Two hours after Bob told me he was leaving our marriage, the numbness I felt disappeared and the pain began. One of the last things Bob had told me before going to work that day was that he would attend marriage counseling but "Not if you contact a lawyer."After a long talk with my parents, who urged me to seek legal counsel, I started calling friends.
I first talked to a friend who had been an attorney. She advised me to take out as much money as I could from our joint account, max out my credit cards, and open a new account. I ended the call horrified, knowing such actions would set Bob off. My second call resulted in the name and number of a divorce attorney. He'd been voted Richmond's best two years in a row. I called his office and made an appointment to see him the following week.
During my free one hour, this man gave me much sound advice, but I left feeling a sense of disquiet. His attitude had been cold and unwelcoming. Oh, he'd been friendly enough at the start, but when he sized up our meager assets, his friendliness disappeared. We were clearly not worth his time or effort. Coldly he told me my marriage was over. My husband had left the house, rented a new apartment, and taken half the furniture. "Those are not the actions of a man intending to come back." He also told me to take advantage of Bob's guilty feelings and to negotiate quickly and cleanly for 50% of the assets.
I was still in a state of disbelief. Combined with my hope of saving my marriage and my immediate dislike of this cold man, I decided to look for representation elsewhere. Besides, I calculated that his services would be expensive, and I wanted to preserve as much money as I could.
The second divorce attorney I consulted was more welcoming and seemed sincerely interested in me as a person. Unlike the first attorney, she encouraged me to talk about my feelings and emotions. At the end of an hour, she handed me 10 blank sheets of paper and gave me instructions to list every asset Bob and I had. She was going to go after him with all her cannons standing at the ready.
"But all I want is 50% and a fair share," I told her, bewildered. "I still love and respect my husband. I don't want to fight him for every nickel and dime." She, too, gave me sound advice, cautioning me not to date while we were dividing our possessions. But I felt that her position was too adversarial. Her parting words to me were that from her experience he would be hiding his assets from me and that I would never get my fair share. (It turned out she was right. Bob did indeed hide the money he'd inherited from his mother's estate, and he temporarily stopped his consulting business, which represented 50% of his income).
A good friend of mine, a defense lawyer, told me of the minefields to look out for as Bob and I hammered out our financial agreement. My friend had recently represented a client in a divorce. He was her second lawyer. Her first lawyer had eaten up $100,000 in legal fees in two years. Both sides had hunkered down and wouldn't give an inch. In fact, they had been fighting over a $5,000 item which prevented them from settling. Those legal fees represented her pension, investments, and college money for the kids. Her ex had spent a similar amount on lawyer's fees as well. This couple had spent $200,000 in two years and weren't even divorced!
I learned from that lesson. Bob and I consulted a mediator who helped to arbitrate our financial agreement. Even as my heart was breaking, I fought hard for my security. Bob wanted to pay to send me to graduate school and give me 5 years of alimony, making sure I would spend the money wisely. Somehow he had gotten it in his head (despite his buying a boat, $5,000 bike, and a motorcycle, that I was extravagant.) I held out for 50% of our divided assets, no more and no less. I did not want Bob to hold any sway over me in any way after the divorce. If he was so foolish as to let me go, then I wanted a clean break.
I learned to read legal mumbo jumbo, and although one or two things escaped me, we hammered out an agreement that I still find acceptable to this day. Towards the end of the process, both Bob and I consulted different attorneys to write up our divorce document. Each time I made a correction, the document had to be retyped (and I made quite a few corrections.) A lawyer I hired for the occasion read over the final settlement and made a few suggestions.
In rereading the final document he had approved, I caught a few more mistakes and missing items. I recall this lawyer saying to me, "You did well for yourself. Most women wouldn't have gotten half of what you're getting."
Even in my miserable state, I was haughty. "I'm not most women," I answered, feeling that I got exactly what I deserved. My point is this (and I've made it several times in this blog): shop around for a lawyer. If you don't like the first one you meet, keep looking. Cut your losses early and find one that is sympathetic towards the way you want to handle your case. Yes, you'll need legal advice, but in a "friendly" divorce, a mediator might be the best solution.
As you negotiate and pour over the list of your possessions, let go of the picky things. If there had been children involved, I would have definitely consulted a lawyer from the start, but I found that a mediator was the best solution for me. You aren't necessarily saving money, but you are saving yourself a lot of grief and anger. When the last paper was signed and initialed, I was ready to let Bob go. I'd found a full time job with benefits and had been paying the bills for 11 months. One nagging doubt had been silenced: I knew I could go it alone.
In the end, Bob and I had achieved what my lawyer friend said we would feel: That the other spouse had walked away with a slightly better deal.
Mediation: Why Consider Mediation?
Directory of Divorce Mediators