Tips from a family law attorney who is the product of (amicably) divorced parents
Shane Nielson and I have worked together at Family Law Group for a little over two years. In that time, Shane has shared with me that he grew up in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, which inspired him in part to pursue a career in family law. My parents divorced too, but I was fortunate enough that it was low-drama, and my childhood was not shaped by the fact that my parents were no longer together. Their amicable divorce helped inspire me to pursue this career, because I want to be able to do my part to help my clients achieve the same result, when it is possible.
When I was 15 years old, my parents informed me that they were going to split up. My dad was moving out to a nearby apartment complex in Pleasant Hill, that was actually a few minutes closer to my high school. My mom was staying in the house. My parents’ marriage had been wrought with some turmoil, but I always felt like they had “gotten through it” and so it would be smooth sailing for the rest of their lives. After they announced their split, I was shocked at first, but quickly grew accustomed to it.
My parents never put pressure on me to spend equal time with both of them, because my dad would make efforts to come to the house and hang out with my mom and I. He would frequently come over for dinner, and would be at all of my swim meets, water polo games, and other school events. One of my dad’s favorite things to do was to come over and mow the lawn at our house, and I would see him out there every Sunday without fail. Some of our neighbors did not even know that my parents had split. I would usually spend one full week out of the month with him at his apartment, but it was never compulsory- it was always based around my needs and my schedule.
Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I frequently got feedback about how “unusual” my parents’ relationship was, and I agreed. I was privy to the drama my friends with divorcing parents were living out by comparison, and I felt sympathy. Since beginning my career in family law, I have come to appreciate the efforts my parents utilized more and more. My parents could have easily chosen to fight with each other, but instead, they actively agreed to be flexible, work with each other, and respect each other’s interests and rights as parents. Based on their “happily divorced” ending, I have generated a few tips of my own to piggyback off of Shane’s:
Answer your children’s questions candidly and age appropriately
Children going through a divorce have different needs based on their developmental stages. Chances are that both parents have read some literature about children’s needs throughout their lives. There are some great books and other resources out there about children’s needs while amidst a divorce. Kids will naturally have questions whose answers go beyond the “Mommy and Daddy still love you” and “this is not your fault” answers. It is important to do your homework about how to answer these questions, and read up on what the experts have to say.
One thing I really respect about my parents, especially my mom, is that she dealt with my teenage angst surrounding the divorce with a firm resolve. She refused to take my snotty remarks personally, and she answered my questions to an appropriate degree. When I tried to push her over the line, to see if I could goad her into speaking poorly about my dad, she would simply say: “I am not going to say anything negative about your dad. We did not make it as a married couple, but we made you, and we love you. And we’re going to continue working together.” This would usually quiet me down, and placate whatever angry feeling I had towards her or my dad.
Counseling for Everyone!
Shane already brought up this tip, but it’s so important that I’m bringing it up again. The way my mom was able to deal with my angry teenaged outbursts, while in the middle of a divorce, AND a demanding career as a school district administrator, was that she made it a priority to take care of herself through regular counseling. Counselors can help you talk through how to approach difficult topics with family, especially your children or ex spouse. They can give you a “script” of what to say, and how to react appropriately under certain stressful stimuli. I always recommend that my clients pursue counseling, no matter what level of conflict exists in their dissolution. Divorce marks the end of an era, and the transition is stressful and emotional. Even happy divorcees must deal with a sense of loss and disappointment. Children are the most vulnerable during this time.
I saw my own counselor too during this process. As Shane mentioned in his apt observations, it was important for me to know that there was someone on my side. My therapist helped me understand my anger towards my parents, and helped me be able to stay focused on my goals and forgive my parents for their split. It helped me with my own emotional growth, and I still see the positive effects of that therapy to this day.
Structure your settlement around the goal that each person gets to survive and thrive
California community property law states that the community interest in property shall be divided 50/50. However, this is the fallback position if people cannot agree. For each and every asset, it does not always make sense to split everything perfectly evenly. It helps to think of the property division in terms of what is needed to survive and thrive in the future. Decisions around support (child and spousal) should also be construed in terms of each person’s future financial needs and goals. Ideally, each spouse will be able to self-support. If one parent has been out of the workforce for some time, and is unlikely to ever be able to earn close to enough to maintain the marital standard of living, then long-term spousal support is usually appropriate. But sometimes a more favorable property division to the spousal support recipient can be a suitable replacement for spousal support, or a justification for a reduction in support.
My family was fortunate in that both of my parents were self-supporting. Both parents had well-paying jobs with good benefits that were secure for their financial futures. My dad made more than my mom, but my mom made enough. So rather than taking a piece of chalk and drawing a line down the middle of every asset, my parents made trades looking towards the financial future rather than dwelling on what everything was worth in the moment. My mom gave up alimony but got to keep the house. Each parent got his or her own pension. And that was that. Now each of my parents is a homeowner, and happily retired and financially secure.
Remember that co-parenting does not end at age 18
One of the more difficult situations faced by divorced or divorcing parents is how to handle their kid’s post-high school education. Most 18-year-olds are not ready to be self-supporting the moment they receive their high school diploma. I’d say almost 100% of high school kids are not ready to pay for their own college, trade school, or other training program. While financial aid for college can be an option, there are several unknowns regarding the future of that federal program. Not all parents can afford to send their children to college. But for those who can, it is important to set up agreements regarding how tuition and living expenses will be handled.
Absent an agreement, the California courts have no jurisdiction to order support for a child over 18 (unless that child has special needs and meets certain requirements). So absent ironclad agreements regarding college expense sharing, there will need to be some cooperation between the divorced parents. It is always a good idea to set up college savings plans, like 529 accounts, and each parent can contribute a certain amount periodically until college.
For the umpteenth time this article, I again am compelled to admit that I am fortunate. My parents could afford to send me to my dream school, UC Davis. They could even afford to pay my living expenses, so I was not forced to work long hours to pay rent, but I always had part-time jobs to provide me with spending money. My parents worked their arrangement outside of their divorce decree- this is not always advisable, but for my parents it worked out fine, because there was trust and mutual respect.
Regardless of the college expense sharing arrangement, children are going to want to be equally part of both parents’ lives, and the milestones of adulthood are much better when everyone is present and happy: graduations, weddings, birth of grandchildren, etc. Removing the tension from these happy occasions is a gift that children will always appreciate, and which will help them thrive in their own adulthood.
To this day, I still look at my parents’ relationship with a level of disbelief. As I grow older and handle more cases, I grow to appreciate more and more the amount of work and sacrifice my parents put into having a good relationship with one another. Now I know this is not the solution for everyone, and having a good relationship with your ex spouse is a two-way street- both parties need to be 100% on board in order for it to work. But the payoff can be so worth it. I’ll close this article with one last anecdote:
When I graduated from law school, my graduation ceremony was a crowded mess. My parents, sister, brother, sister-in-law, niece and two nephews were all in attendance, but seating was limited. My sister managed to finagle some seats for my parents, while my brother and sister-in-law stood with the young kids, since they were happier not having to sit still for so long. My sister later told me about an especially tender moment: my name was called and as I walked across the stage to receive my JD, my parents looked at each other, tears welling in their eyes, and hugged each other. They each thanked the other for working together in raising me, and congratulated each other in my achievement.
This rosy picture of respectful co-parenting may not be within everyone’s reach. But for the sake of your children, I encourage everyone facing divorce to try- try shelving your anger, and choosing to say yes to amicable rather than adversarial co-parenting. Your future selves and your children’s future selves will thank you.