The Seven most important Elements for a Successful Divorce
By: Elizabeth Wolt, Esq.
- Mediate: If at all possible, do not bring your divorce dispute to the courts. Of course, there are situations when there is no other choice, but if you can, avoid it. Simply stated, litigation does nothing for you or your spouse but cost you additional money and stress as well as a loss of your dignity. The process itself, by nature, is very adversarial. While most jurisdictions in Florida require mediation before setting a family law matter for trial, I can tell you that following an impassed mediation, or a partially resolved mediation, meaning a mediation where resolution of all issues and completion of a settlement agreement have not taken place, the attorney must change gears in order to fulfill their obligation to be your zealous advocate. If you are unrepresented, your stress level is even further elevated as you now must become your own zealous advocate. Alternative dispute resolution or Family Mediation gives you the opportunity to set aside your negative feelings about a spouse and focus on resolving the issues at a time when the power and control rests solely in your hands. Litigation strips that power away from you completely; and leaves a judge who is often overworked and does not have the benefit of the time a mediator has with you to get to know your specific issues and explore creative resolutions that will work for you and your family. This can result in an outcome that is a lot worse than what can and should be achieved in family mediation.
- Have knowledge of your finances. The most important facts to have before you mediate your divorce is to make sure you have knowledge of all your finances. Make sure you have filled out a financial affidavit completely and accurately. The Florida Supreme Court has sites where you can download financial affidavit forms with instructions. You will need a short form if your individual gross income is less than $50K per year. That form can be found at the following link: https://www.flcourts.org/content/download/403036/3456550/902b.pdf.
If your individual gross income is more than $50K per year you will need to fill out a long form. That form can be found at the following link:
It is of vital importance that you know what your expenses will be post-divorce and what marital assets & liabilities exist that will need to be divided. You may also need proof of the numbers your spouse is putting on their financial affidavit. In Florida, mandatory disclosure is just that “Mandatory” You need to insist upon having all the documentation required of rule 12.285 prior to mediation. That form can also be found online at: https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/345287/3052131/01-2344_rule.pdf
Often parties agree to waive mandatory disclosure if they can both sit down and share their documentation and agree on the numbers used. This provides some level of privacy as well. Before a final judgment can be entered in your case, you will either need to file a document advising the court you have complied with mandatory disclosure, or that you both have waived it. As the rule requires specifically citing all the documents provided, many couple elect to share these document in the mediation process, but to formally waive the requirement so that their Certificate of Compliance, which becomes a matter of public record, is not on file advising anyone who looks of your specific assets & liabilities and possibly account numbers. I recommend exchanging mandatory disclosure and financial affidavit as far in advance of your scheduled mediation as possible. A good mediator will insist that this has been completed before scheduling your mediation. I have seen many cases blow up during this process. I cannot stress the importance of being fair and honest in preparation of this document; and collecting support for both the expenses you are claiming you will have post-divorce and for the value of assets and liabilities you will be listing. Kelly blue book is a good source for valuing vehicles. Again, print the search and bring it with you. Having a realtor do a market analysis of a piece of real property that will be sold or otherwise divided is necessary as it will provide a neutral opinion of what like properties have actually sold for in the location where the property lies. I have found that most parties do not have an accurate opinion on what their real property is actually worth. If possible, contact all lenders and get payoff amounts for vehicles and any loans secured by properties. Ask your lenders ahead of time for information about taking a loan over that may now be a joint loan or in the other spouse’s name. If possible get pre-approvals for any asset you want to keep post-divorce where the title will need to be in your name alone and thus the other party will want the liability that goes with the asset to be out of their name.
If you have retirement accounts-is the balance marital, non-marital or a combination of the two? All assets acquired -no matter how they are titled- after the date you say “I do” until the date you separate, or file for divorce are marital assets. This is news to a lot of people who mistakenly believe that everything titled in their name alone leaves the divorce with them. Call your plan administrators and get a summary plan description; and advise of the date of marriage and separation or filing date and request a printout of the “marital value” of the plan. The same is true of brokerage accounts and all liabilities, which are often credit cards. Have a up to date printout of the liability that existed as of the date of separation or filing. The process of putting together your current financial picture and putting together an accounting of what your expenses will be post-dissolution is arguably the most stressful and onerous part of the divorce process, so give yourself enough time to do a thorough job and collect everything that you will need. In fact, I will not schedule a mediation unless and until both parties have completed this process. I cannot stress the importance of this exercise both practically and financially. While it may feel overwhelming to complete this task, especially if you are the spouse who did not have control over the finances, it will tell you that after it is completed your stress level will likely decline greatly. Knowledge is power. This process also takes away a lot of the unknowns of your future, but laying everything out on paper. Find out all you can about how your life works; and how you will want it to work post-divorce. These details will set you up for negotiations in a strong position of knowledge.
