1. Over 95% of all divorce cases settle before they go to trial, so try mediation rather than taking an adversarial position. And if mediation's not for you, there are other options like collaborative divorce and even arbitration.
2. Before you file for divorce, think about your goals for the ultimate outcome of your case. You can only make good decisions in choosing how to file, whether or not to try mediation or collaborative law, how to select an attorney, and how to proceed if you know where you want to end up when it's all over.
3. Set your intentions with a Divorce Mission Statement. Know who you want to be when your divorce is over. If your top priority is your children, make sure that your decisions and actions are really in their best interests, not just yours.
4. If you choose to represent yourself, get enough information about how to behave in court and what forms you need in order to do it well. Consider hiring a lawyer by the hour to consult with you about special issues and to review your settlement (the technical name for this is Unbundled Legal Services). If you cannot afford a lawyer, your local Bar association will have a lawyer referral program or be able to refer you to a Legal Aid Society who may be able to help.
5. Only you can make the best decisions that will determine your future. Do your homework, get information, speak to level-headed friends and qualified professionals (we find accountants and financial planners, and even therapists, are often as much or more helpful than a lawyer), and use self-reflection to decide what's best for you. Don't jump to conclusions or rush to a decision. You took years getting to this place, so don't expect to solve everything in 2 minutes. A reasonable, solid, working divorce settlement takes time to negotiate and gel. You're living with the decisions you make, but your lawyer, your accountant, the judge, and your best friend are not.
6. If the amount of money you're fighting about won't matter in 5 years, it probably doesn't matter now, so let go of it. Sure, it's more money than you'd leave for a tip, but will it really change your life?
7. Be organized. Use your professional fees wisely. Address your legal questions to your lawyer, and your psychological questions to a counselor or therapist. Be organized. Write your questions down....then write down the professional's answers. You may want to keep a notebook so your papers stay organized and in one place. If you're too overwhelmed to get organized on your own, ask for help from a trusted friend, relative, or even a college student from Craigslist.
8. If your goal is "justice" or to "tell the judge my story", keep in mind that no-fault laws, court over-crowding and pressure on judges to move cases through the system quickly means you'll get very little time or opportunity to testify. In fact, you may not get the opportunity to testify at all. If you do get a chance to testify, the judge will make a decision that affects the rest of your life after hearing 5 minutes to a few hours of your story. Do you really want a stranger to make your decisions for you? Especially that quickly?
9. Take time to reassess your actions and goals and whether your path is taking you where you want to go. It's easy to get caught up in the stress of court procedures, or to become entrenched in a specific position.
10. Your divorce will not go on forever (and you don't want it to). There is an end. Things will get better. And no matter how hard it is to believe, when one door closes, another door opens. In my own divorce, my former husband mockingly said, "you're never going to finish that book!" Your Divorce Advisor was published by Simon & Schuster 2 years later. To be honest, if he'd never taunted me like that, he might've been right. I might never have finished. But I did, and we toasted the publication date with our new significant others. You really will move on, even if that's tough to picture at the moment.
Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin 2010), and Your Divorce Advisor (Simon & Schuster 2001) and a mediator at Peace Talks Mediation Services, Inc.