Should I talk to a lawyer before negotiating with my spouse for my divorce?
If the stakes are high enough, you should seek an assessment from a reliable divorce lawyer before beginning negotiations with your spouse. When are the stakes “high enough?”
A good rule of thumb is: if there’s a significant amount of money or custody or parenting time with your children on the line in your divorce, you should obtain an assessment from a reliable attorney before having a discussion with your spouse about how you want resolve those issues.
What are the stakes in your case? On the “low risk” end, if you don’t have any children, have been married only under six months, never lived together before the marriage, and don’t own any property together, you likely don’t need an assessment. This is an easy uncontested divorce: you both go your separate ways with what you have and/or brought into the marriage.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve been married a long time, have significant assets (home, retirement, cash, etc.), have children, and there’s a significant disparity in your incomes, you’re taking on significant risk in negotiating without professional guidance.
You may be thinking, “What’s the harm if I try to hash out some issues ASAP with my spouse? Then, if things aren’t going well, I’ll contact an attorney.”
The first problem is a psychological theory called “loss aversion.” This is the principle that people would rather avoid losses than acquire an equivalent gain. In other words, individuals will have much greater difficulty giving up $10,000 that they thought they were getting (because you said so before you figured out it’s a bad idea) than simply foregoing the pursuit of that amount. Once you give something up, good luck trying to “get it back” without creating a mess.
Also, along the same lines, if you’re giving up too much from the outset, you may be unnecessarily giving up leverage. If you’re reasonable, but aim a little higher than your target outcome at the outset, you’re more likely to walk away with a fair deal. Start negotiations giving up the farm, and you’re more likely to walk away with no shirt on your back as well.
With little knowledge of how divorce courts operate and no reliable reference points for your particular circumstances, it’s difficult to negotiate effectively. Which is why a reliable assessment in advance increases the odds that you’ll be approaching negotiations from a position of strength.
People negotiate quickly and recklessly in divorce for a number of reasons. One reason is that they want to resolve the case as quickly as possible. Which is understandable. Who wants to deal with divorce longer than necessary? However, how much are you willing to compromise yourself financially or in your relationship with your children to resolve your case quickly?
Another reason people give up too much to early is guilt. They may feel they’re responsible for the divorce: not around enough during the marriage, infidelity, or other reasons. But you’re human, and humans make mistakes. Not to mention, it’s rarely only one person’s fault that a marriage doesn’t work out. Guilt is normal. Recognize it and deal with it (maybe with counseling), but don’t let it kill you financially or in your relationship with your children in divorce.
The bottom line is that if there’s a decent amount of money or custody or parenting time with your children on the line, you’re better off investing in learning about your rights before engaging in negotiations with your spouse. Give up too much to quickly and you’re digging yourself out of a hole the rest of the way.