- Innovation: The next goal after you have decided to mediate your family law case is to think of innovative ideas, try to think outside the box when it comes to solutions. Divorce is one of the most stressful life events most people will ever go through. You have to recognize you are in trauma. A mediator with innovative ideas is crucial to finding resolutions that work for you. This is where I shine. I have settled many a family law matter by simply suggesting an alternative outcome and path to get there to a client. Using the standard Visitation and financial agreements may not always fit you as an individual, so thinking about what you ultimately wish to accomplish prior to your mediation is very helpful, both to the mediator and for yourself. You accomplish this goal by visualizing what your perfect life as an individual rather than as a couple will look like post-divorce. Validate your feelings and those of your children and family. Allow yourself some time to cry and to grieve for your marriage. When emotions are given their place, they are less likely to erupt at other times. I often advise clients to think of planning a trip to China, but instead their plane gets diverted to France. Instead of spending their entire trip being disappointed they are not in China, they could instead embrace that they are in France and explore all France has to offer.
- Organization is also key to a successful outcome in mediation; and mediation is key to a better outcome of your divorce. For example, if you are on a spouse’s health insurance, find out if Cobra is offered and the cost. If not, know what health insurance will cost you in the future as a single person, bring that information in writing from the source to your mediation. There are often trust issues with divorcing couples and bringing proof of costs that you will be looking to have covered is important for several reasons: 1) the other party recognizes it was important enough for you to do some work to get the information; and 2) you have the actual information needed.
- Emotional Support: Reach out for support. If your finances permit, get professional help with a counselor. Check with your religious organization, and online for local classes and support groups, such as single parent groups and divorce support groups. Sharing your burdens lessens them. There are also specialized financial persons that will help you set up and manage your finances post-divorce. Lean on friends and family but be wary of people, however well-meaning, that stir the pot. I recommend setting boundaries, such as we will not talk about the spouse, especially if children are involved. There are literally thousands of books out there that can be very helpful and offer good practical advice.
- Consult an attorney: Speak to a professional who is dedicated their practice to family law issues. Check websites and rating services such as Martindale-Hubbell to get a good attorney that will give you good advice. AVVOLegal.com is a good such resource as well as Martindale-Hubbell.com. You want an AV rated attorney; and/or a board certified Marital & family law Attorney. Make it clear you do not wish to litigate, if possible, but just want some information. Have a written list of your questions. Many attorney offer free consultations or will let you pay a one-time hourly rate to meet with you. A good family mediator will encourage you to get independent legal advice prior to mediation. Mediators are neutral persons that guide you to resolution of your issues. They should not be relied upon to offer legal advice; and in fact, are not permitted to provide legal advice beyond general information provided to both parties.
- Be Dignified in your actions: Ending your marriage with dignity will always serve you well. As mad as you may be, put your emotions on a back burner and deal with the issues in a civil and polite manner. I strongly believe that others treat us as we believe we should be treated. Nothing derails resolution more quickly than parties that disintegrate into blaming and name-calling. This doesn’t mean you have to give-in to demands or requests you feel are unfair, it simply means that rather than lashing out or shutting down you instead explain why the request is unfair. I have seen many spouses and attorney for that matter, act in a manner that they believe denotes strength and, in fact, does just the opposite. It is much easier to be nasty and shut down communication than it is to remain civil and devote your energy into problem solving. . In over 22 years of practice, the best divorces are those in which both parties and their attorneys, if they have retained them, are civil and polite. Know that this bump in life will soon be over and a year from now your life will look much different and you will be able to start looking forward to a positive future.
Biography: Elizabeth Wolt, Esquire Is an AV Preeminent rated Attorney by Martindale-Hubbell, a peer review rating process since 1887. She is certified pending with the Supreme Court of Florida as a Family Mediator. She is a member of the Harvard Negation Project; and she has been specifically trained to mediate Family law cases. She blogs regularly on Family law matters at www.woltlaw.com and is a frequent speaker.
She earned a law degree from University of Miami, Cum Laude (1997) and holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of South Florida earned Magna Cum Laude (1994). She has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1997, The Lee County Bar Assoc. since 1997 and the Collier County Bar Association since 2014. Actual Client reviews are posted at AVVOLegal.com, Martindale-Hubbell.com, and are posted at www.woltlaw.com.