By Robert M. Going, Jr., Attorney
When we think of divorce, we often picture a nasty, expensive, adversarial affair where couples fight in court over everything from the custody of the children to the tiniest of possessions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a Lancaster divorce attorney, I see many couples opt instead for an amicable divorce.
An amicable divorce is an uncontested divorce, where both parties agree the marriage is over and work to settle issues of child custody and support, division of assets, and spousal support without needing a judge to make those decisions. It doesn’t mean the splitting spouses will end up as best friends or that they won’t have disagreements. It does mean they will commit to cooperating and working together to resolve the important issues related to divorce.
Perhaps most important, amicable divorces tend to take less of an emotional and financial toll on spouses and their families. Here are nine ways couples can work toward a more amicable split:
Hire a Lancaster County Divorce Lawyer Who Can Approach a Divorce Amicably
Filing for divorce is stressful enough without trying to handle all the details alone. While it is important for someone facing divorce to hire a lawyer who will protect their interests, choosing a lawyer who is ready to go on the attack is likely to elicit a similar response from a spouse’s attorney, resulting in contentious, drawn-out, and more expensive divorce proceedings that could end up in court.
Choosing a seasoned Lancaster divorce lawyer who can offer calm, professional support and advice can help relieve a stressful situation. Even in an amicable divorce, it is important for clients to have someone to guide them through the separation and divorce process, manage deadlines, help draw up a custody agreement, protect their assets, and ensure they receive the child support and alimony they deserve.
Get Legal Advice Before You Start Negotiating
Just because a divorce is amicable doesn’t mean it won’t require negotiations. Couples still need to resolve important issues like division of property, including real estate and retirement accounts; alimony and spousal support; and, of course, child support and child custody. Pennsylvania has laws regarding all of these issues, and a Lancaster divorce lawyer who has knowledge of Pennsylvania divorce laws can offer the necessary guidance. Your lawyer can ensure that a negotiated settlement is legal, fair, and in the best interests of all involved. Without the advice of a lawyer, couples may not think to consider things like life insurance policies, credit card debt, and college savings plans.
An experienced Lancaster County divorce attorney will make sure both parties understand their rights and obligations under the law and that they address all the complex issues necessary in their negotiations, from child custody schedules to the duration of alimony payments. The lawyer will also put all the results of those negotiations into a legally binding and acceptable form. While Pennsylvania does not require couples to hire a lawyer, a do-it-yourself divorce can lead to irreversible mistakes.
Commit to Full Financial Disclosure
Fighting over who gets what can be one of the most contentious aspects of a divorce, but a full account of financial assets is one of the most important aspects of the divorce process. An accurate picture of marital finances is necessary not only for an equitable distribution of assets but also for determining whether to award spousal and child support. For couples committed to divorcing amicably, open and honest communication about property, assets, and debt, as well as full disclosure of all financial information, will ensure a fair outcome.
When a spouse refuses to turn over important financial documents or answer questions, it can cause suspicion and doubt that can severely hamper the amicable negotiation process. An experienced Lancaster divorce lawyer can help gather important financial and legal documentation, including tax returns, proof of current income, bank statements, pension, and retirement account statements, documentation for loans and regular bills, detailed employer benefit statements, investments, mortgage documentation, credit card statements, and a detailed monthly budget.
Create a Separation Agreement
Couples seeking an amicable divorce may think the process will be quick and simple, or that a verbal agreement will be sufficient, but often a couple’s situation is more complex than they realize and every new issue that comes up can cause stress and disagreement. That’s where a separation agreement comes in.
A separation agreement is a legally binding contract that outlines the rights and responsibilities of both spouses. It outlines issues such as who is responsible for debts like mortgages, credit card bills, and student loans and how they will be paid. It resolves tax details, such as who will claim the dependency exemptions and who will receive any tax refund. Perhaps most importantly, a separation agreement defines how the couple will make decisions regarding their children, how the children will divide their time between both parents, and who is responsible for child support.
A Lancaster County divorce lawyer can help couples draw up a mutually acceptable separation agreement that offers a roadmap for moving forward without stress or uncertainty.
Create a Preliminary Custody Agreement
The best way for couples to keep child custody proceedings amicable is to keep the focus off themselves and on the best interests of their children. In most situations, the best interest of the child is to have a quality relationship with both parents.
Keeping that in mind, parents should be flexible, sensitive to their children’s needs, and willing to compromise, understanding that the quality of their time with the children is more important than the quantity. A child custody agreement outlines which parent will have primary physical and legal custody of the children and whether custody will be split equally. If it is not, the agreement also will map out a visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent.
Divorce is particularly stressful for children, which is why it is important to think through shared custody arrangements early, even before the couple is no longer living together. An experienced Lancaster County divorce attorney can serve as a mediator to help negotiate and finalize a custody agreement that is fair to both parties and serves the best interests of the children. As a mediator, a Lancaster divorce lawyer also can diffuse emotional reactions and offer advice on the best options for managing shared custody and child support.
Try to Keep Realistic Expectations
No matter how amicable the situation, divorce is rarely quick and painless and it rarely results in a clear winner. If it does, then it probably wasn’t very amicable to begin with. Spouses who enter divorce proceedings with realistic expectations are less likely to get caught up in stressful, retaliatory situations that complicate the process.
Neither spouse should expect to get everything they want. Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state, meaning assets are distributed according to what is fair, which is not necessarily 50-50. Factors such as skills, income, economic circumstances, and custody arrangements all figure into the equation. Neither spouse should expect to have as much time with their child as they want. Generally, courts do not consider sole custody in the best interests of the child.
Don’t Play the Blame Game
It’s natural to have feelings of anger and resentment during a divorce. Often, both parties had shortcomings, failures, or wrongdoings that contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. However, couples who wish to divorce amicably will gain nothing from the blame game. Assigning blame can escalate an already stressful situation, spark feelings of revenge and retaliation, and result in a more protracted and costly divorce.
Couples should also remember that while the failure of their marriage is difficult for both of them, it is far more difficult for their children. When both parents accept responsibility for the breakup of the marriage, it frees children from hearing parents badmouth one another and feeling that they have to choose sides. Blame is not necessary to reach a fair settlement. Viewing divorce as a business deal, rather than a competition or a way to exact revenge, will make the process faster, cheaper, and less stressful.
Don’t Assume It Will Be Easy
Filing for divorce is not an easy decision and the divorce process is rarely straightforward. In addition to the emotional toll of a broken marriage and the prospect of a hectic life that now includes shared custody and visitation schedules, there are a host of other considerations to complicate the process, even when negotiations are relatively smooth. There may be a loss of medical benefits and a need for new health care options. Divorced couples will also need to change beneficiaries on retirement accounts and pensions. It’s also smart to create new bank accounts and redirect mail.
Divorce can be lonely, stressful, and overwhelming. It helps to have a support network, whether it’s friends and family, a support group, or even a professional therapist. A reliable Lancaster County divorce attorney can be another part of that support network, to help shoulder some of the burden with compassion.
Contact a Lancaster Divorce Attorney for More Information
The Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster cannot promise a painless divorce, but we can help clients handle all legal and filing considerations and negotiate custody and support agreements that protect their interests. Contact us today for more information.
Want to read more about divorce? Check out these articles from Going and Plank.