by Mark C. Hill, Certified Financial Planner, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst
Managing Director, Pacific Divorce Management
It is not unusual for professionals who work in the divorce field to have been motivated in their choice of career by personal experience of divorce. Sometimes it is the memory of how their parents’ divorce was handled in childhood, while other times it is the experience of their own divorce that drove them to work in the field.
In my own case, it was the experience of my second divorce in the 1990s together with watching others struggle with the process that was the motivation. At first glance, this divorce should have been simple since we had no children and it was a short marriage lasting less than four years. However, it went all the way to an all-day trial that resulted in me saying these words to my attorney at its conclusion: “I feel violated by this process.”
Ironically, a conversation with my ex-wife years later had me learn that she felt exactly the same way that day — despite the fact that we both had very experienced, competent and caring attorneys working on our behalf. Additionally, as a financial advisor since the early 1980s, I had watched clients go through the traditional litigated approach with devastating financial consequences and yet still feeling compelled to share their stories of being disappointed, frustrated and angry at the outcomes.
As the years have passed, on many occasions I have thought back on my court experience and compared and contrasted it with the very different way my first wife and I chose to end our marriage. This was in the early 1980s and our financial and personal situation was very different from my second divorce. Our finances consisted mainly of debt, but we had a child, then a toddler, who we both loved dearly and were determined to be involved in raising.
At the time the concept of alternative dispute resolution when it came to divorce hardly existed in San Diego. But my wife and I both refused to go through the adversarial process. After a conversation with a non-family lawyer friend, I learned there was nothing inappropriate in a couple negotiating their own settlement if they both had full command of the issues involved.
The problem was that initially I could not find a family lawyer willing to work with us and prepare the agreement. Meetings with four lawyers resulted in the same pushback: “I must represent either you or your wife,” they would tell me. Despite this, I kept looking and eventually found a lawyer who did not say “no” fast enough! As a result, we were able to resolve all issues between the two of us and then, after signing disclosures for the attorney saying that she did not represent either one of us, have the Marital Settlement Agreement filed with the court.
Time passed, and by the time my son was attending college I was actively working in the divorce field and felt that the time was right to ask him “How was it growing up for you?” After getting this first comment off his chest, “You and mom are so different, I can’t imagine you guys ever being together!” he said “The good thing was that I never heard either one of you say a bad word about the other and I knew that you both loved me.”
So, despite the fact that his mother and I had challenging times, especially when both of us remarried, we were able to keep his needs above our fray. I doubt that we would have been able to co-parent so successfully if we had been through an adversarial divorce. I feel great relief that there were no children involved in my second divorce as the ending was so toxic that I cannot imagine it not having a negative impact on children.
Divorce is intrinsically difficult because very few marriages end unless trust has been broken, and it will always represents a loss of some kind. Usually we experience this as the loss of personal relationships and of financial resources. I believe that the underlying negative backdrop this provides is more often than not exacerbated by the traditional litigated approach.
Please know I understand there will be cases where avoiding this is impossible, and our court system is critical in attaining resolution. However, where both spouses show a willingness to try to work together, taking the alternative dispute resolution approach will usually result in more durable and better outcomes with less residual bitterness. Additionally, today couples have access to trained professionals in the legal, financial and mental health fields to offer support throughout the process that did not exist for my first wife and me.
As my own experience shows, this can result in better outcomes for our children. Isn’t that really what is most important?