in my opinion, it boils down to three key considerations:
- You and the attorney have a compatible communication style.
- They are available to be engaged and work at the pace you need them to.
- The attorney specializes in the type of divorce you will be going through.
Compatible communication styles
To get a sense of their communication style, it’s important that you take the time to interview them, preferably in person. Do you feel comfortable when meeting with them? Do they ask the right questions, and do they really listen to your answers? Do they have an appropriate amount of empathy?
Compatible communication styles also apply to the frequency of communications. Maybe you need a lot of support throughout the process, or maybe you just want to communicate your wishes, step back, and let them do their job. There’s no right or wrong way to work with a divorce attorney — what matters is that it’s right for you.
Lastly, keep in mind that just because a friend referred an attorney doesn’t mean that attorney is the best fit for you. Referrals are helpful and can be a very good starting point, but make sure to do your own due diligence.
Availability to work at your pace
Another more tactical consideration is their availability: what is their current workload, and do they have the time and energy to focus on your needs? The first attorney I met with wasn’t going to be able to start my case for several weeks, but I needed someone with more near-term availability. I kept looking and was glad that I did.
Litigation, mediation, or collaboration?
Finally, it’s important that your attorney specializes in the type of divorce you will be working through. Divorce proceedings typically fall into one of three categories: litigated, mediated, or collaborative, and most divorce attorneys typically prefer one type of proceeding.
Litigated divorces are the most expensive, time-consuming, and difficult types of divorce to navigate. A litigated divorce ultimately leaves your settlement up to a court or a judge: it’s not preferable, but in some cases, it may be the only way forward. If this is the case for your divorce, hiring an attorney who is a skilled litigator will be essential.
During mediation, you and your spouse — with or without your attorneys — meet with a neutral, third-party facilitator whose job is to help the two of you make all the decisions needed to separate your life. The goal of the mediation process is to reach an amicable agreement.
The mediator (typically an attorney who is trained in mediation) can help identify legal concerns and ensure they are addressed. Mediation is generally preferred over litigation since it tends to be faster, more flexible, and cheaper for both parties.
A collaborative divorce works similarly to a mediated divorce, with one key difference: there is no mediator. Instead, you and your spouse each retain your own attorneys, both of whom must be trained in collaborative divorce proceedings. These attorneys assemble a team to help work through the various aspects of the divorce. The team may include a neutral financial planner, a child or parenting specialist, a divorce coach/therapist, and any other professional whose services would be beneficial in reaching an appropriate agreement.
The goal of this process is for you, your ex-spouse, the attorneys, and your respective teams to work together to find the best possible resolution outside of a courtroom. Collaborative divorce requires everyone involved to sign an agreement committing to this process, and if it ends up not working, you will need to start over from step one and build a whole new team.
A good emotional support system consists of three main parts: friends and family, a mental health professional, and divorce support groups.
Friends and family
During a divorce, it is critical that you have emotionally healthy people surrounding you. Your family members and friends love you and mean well, but each has their own opinion about your divorce. For all these reasons, friends and family may actually be the most difficult part of your team to manage.
Consider focusing your time on the people who bring positive energy and solutions. Likewise, consider staying away from people who dwell on the problem, focus on your ex, create negative energy, or offer unhelpful solutions.
Your divorce mission statement (item #1 in my previous article) can serve as a good litmus test for whether a friend or family member is a good fit for your emotional support system. Ask yourself: does this person support my goals for the divorce, or are they detracting or distracting me from my goals and bringing me down? If they aren’t helping you reach your goals, it may be best to limit the time and emotional energy you expend on that person until your divorce is in the rearview mirror.
Mental health professionals
It is common for people in divorce proceedings to look to their lawyer as a source of emotional support. However, it’s important to realize that a lawyer and a therapist (or coach) have two fundamentally different skill sets, at two very different price points.
What’s the difference between a therapist and a coach? A therapist will typically help you process what’s happened in the past, while a coach is more skilled at helping you move forward. This may be the same person, or it may be two different people, but you will likely need both perspectives during the divorce process. In my experience, it was helpful to have these roles be filled by two separate people.
A good therapist or coach has experience in helping people navigate the stress, anxiety, and anger that often accompanies divorce. Not only are they trained to listen to your concerns, but they are also able to provide you with the right emotional tools to help you cope during an emotionally challenging period. In my experience and those of the clients I have helped navigate divorce, mental health support during a divorce can help you process the divorce better, make clearer decisions, and keep sight of the end goal.
As I explained in item #3 of my last article, it’s best to view your divorce as a business transaction, which means keeping emotions to a minimum wherever possible. So, while mental health professionals might feel like an added expense, they play a key role on your team: they will help you separate the “business” and emotional aspects of the process, which allows you to focus on each aspect separately.
Divorce support groups
If your family and friends aren’t a healthy support system for you, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Just because you can’t rely on family and friends for emotional support doesn’t mean you have to shoulder this burden by yourself. Divorce support groups can be a safe place where you can share with other people going through similar situations.
The third pillar of your support system is your financial support team. Although your lawyer will be the quarterback of the overall divorce process, they should work closely with your financial team to ensure the numbers and assumptions within the settlement are equitable and sufficient to support your long-term financial goals and objectives.
Your financial team will help you answer some of the more complex financial questions: Does the payout structure make sense? What are the tax implications? What are the estate planning implications? Does the settlement support your financial goals and lifestyle after divorce?
An accountant will help ensure that you understand the tax implications of the settlement, alimony, and child support. On a more tactical level, the accountant will also help you transition from married filing jointly to a single or head of household filer for your tax return.
A good financial team will also include a wealth advisor who can help ensure your long-term financial goals are supported by the divorce settlement and help you really understand the practical financial implications of your divorce settlement. More importantly, an advisor can help ensure that the implementation of the Marital Settlement Agreement is properly handled when the divorce is finalized.
Once the divorce proceedings are finalized, it will also be important to have a professional on your team who can help you re-allocate financial resources and prudently invest the settlement proceeds to ensure that the funds last as long as you need them to.
Additionally, your estate, insurance, and tax planning strategies will all need to be reevaluated, and an effective wealth advisor can help you take a strategic approach to developing your new financial plan.
If you are looking for a trusted wealth advisor to help you navigate the divorce process or create and implement your new financial plan, Strategic Wealth Partners would be honored to help. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and get the conversation started.