Divorce with love

A how-to guide for couples (and parents) who want to separate without hate

Photo Illustration by Andrew Nilsen

Stop the hand-wringing.

You’ve been through the screaming arguments and tearful reconciliations. You’ve played the blame game and earned the sweat equity. Maybe you’ve just grown apart, gone down different paths. Perhaps there was a life-changing experience that altered you or your partner’s priorities. Could be you had an affair; could be your partner did.

None of that matters. This is Nevada, right? We’re a no-fault state, which means divorcing partners are going to split everything down the middle. There’s no palimony here, so domestic partnership breakups aren’t the issue—unless there are children involved. Either way, your relationship is broken, and only you can decide whether it’s worth the time, energy and money to repair it.

It’s crunch time.

Are you going to split with your spouse or not?

The fact is, since half of first marriages end in divorce and an even higher percentage of subsequent marriages come to a bad end, the odds are pretty good that, sometime, when you reach the point of considering divorce as an option, you’re going to take it. And if you don’t, your spouse will.

Divorce is probably going to suck—from financial, spiritual and emotional standpoints. The decision to split is only the first decision you are going to make in coming months. Often—usually—divorce is a horror show. Who knows your emotional weak points better than someone you once trusted with your innermost thoughts? And who is more likely to push those buttons quicker than someone you once loved but wih whom you can now hardly sit on the same couch?

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Gary Silverman has a checklist of precautions for choosing a divorce lawyer.

Photo By David Robert

Split decision
Making the decision to divorce should not be made on the spur of the moment, psychologists say. While it may seem easiest to walk out during the anger of a heated argument, this is a decision that must be made with the cold sobriety of a judge.

Kristen Davis-Coelho, Ph.D., a Reno psychologist at Renown Behavioral Health, said people considering divorce must take a long view of the ramifications of splitting up, and the pros and cons of staying together or splitting up must be considered.

“In our culture, we get into this sense of immediate pain or immediate unhappiness, and we have a hard time looking backwards and forwards long-term,” she said.

Imagine that: a demand for instant gratification in an institution that supposedly lasts a lifetime. She recommends that people take an honest look back at the good days and the bad days of the past and then attempt to look forward: What are the long- and short-term expectations for the relationship?

“That helps prevent people from making impulsive decisions based on what’s happening in this moment or these months,” she said. “If there are children involved, a couple must ask themselves the impacts on the kids—the impact of staying together versus the impact of separating or divorcing.”

Because, sometimes, staying together for the kids’ sake—as in cases of domestic violence—is the absolute worst thing that you can do for the kids.

Breaking up is hard to do
Get with the 21st century. You have choices. Society has long recognized that divorce can hurt everyone involved. And it doesn’t just hurt emotionally, it also hurts financially. It can be an expensive proposition: one mortgage becoming two, one household becoming two, two lawyers, two therapists, two rebound relationships (just kidding about that one). It’s no wonder that we’ve begun to try to find ways to make divorce less expensive. The key to frugality is to keep lawyers out of the picture as much as possible.

One attorney, who for obvious reasons did not wish to be identified in this story, said a reality check is the first order of the day.

“In Nevada, whether you are a man or a woman, generally speaking, half of the debts and half of the assets are going to be your responsibility,” he said. “Any money that you and your soon-to-be-ex spouse pay to an attorney is going to be deducted from your share of the assets. That’s money that you won’t have.”

The idea is that once the decision to divorce is made, partners approach the separation with all the emotion of a business transaction.

Cheryl Field-Lang counsels patience because a divorce can drag out.

Photo By David Robert

“Most people, when they go into get a divorce, are nuts. They want vindication. Their idea of what they can get has been distorted to a delusional level by conversations with friends who always talk about how ‘their divorced girlfriend got 125 percent of the assets plus alimony.’ Completely absurd expectations. They’re not satisfied until their ex is cut up into little pieces and the little pieces set on fire and tossed into the sagebrush.”

By far, the smartest thing to do is to have a level-headed conversation with your partner. Discuss the assets, the debts and the children, including such things as custody, insurance, future education costs—everything you should have planned for when you were in the first bloom of love and didn’t.

“And if you can do that, then you go down to the Washoe County Court System, get a petition or a joint petition for a divorce, and fill it out.,” he said. “And they have people down there who will help you. You will be a hell of a lot happier and a fair amount more affluent than you would have been if you ever went to a divorce attorney.”

