Hollywood's top matrimonial attorney shows what everybody needs to know when "I do" becomes "It's over"
So you’re thinking of getting a divorce and you don’t happen to be Britney Spears or Kim Kardashian? Laura A. Wasser, who represents the biggest names in Hollywood, explains how to protect your sanity, your family and your wallet in her new book, It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself (St. Martin’s Press, Oct. 1, 2013) – and now for PEOPLE readers.
During my 20 years of practicing family law it has become clear that there needs to be a change in the way divorcing couples approach the experience. My book is a guide to divorce for a new generation – at a time when spouses want to keep themselves and their children healthy and protected without spending their entire life savings in the process.
Here are six tips:
Throughout any relationship, I think communication is crucial. If you are in a serious relationship and living together or entering into a marriage contract, it is very important to discuss expectations prior to doing so. These expectations could include anything from how to raise your children, where you will live, what kind of vacations you like to take, and financial expectations. A prenuptial agreement is one way of leading into that conversation.
I am always astounded at the couples who come to me after being married for some period of time and reveal that they never had such a conversation whether or not a prenuptial agreement was in place. Conversations about money certainly are not sexy, but they should give each of you some clarity and enable you to enter into your marriage with a better understanding of each other and what is important. Work and home responsibilities, joint or separate accounts, budgets, etc. are all subjects which should be discussed.
In the words of Kenny Rogers, you gotta know when to fold and know when to hold ’em. One of the first chapters of my book is called “How Do You Know?” Generally, there are no lightning bolts or magical signs that tell you when it is time to get divorced. When the bad starts outweighing the good on a consistent basis, you may feel that taking the next step is appropriate. It is a very personal decision and most likely should be arrived upon with the help of some kind of counseling or support.
Treat others the way you would like to be treated yourself. Once you do embark upon the separation or divorce process, it is very important to remember three key things: Be kind, be reasonable, be brief.
Marriage is a contract. Dissolving that contract should be handled as an arm-length’s business transaction. Remember that this person will no longer be your spouse, but he or she will continue to be your co-parent, family member and perhaps business partner in certain assets or entities. Try not to let emotion, hurt, fear or anger dictate the circumstances of your discussions or negotiations.
4. Lawyering Up
If it turns out that you do need the assistance of an attorney to help you through the divorce process, here are some tips for choosing a divorce lawyer:
• In seeking a lawyer, you are looking for an advocate, an expert advisor on the law and on your rights and responsibilities, a strategist, a negotiator, and a litigator. But remember: No lawyer is as invested as you are in the outcome of the process, so it is necessary to become and stay involved in the process; that is also the best help you provide to your lawyer.
• To find a pool of lawyers from whom to choose, solicit referrals from other professionals you know or deal with – an accountant, banker or business leader. Check out Bar Association listings as well, and don’t neglect internet research.
• In a preliminary fact-finding consultation, determine the lawyer’s fees, terms and availability.
• An in-person meeting is worthwhile, even if you pay for it, to explore the lawyer’s record of achieving settlements via mediation/negotiation vs. via court proceedings, to get a feel for the lawyer’s manner, and to see if there is chemistry and a sense of comfort between you.
5. Think Outside the Box
There is probably no such thing as a good divorce, but clinging to an old idea of how relationships are unraveled can make a bad thing even worse. That there is a whole new way to dissolve your relationship – really a whole new choice of ways to do it. The evolution in family law has been accompanied by advances in mediation, collaborative practice, and self-representation, by the development of support and counseling practices, and by a substantive body of data on the impact of dissolution, direct and indirect, on all parties.
There is also a whole new cadre of divorce lawyers – like me – who know how to help their clients navigate this new territory and emerge from it strong in mind, spirit, and resources and eager to move on to the next stage of their lives.
6. The United Front
That you are and always will be a family is a legal fact, a social reality and a matter of biological inevitability. That is the point you need to make to your children not only when you sit down and tell them you are splitting up, but in every bit of follow-up. Forever, actually. This message needs to be branded onto the brains of all participants: This is us; we are a family, a unique and special configuration with a unique and special body of experience to our name and whatever our living arrangements, the configuration does not change.
Even if one or both of you lacked consideration or compassion during your marriage, this is the time to exhibit those qualities. Think like a family member, act as a united front and have your ex’s back when it comes to members of the extended family, your children, teachers and school administrators, etc. This will send a message to your children and to your ex and help you not only throughout the dissolution process, but beyond.