What Would Your Divorce Epitaph Say?

Posted: November 5th, 2014 by

Lisa Shapson, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

As we approach the month in which we celebrate giving thanks, I started wondering what other holidays are celebrated in the month of November. A quick Internet search led me to a website that designates Nov. 2 as National Plan Your Epitaph Day. This “holiday” is based on the concept of what your gravestone would say, as a marker of your existence, if you could summarize your life into one phrase. For even more interesting information on the origin of National Plan Your Epitaph Day, visit here.

Essentially, everyone is encouraged to live a life worth remembering. These words of wisdom do not only apply over a lifetime, but also to people going through a divorce. Ask your client, “If you could write your divorce epitaph would it read, ‘I paid for my lawyer’s daughter to attend Princeton University’ or would it read, ‘I negotiated in a way with the least effect on my children and my wallet’?”

People going through the emotionally charged experience of a divorce sometimes let feelings drive their actions, often forgetting that their actions have consequences. Many lawyers refuse to practice family law for fear of the client who spends as much money fighting over personal property than he or she does over actual assets.

So, how can you, as an attorney, help to diffuse the emotions?

Step 1: Talk “big picture” to your client.

With complete information, an experienced family law attorney can, pretty accurately, estimate the outcome of divorce litigation—including the amount of alimony to be paid or received each month and for how long, and what the distribution of assets will look like—during the initial consultation. A good family law attorney is able to paint what the finish line will look like by the end of the initial consultation, as long as the client has provided accurate information and everything goes according to plan. If the client hires you, remind him or her all along the way to never stop thinking about the big picture. Do not advise or allow your client to act in a way that moves the case off track from getting to that finish line.

Step 2: Staying on track.

If your client’s emotional actions are derailing the case, it’s your job to get it back on track. Call your client out on every instance. If it’s a trip with the kids that wasn’t authorized by the other party, explain to your client that it is not appropriate to take the kids away for the weekend without telling the other parent. If it’s about dividing personal property, curb your client from removing something that the parties haven’t yet agreed or instruct them to put it back. If you hear children in the background when conversing with your client, end the call and tell him or her to call back when the children aren’t within earshot. Keep your clients on track, because the quicker they get to the finish line, the easier it is to co-parent children and/or the more money they’ll have in their pockets. More money in their pockets should result in referrals to put more money in yours.

Step 3: Pick up the phone.

When you are privileged enough to have an attorney on the other side, use that advantage to help the case along. Call the other attorney when either his or her client, or yours, is out of line to help diffuse the situation. It is a lot easier and takes less time to resolve a situation over the phone than it does via email, letter or motion practice. And, really, family court judges do not appreciate motions for petty, day-to-day, common-sense items that the lawyers, or even the parties themselves, can and should be able to resolve out of court.

Step 4: Remind clients about their divorce epitaph.

What is the goal here? Is it really to spend as much time and money fighting about furniture when they could just buy new furniture, or is the goal to divide assets fairly and move on? Most clients will say they prefer the latter, but act in a way indicating the former.

A while ago, I wrote about the many stages of divorce that clients go through and why it is important, as lawyers, for us to remember that this divorce, while our millionth, may be our client’s first—and to keep that in mind when dealing with the emotional client. Obviously, it is important for lawyers to put themselves in clients’ shoes, but it is equally important to be their advocate and to force them to stay on track even when their emotions are leading to a less desirable destination.

Going back to the initial consultation, when hypothesizing what the finish line will look like, ask your clients how they would like to get there. If only one line were to be written about the way they conducted themselves, what would they want their divorce epitaph to say? Presuming their choice is reasonable, I encourage you to tell them you intend to make them stick to it and then follow the above steps to help them get there.

I guarantee not one client will say that they want their divorce epitaph to read “I paid for my lawyer’s daughter to attend Princeton University”; but, trust me, some of them will act like they do. As for my own epitaph, I hope it will say, “Here lies a lawyer who made the crazy ride of divorce a whole lot smoother.”

Reprinted with permission from the NOVEMBER 5, 2014 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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