There may be times when a couple decides they will hire attorneys who will speak for them and guide them during the preparation of a written marital settlement agreement. One or both may have decided that mediation or a collaborative divorce process was not the path to choose. They may call this a cooperative process. Since they have not signed a Participation Agreement which is required in a collaborative divorce process, the attorneys need not withdraw if negotiations fail. Some may feel more protected if they can continue the relationship with their attorney. However, depending on the attorneys and the temperaments of all concerned, you may always be one step away from litigation. Some parties for that same reason may keep information to themselves where the disclosure could impact the outcome of their discussions. Intimidation or other tactics can often be used to win a point. Nonetheless, it is an option and if successful will allow a couple to proceed to court for the divorce without court events other than the hearing for dissolution of the marriage.
Before negotiating, you need to have information and make a plan. I suggest you start thinking about the life you want before you even see an attorney. That means that you need to know the financial status of you marriage-assets and liabilities. You will need to start thinking about what you will need in order to live as comfortably as possible given your finances. Unless additional income can be earned, you may need to look at what can be scaled back if necessary. In Monmouth County and Ocean County, it is difficult to live well in two households on the same income previously available for one household.
Once you have some preliminary research done, see an attorney. Find someone who who will work well with you. Seek the attorney who will be available for your calls and offer you suggestions on how to keep your costs controlled. Your attorney is not our therapist. Having a therapist during a divorce is a good investment to help you during your transition and perhaps offer insight as to your dealings with your spouse during your negotiations.
Write up a list of questions to discuss with your attorney. No question is too small to be asked.
Your attorney will set up meetings with your spouse and the other attorney. You should have a discussion with your attorney as to the matters that will be discussed at each meeting and how to prepare for them. Let your attorney know if you and your spouse have reached any tentative decisions. Building a full agreement may mean revisiting some of your discussions. You can’t put a roof on a house if the foundation is not strong enough.
Some tips at the table:
- Maintain your composure. You are only responsible for yourself.
- If you need a break, ask for one.
- Take notes so you can refresh your memory or ask more questions.
- Ask questions, politely. Make sure you understand what is being discussed.
- Avoid any accusations or derogatory remarks. It will only cost more to unravel the damage that such remarks can cause.
- Be patient. There is a lot to unravel. It cannot be done as quickly as you may think.
- Remember that an agreement will never take place if it is one-sided. You each need to consider the proposals of the other.
- You can always ask for time to think about a proposal before agreeing or offer a counterproposal.
- Weigh the options of a proposal relative to the uncertainty of a court decision.
Your final agreement will be pieced together from the discussions on all issues related to your marriage such as alimony, child support, parenting time, property and liability distribution. There are different layers to each of these categories. For instance with child support, you will also discuss such items as payment arrangements and modifications, life insurance, medical/drug expenses and other health care costs, extracurricular activities and college, etc.
Your goal is to reach a durable and complete agreement as to all matters involving spouses and children.
Once you and your spouse have discussed all issues and reached consensus, one of the attorneys will draft the document for all to review. It is imperative that you review each a paragraph carefully. Do not sign anything until all your questions are answered satisfactorily.
The standard for any agreement is “fair and equitable and entered into without coercion or duress”. Once you sign you are indicating that the standard has been met and it is very difficult to set that agreement aside.
I often recommend that you review the provisions with an accountant or a financial planner.
With the right attorneys and with the willingness of the parties to negotiate in good faith, this process can be cost effective and helpful to avoid a court proceeding.