The Divorce Continuum

or How to Get Divorced Without Losing Your Mind

It surprises people to learn that filing for divorce is a relatively easy and inexpensive process in North Carolina.  Necessary paperwork can be obtained online or through the Clerk of Court’s office.  The $225 filing fee can be waived for those who can’t afford it.  But how often do you hear someone say that a divorce was cheap and easy? 

The reason for this is that when you end a long-term relationship, emotions run high as you face countless significant decisions.  You need to decide what to do about your assets (your home, money, retirement, investments, and personal items), your debt and your children if you have them.  You must make these big choices with far-reaching implications right when your life is turned upside down.   You may be frightened, depressed, angry or apathetic, making it difficult to decide on an ice cream flavor no less a place to live.

In a panic, many people jump in to this sea of decisions blindly.  Grasping for support, they seek advice from friends, colleagues, hairdressers or drinking buddies.  Loaded with war stories, a randomly chosen article or two from the Internet and a catalog of images from television and tabloids, they gear up for the big fight. 

I encourage everyone to take a deep breath and approach this situation logically.  As with any endeavor, you are probably going to want to start with the easiest path first and work your way up the ladder of options as necessity demands.

This chart outlines a few points along this trajectory. 

DIY

Beginning on the left, you can consider a DIY divorce in which you and your partner or spouse sit down together at the proverbial kitchen table and make the myriad of choices together, deciding the fairest split for assets and liabilities and a best option for your children.  If all is calm between you two and you have simple considerations, you may be able to write up a set of agreements.  If you have no children, aren’t discussing alimony and have few assets, you may even be able to file it yourself.

 DIY Plus

If you’re generally in agreement but your situation is a bit more complex, you probably want to have an attorney look it over to make sure you didn’t overlook anything significant.  Find a collaborative attorney or get a recommendation for one who supports your collaborative approach.  It’s important to note that one lawyer can’t represent two opposing parties so it’s advisable for each person to hire his or her own attorney to review any document you develop.

Mediated

If your kitchen table discussion devolves into high-volume mudslinging, you may want a mediator to facilitate the conversation.  A mediator not only allows you both to talk openly in a safe environment, but she will likely provide a framework for what you will want to include in a comprehensive separation agreement.  If expertise is needed, such as a real estate valuation, both parties can agree on who to use for those services in mediation so there is just one set of figures to look at.  A good mediator won’t make the decisions for you, but will ask questions to test the soundness of your choices and check to ensure that you both opt in to those decisions without feeling pressured.  Mediators don’t give legal advice or represent either party as an attorney, but they can write up agreements to make it easy for an attorney to develop them into a legally binding document. 

Two Advocates and Upward

Most people enter this continuum mid-way, at the point when the cost begins to incline sharply.  Initiating the divorce process with two separate attorneys makes sense for cases in which one person doesn’t feel capable of advocating for his or herself, but for everyone else, it may be more artillery than necessary.  Best-case scenario, both parties pay their attorney to tell them what they’re entitled to, write that up, respond to emails and phone calls, negotiate it with the other attorney and create a final document.  Worst case scenario, that doesn’t result in an agreement so each also pays for discovery, depositions, experts, evaluations, and ultimately court fees.  Along the way, you lose control of the outcome, putting the final decision in the hands of a judge. 

In addition to the financial impact, there are emotional, relational, and psychological differences.  When two attorneys go head-to-head representing their clients, they operate from the law’s polarizing perspective of win/lose, right/wrong, and legal/illegal.  A kitchen table or mediated agreement focuses on what is fair moving forward, rather than who did what to whom.  It’s easy to imagine how those different approaches play out as two parents move forward in co-parenting after divorce. 

When we’re in distress and feel someone has wronged us, we all want our day in court.  Work through those feelings with a friend or therapist, but wait to call an attorney until you need legal advice.