The fact that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce doesn’t make the process any easier. In fact, research shows divorce is often one of the most stressful events of a person’s life—even if the separation process is as amicable as possible. According to one large national study published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, both men and women feel the stress of marital loss long after the emotional wounds have healed. Other studies have shown that post-divorce stress can lead to everything from a weakened immune system and weight gain to depression and anxiety. Yet all is not lost if you and your partner decide that divorce is the answer, says Corrinne E. Cooke, a divorce attorney in Lawrenceville, N.J.
“Divorce has changed a lot since the days of the mother automatically getting custody of the kids,” says Cooke. “This shocks a lot of women who come to see me, which makes the process even more stressful.” To ease some of the emotional angst, stress and worry if you’ve decided that divorce is right for you, Cooke says these are the most important new rules you need to know.
Rule No. 1: Our laws are gender neutral.
Once upon a time not so long ago, judges made the assumption that the mother would be the most likely caregiver. Not so these days, says Cooke. “The tender years doctrine—a legal principle that presumed the mother should have custody during a child’s “tender” years, typically age 4 and under—has been done away with, and we’re more likely to see 50/50 parenting splits,” says Cooke. “This really surprises a lot of my clients and catches them off guard, with many women still expecting that they’ll get full custody and their ex will have the kids on alternate weekends.” What’s more, alimony and child support laws are gender neutral, which means if you’re the bigger earner, you’ll be the one paying your ex-husband child support. “If you don’t go into the divorce process knowing or expecting this, it can be really shocking—and make the process much worse,” says Cooke.
Rule No. 2: You don’t have to slog it out in court.
Waging your battle in court is one surefire way to make the divorce process more painful than it already is. Not only can litigation get ugly, but it can also be very spendy, with the average litigated divorce costing anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000. Plus, leaving the decisions about how often you’ll see your children and which holidays the kids will spend with whom to a judge is something to avoid if possible, says Cooke. “You don’t want a judge to determine your parenting time schedule, because you know best where your kids would be happiest spending Christmas Eve or Yom Kippur,” she says. “When you avoid divorce court, you have the power to be creative and to come up with a parenting arrangement that really fits your life. A judge won’t do that and doesn’t have the power to get creative.” If you’re able to reach your own agreement, Cooke says you’ll give yourselves the best shot at happily and productively co-parenting for years to come. Luckily, there are a couple great alternatives to court.
One that’s gaining a lot of popularity is mediation, where you and your ex decide how to divide assets and childcare together, with a mediator to help facilitate your conversations. At about 70 percent less costly than a litigated divorce, Cooke says it’s a great way to minimize the expenses associated with divorce, as well as set yourself up for successful co-parenting once the divorce is finalized. “Mediation is an opportunity to avoid the mud-slinging that can happen as a result of litigation,” she says. Consider it if there’s transparency with your partner and a good balance of power. However, if you suspect your partner is trying to hide assets from you, mediation probably isn’t your best option. “While the mediation process requires each party to retain separate divorce attorneys who’ll meet along with a mediator during the process, the attorneys and mediator are only there to facilitate conversations,” says Cooke. “They will not pipe in and fight your case.”
Another, newer way to get divorced in New Jersey that’s starting to gain even more momentum than mediation is something called collaborative divorce. It’s another alternate to litigation and is better than mediation when there’s an imbalance of power, because your attorney can pipe up during the mediation chats. Here’s how it works: First, you sign a participation agreement saying you won’t take your case to court. (If either party changes his or her mind and decides to litigate, both parties have to retain new attorneys, since anything that’s said during the series of meetings is confidential.) Then, you and your ex—as well as your lawyers—schedule meetings to hash out details like finances and custody. Like mediation, collaborative divorce is also about 70 percent less than a litigated divorce case. “It’s a great option for someone who doesn’t want court, but needs more than a mediator,” says Cooke.
Rule No. 3: You can (and should) shop for a lawyer you really love.
Considering divorce is so stressful, it pays to find a lawyer you trust, and Cooke says your first step is to find someone who specializes in family law. “A lot of attorneys are general, but with family law, there’s a new case law coming out every day,” she says. “You want someone who’s really going to stay on top of that.” Just as important is finding an attorney you like, and who you feel comfortable talking to about the more intimate details of your marriage. “I think personality is definitely a consideration when you’re looking for an attorney,” says Cooke. “You need to find someone who’ll get to know you and who’ll also give you an honest assessment of your situation.”
Good signs include an attorney who’s available to answer your questions and who doesn’t take too long to return your calls. Red flags include an attorney who lets his or her emotions fly or who doesn’t stay neutral when it comes to the kids. “What you want—and need—is an attorney who’s going to give you advice that’ll be best for your children, because they’re really the most important consideration in this process,” says Cooke.