Ask Stacy – Vol. 4
I always like to say there are no stupid questions, and I mean that. One easy way I can help others is to share some of what we do in law in simplified terms. To that end, this month’s “Ask Stacy” includes a few basic questions that might be common knowledge to some of you but less so to others. I also received some personal questions again this month, which should be especially fun, so here we go:
Ask Stacy: It might sound like heresy to a divorce attorney, but is it possible to get a divorce without a divorce lawyer?
My Thoughts: You can hire a mediator to help facilitate an agreement. And you might be able to do your paperwork. But God forbid you try to handle these things alone because – at least in California – the paperwork is very intimidating and confusing. Lawyers are experienced experts in the field for a reason. Also, if the divorce is at all contentious or becomes so, I can guarantee you will be better off with a divorce attorney on your side.
Ask Stacy: What’s the difference between a lawyer and an attorney? Are there any helpful qualifications or certifications I should consider when finding the person to represent me in my divorce? Are there any types of representatives I should avoid?
My Thoughts: A lawyer and an attorney are the same; they are just different labels for the same profession. Interestingly, on the East Coast, what we call family law, they call “matrimonial law.”
No matter who you are working with, some states have specialized qualifications and certifications that might be helpful. In California, there is a family law specialist certification which signifies that somebody has a certain level of experience, both in terms of having taken a test and had enough trial experience, etc. But even better than whether they are certified specialists is how much experience in divorce they have. I would avoid someone who only dabbles in divorce or is brand new. It is similar to choosing a doctor or surgeon; you want somebody with lots of experience.
Personality-wise, you want to avoid representation that doesn't align with your values or how you function. I've had many clients or potential clients come to me and say I need a lawyer who will protect me from myself, that I'm too easy and I'll give in, or that I am too easily intimidated. In these cases, they need a professional to engage for them, interfere for them, protect them, and educate them.
I have also had two potential clients call me and say they were hiring somebody else because they believed they needed to hire a man to deal with their soon-to-be ex. They felt their husband only respected men, so they tried to hire a man. In both of these cases, the women called me a few months later, saying they had made an enormous mistake and should have hired me. Interestingly, I noticed in both of these instances they hired men who mirrored their husbands, who were abusive and aggressive, and they picked lawyers who were mean and aggressive.
Ask Stacy: What personality types should I know in the Lawyer universe?
My Thoughts: If you read chapter 4 of my book “Divorce: It’s All About Control,” there are many different types of lawyers. But just for fun, here are three. There are the barracudas, where everything is pedal to the metal. There are the paper bags … those who will pat you on the head and say dear, dear, dear, I'll take care of this, and I'll call you in six months. They don't tell you what they think; they just ask you what you want to do. And then there is the partner – the kind I like to think I am. As a partner, I will share my thoughts and educate my clients. I give advice, but ultimately it will be my client’s decision. I don't pat clients on the head and tell them I will decide. And I do not pass the buck back to them.
Ask Stacy: We haven’t been happy for a few years, but we tend to keep it together at home, particularly in front of the children. We’re now resolved to separate as amicably as possible, too. When and how do we tell our three school-age children we are getting divorced?
My Thoughts: I would talk to a child therapist on how best to do that, but the conventional wisdom is to sit down together with your kids – at a time when they don't have things that are looming like a Bar Mitzvah or Christmas Eve – and you tell them together about the change in the family structure. You should assure them that the family will still be a family, just a different configuration, and ensure they will still spend time with both mom and dad. Then, or sometime soon after, the kids will ask practical questions like where they will sleep and when. So you do not really want to tell them until you have these things figured out. Yet, you cannot wait too long because they will pick up on things. It is essential to know that you must tailor these conversations differently depending on the children's ages. Generally speaking, you should tell all three kids together. You will need to devise a way of addressing things individually so that each child will understand. You may spend a long time with each, being more specific on certain questions. I also think it is crucial that you spend time together as a family afterward. In my first separation, we went on long walks together as a family shortly after we told the kids. We had dinners together and showed them we could still do these things. And here, decades later, our family still gathers together regularly.
Ask Stacy: You’ve said you try to keep families together, if there’s a sign of hope and no signs of abuse. What advice do you give, and are there any concrete action steps you share to send this type of couple back to their home to work things out?
My Thoughts: It is important to attempt to keep marriages together when children are involved. If there are no children, it may be less pressing. As a principle, ensuring you have done everything possible is critical, so you can look in the mirror and know you tried. Regarding steps: First, I prefer to send them to therapy together and separately. I also am happy to be there for them, involved as a consultant. I also offer to talk with and compare notes and recommendations with their personal therapist(s). And even in cases where things don't ultimately work out, at least the couple will feel like they gave it their best shot. And eventually, if there is still a chance of going through a divorce, there will often be more calmness and respect between the parties throughout the process.
Ask Stacy: I caught my wife cheating with another man via our home security system. It’s all on video. Does this evidence help me in a potential divorce or custody battle?
My Thoughts: If this happened in California, it is irrelevant because California is a no-fault state. Unless the affair affects the children or if real money is used (e.g., significant amounts of money spent in the affair). In other states, it may be relevant.
Ask Stacy: What’s the weirdest case you can recall, and why?
My Thoughts: I have had many weird and potential cases. I had not one, but several instances in which the client (or opposing client) had more than one family. I had a case with a man who had an affair that turned into a fatal attraction-type scenario. And I had another where a man – married with kids – came to me and admitted he was having an affair. He thought she was on birth control, but she was actually on fertility drugs and allegedly became pregnant with five babies. Can you imagine going home and telling your wife you had an affair and they are having a child – not just one but five? Let me tell you, when you give away that much child support, there is likely, not much left.
Ask Stacy: Should women have a female attorney, and vice versa, or doesn’t it really matter? If it doesn’t matter, what qualities should a person look for when hiring their attorney?
My Thoughts: Pick an attorney that will best represent you and with whom you feel most comfortable and with whom you can most easily communicate. Women and men approach things differently. If gender is essential to you, then by all means, make that selection, but you should know there are far better and more nuanced criteria at stake in choosing your counsel.
Please keep those questions coming. Email me at AskStacy@mcgriffinmedia.com, and I do my best to answer.
This article was published by Stacy D. Phillips on LinkedIn on May 31, 2023.