Contrary to popular belief, divorce does not have to equate to disaster.
Will it be a major life transition?
Will it be stressful?
Any major life change typically is.
But does it have to be a dog fight?
As a divorce lawyer of 17+ years, I have helped countless couples get divorced amicably.
What’s the secret sauce? Each case is different, but there are several common threads (mediation being one of the main ones).
Read on to learn my top 5 tips on how to keep your divorce amicable.
1. Pursue Mediation
Under the right circumstances, a lot can be accomplished through cooperation and collaboration.
Mediation is one of the best tools for an amicable divorce. Why? It allows the couple to maintain control of the outcome of their divorce and negotiate the terms in a low stakes environment.
Mediation is often faster, less expensive, and much less stressful than litigation. Not to mention, your divorce is kept out of public record until the final judgment is filed.
What Does Mediation Look Like?
In mediation, the couple meets with an objective third party mediator (often several times) to establish child custody, alimony, property division, and other common areas of life that need to be separated during divorce.
The goal in mediation is to find solutions that are advantageous for BOTH parties (or, at least, that the burdens are roughly equalized). Because the mediator doesn’t represent just one person of the divorcing pair, they are able to navigate difficult conversations with objectivity. This often leads to less tension and more cooperation from both sides.
Mediation happens outside of the courtroom, but the results are still legally binding.
How to Prepare for Mediation
For mediation to be successful, you need to be prepared. Start by making a list of your “must haves” and your “negotiables”.
When you establish a list of your priorities, you don’t waste time fighting for something you don’t really care about.
You should also take time to think about what your ex-partner will want the most. This will help you know what you might be able to leverage.
No one wins in divorce. If you expect to walk away from your divorce with your house, full custody of your children, a healthy alimony payment, and every valuable possession from your marriage while your ex gets nothing but the cat you never liked, you will be sorely disappointed.
In mediation, each side will inevitably give up something in order to get what is most important to them.
You don’t have to agree with your ex on everything, but if you each go into mediation with the goal of being reasonable, it will go much smoother.
Sometimes you aren’t able to come to an agreement on every aspect of your divorce in mediation. This does not mean mediation was a waste. Mediation allows you to resolve everything you can outside of court (saving money) and then litigate what you cannot come to an agreement on.
2. Set and Maintain Boundaries
One of the easiest ways to prevent animosity during a divorce is to be clear about your expectations during the divorce process. When you set and maintain healthy boundaries, it will help to create clear expectations and make your divorce as painless as possible.
Unless you have a court order for no contact or a restraining order, it is likely that you will still need to communicate with your spouse during the divorce proceedings. Set yourself up for success and agree on some communication boundaries before issues arise.
Establish When You Will Talk
First, establish when you will and will not discuss things. For example, you might agree to not discuss anything about your divorce in front of your kids. Or you might agree that communication can only happen between 6:30 and 8:30 in the evening. Setting boundaries around the timing of discussions can help make the rest of your day less anxious and will help you be more amicable.
Decide on the Method of Communication
Deciding the method of communication is as important as the timing. Discuss the pros and cons of talking on the phone, sending emails or text messages, or only talking in person.
Establish How Long Should You Wait for a Response
Decide how long it is appropriate for the other person to wait for a response to a specific question. It is fair to assume that both individuals are busy and immediate responses won’t be possible, but it is also fair to set a reasonable limit on how long someone has to respond. You can also discuss how long one should wait without a response until official correspondence will be sent from either party’s lawyers.
Talk About What’s Off the Table
Decide what you will and will not tolerate during discussions. Let it be known that you won’t entertain conversations with yelling, demeaning language, or manipulation. If any of your communication boundaries are crossed, calmly re-state your boundary and say you will not continue the conversation until your boundaries are respected.
If communication is never civil, it is worth ceasing all communication and only talking through your lawyers.
Communicating With Your Children
Many parents worry about how to tell their kids about their divorce. Most child psychologists agree that both parents should tell their children together that they are getting divorced. This is best for your children and ensures that your children are getting a message that you agreed upon.
Set parameters on what you and your ex are allowed to discuss about the divorce with your children and what is off limits. And most importantly, agree to refrain from bad mouthing each other in front of your children (or letting others do so).
Different Boundaries to Consider
Couples will also have different daily lives that will require specific boundaries. Think about your life and what boundaries you will need to make you more likely to be amicable during your divorce.
