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5 Steps to a Clean Divorce

05/31/2013 09:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2013
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No one wants a messy divorce. (Well, almost no one -- years ago a client expressed to me the preference for divorce proceedings that were "as protracted and litigious as possible," but as no one else has ever, let's chalk that up to outlier's mentality.) Alas, even when both parties enter into a separation with the best intentions of reasonableness, it's difficult to keep a grip on decency amidst a maelstrom of emotional and financial insecurity. Over my years of practice, I've seen that clients who use the following guidelines have the best chance of achieving an amicable divorce.

1. Annex anger. Fury is to divorce like flatware is to marriage--almost unavoidable. Vent away when necessary to friends, therapists, support groups, who and whatever can handle the heat and help you work through it. Try, however, to keep your anger out of the bottom-line negotiating. As a check, ask yourself about the motivation behind proposed resolution terms--do you want your husband's grandmother's family brooch to punish him? If so, revisit the point. I've seen usually mild mannered and kind people default to "scorched earth" when they sense an attack--anger begets anger begets anger and the accumulation of it all explodes pretty quickly into messy.

2. Employ cost-benefit analysis. Yes, there might be agreement terms on the table subject to which you'd walk away with less money or family time or property than the likely judge's reward, but assess the deal for the big picture it offers. Are you getting less in support but more in assets? Is the "walk away" in exchange for something else? Your global assessment should take into account the literal cost of fighting -- attorney's fees -- as well as the figurative cost -- time and whether yielding on an issue your spouse cares deeply about will lead to your spouse doing the same with respect to one of your key issues.

3. Accept the element of sacrifice. The irony: After a divorce, no one but no one feels like they've "won" although most believe their exes do. Sacrifices are an unavoidable side effect of dividing one household into two and thus, judge a settlement agreement on whether it is acceptable to both sides, not fair. (Sadly, there is no fairness in parsing up property, friends, family time to which both of you were fully entitled before the divorce.) As a check, try and appreciate, or even enumerate, the sacrifices you're both making. A good lawyer should be able to help you with this--as well as understand why you're asking. Bottom line: in a divorce, at some point, everyone feels like he or she is losing out. The trick is ensuring you wind up with what you need to move on.

4. Ignore the committee. Yes, your friend/mother/ co-worker knows someone who wound up with a great support package and the facts of his/her case were not half as compelling as yours. Here's where the insecurity kicks in -- if someone else got a better deal, doesn't that mean you're caving too early or unprotected or being a sap or a sucker? Probably not. The committee rarely has full facts: you know how no one knows everything about a marriage except the two people in it? Divorces are similar that way (with the addition of lawyers). Rely on your friends for emotional support and venting per point one. Unless they have topical expertise, don't rely on them for legal strategy or advice.

5. Find a clean professional. All of these points lead to one truth: divorces are emotionally fraught and it's a real challenge (at the very least) to negotiate when you're feeling vulnerable and in transition. Retain a professional who understands your desire to keep things clean and agrees to help you try and achieve that goal (assuming your spouse and his or her lawyer are on the same page, of course -- the alternative can be dangerous). If your respective representatives see that maintaining a decent relationship with each other is in both of your long-term best interests, they can be invaluable in keeping you on track.

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