Some boundaries to consider discussing with your ex:
- How will you handle your mutual friends?
- How will you handle bills for your combined assets until they are separated?
- If your professional lives overlap how will you handle work?
- Are there areas of life other than at home that you see each other often that you want to make a plan for, such as the gym or library?
- Do you want your spouse to cease communication with your family?
3. Focus on Coparenting
One of the most motivating reasons to keep a divorce amicable is for your children. If you both can focus on the well being of your children and on being a good co-parent, you are more likely to have a contention-free divorce.
It is important to set your partner up for success as a parent. Pass along notes from school about important events or deadlines, make sure your children have weather-appropriate clothing when they leave your house to go to your ex’s, and attempt to have similar parenting styles and schedules so one parent doesn’t have to do all the discipline every time it is their turn for custody. Keep in mind that parental roles sometimes change after divorce; just because one parent may have done more of the day-to-day child rearing does not mean it will stay that way once the parents are no longer living together.
Your children didn’t fall out of love with your ex, you did. Attempt to speak positively, or at least neutrally about your ex-partner when you are talking about them with your children.
Most importantly, follow all custody agreements during and after your divorce is settled. This not only helps your children but also makes it more likely that you will be able to retain partial or full custody of your children when your divorce is finalized. Defying court orders surrounding custody can get your parenting privileges permanently limited.
4. Organize Your Finances
Money…one of the most tension filled aspects of a divorce. How can you minimize this tension? Cooperate with your spouse and get your financial documentation in order.
When you divorce, you will need to prepare your finances. It can take some time to gather all that will be needed to equitably divide your assets, assign child support, and assess the need for alimony. If you both have everything ready to go when you file for divorce, or shortly after, things will be much less stressful.
All of your joint accounts will need to be assessed as part of your divorce proceedings. It is important that you know all of your passwords, have account numbers, and have a list of your assets and liabilities.
You will need tangible statements for bank accounts, investment portfolios, retirement accounts, loans, and any other financial account. If you do not have access to these things, figure out how to access them and start saving information in easy-to-find files on your computer. If you can’t access your account and your spouse is refusing to give you access, discuss the next steps with your lawyer.
Be prepared to dissolve joint accounts if advised to by your lawyer. This means you will want to have a personal bank account and debit and credit cards in your name only so you aren’t financially stranded if your joint accounts are closed. You will also want to ensure that any direct deposits from work or government assistance are changed to your personal account if they have previously been deposited into a joint account.
Whether you open your own accounts because of your divorce or if you have had them for a long time, you will need to provide the same materials from your personal accounts that you did from your joint accounts.
A quick list of financial documents you will need are:
- Pay stubs
- Independent bank account statements
- Retirement account statements
- Independent stocks or investments statements
- A list of assets or debts that are only in your name
Some of the most tedious things you will do for your divorce will be gathering the necessary financial documents. If you get a jump start, cooperate with your spouse, and don’t drag your feet, you will dodge a lot of potential arguments.
5. Safeguard Your Mental Health
Pain, anger, fear, or other uncomfortable emotions are normal emotions to experience even in a healthy divorce. To help yourself prepare for the onslaught of hard emotions you will feel, brainstorm ways you can maintain your mental health during your divorce. Positive mental health will help you be in a mental state to be straightforward, but polite when interacting with your ex.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful during and after a divorce as you process the various emotions that surround this big life transition. Seeking professional mental health help will help you in many ways during a divorce and beyond.
Self care is essential during a divorce, especially if you are a parent. Set aside time to take care of yourself. Remember, you can’t give from an empty tank. You will be a better parent to your kids when you prioritize your well-being.
IMPORTANT: Make Your Agreement Legally Binding
Even if you divorce amicably, never settle for a verbal agreement. Make everything you agree to official and in writing. You might think that you are avoiding contention by not involving lawyers, mediators, or a courtroom, but you are actually only delaying the arguments for the future.
Whether it is a child custody agreement, child support and alimony amounts, property and asset division, debt division, or even pet custody, get your agreement signed and in writing.
Remember, divorce does not have to ruin your life. And it does not have to be a bloodbath. If you and your spouse take the necessary steps, an amicable divorce is possible.
Author: Stephen L. Cawelti is a board certified family law attorney who has specialized in child custody since 2006 in California. He was voted by Pasadena Magazine as one of the “Top Family Law Attorneys” in LA for 7 years in a row and named a “Rising Star” by SuperLawyers.