In Washoe County, forms can be downloaded at www.washoecourts.com/index.cfm?page=selfhelp_forms.

The secret to dividing property is fairness: First you split the debts down the middle, then you divvy up the cash assets; then you take the property assets you can’t agree upon. You assign them cash value. And then each person gets an alternating choice. Like “OK, you can have $5,000, what do you want?” Then the other person has the next $5,000 worth of choice.

“If you do it that way, nobody’s happy, but it has the feature of fairness,” he said.

Send lawyers, guns and money
OK, please, leave the guns at home. And stay off parking garages.

Does the idea of a rational conversation with the person who destroyed your hopes and dreams seem a little … Pollyannaish? There’s always the court system. That’s probably your most expensive and emotionally damaging choice, but it certainly must be discussed in this context.

Gary Silverman of Silverman, Decaria, & Kattelman is the go-to divorce attorney in Reno for complicated cases. If you’ve got a large estate or intertwined business interests or a psycho for an ex, he may be your man.

His advice when checking out lawyers: First, ask the Nevada Bar Association if your potential attorney has disciplinary matters on the record. Second, ask the lawyer about ethical complaints and about his or her reputation in the community. Third, ask the lawyer about their experience in cases similar to yours. Fourth, ask about the lawyer’s policy on communication—Do you get copies of all pleadings? Can the lawyer communicate with the frequency you desire? Fifth, decide if you and the lawyer have sufficient rapport to work together. Sixth, if you decide to go with a particular attorney, do not leave the office without a written fee agreement; very few attorneys will agree to a flat rate for an uncontested divorce, so it’s usually an agreement on an hourly rate, from $200-$550 an hour.

Kimberly Surratt says an important goal is to keep a family functioning even though the parents are going through divorce proceedings.

Photo By David Robert

Silverman said after 25 years of litigating in family law, his most important piece of advice for those getting divorced is to remember that the judge does not care about your broken heart or crushed ego.

“Remember that Nevada is a no-fault state,” he said. “Emotions are not taken into account, and people [should] put their emotions aside and recognize that this is now a business transaction.”

Games people play
Emotions sometimes are difficult to put aside. There are many areas where soon-to-be exes will have difficulties. After all, if the couple had perfect communication and 100 percent agreement—well, few people get divorced just because their lives are too simple.

“Most people, when they’re going to have a contested issue, it’s generally regarding property or their children,” said Cheryl Field-Lang, a Reno attorney who has specialized in family law and criminal defense law since February 1993. “The law and the courts say we’re supposed to determine, when deciding the custody of children, what is in the best interests of the children. Sometimes that means being with mom, and sometimes that means being with dad. Sometimes that means being with each parent on an equal basis. But the law said it’s better to have two parents than it is to have just one. And sometimes that also is not a workable or viable solution, but if you’ve got two parents who are interested in their children, you hope that at some point in time, they’re going to be able to work together.”

The wisdom of Solomon is irrelevant in a courtroom—besides, they hardly ever let people cut children in half anymore. Getting along is the key to moving through the divorce quicker and returning to stability.

Field-Lang said not to plan on getting your divorce settled and getting on with your life anytime soon, especially if hostility and lawyers are involved.

Divorce between antagonists can take a long time to resolve—depending on animosity, depending on the court’s calendar, depending on your attorney’s calendar and the opposing counsel’s calendar. The case management conferences are supposed to be set and heard within 30 days of filing. That’s your first time before the judge to try and get some preliminary orders, such as who’s going to have temporary custody, how visitation or custody is going to be set up, who’s going to live in the house, who’s going to pay for what. Then a settlement conference is set—normally at least a couple months later. If you don’t settle your case in your settlement conference, then your trial date gets set, and that could be several more months out. In the meantime, you’re paying your attorney by the hour.

“If you’re getting along, and you’re able to resolve your case, then it can be done much more quickly because you don’t have to wait for a hearing,” said Field-Lang.

“Everything can be done on paper and then submitted to the court. So all your paperwork is submitted, it’s signed, and you get divorced that way without appearing in court.”

And guess what? That long litigation trail is fully accessible by any member of the public or the press. If you think Mrs. Grundy has spent too much time peering through your almost-closed draperies, wait until she gets a look at your 401(k). Your privacy has gone the way of first love’s blush.

Photo Illustration by Andrew Nilsen

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Why can’t we be friends?
Kimberly Surratt is an attorney who works out of the Jenkins Law Office in Reno. She also chairs the Reno practice group of the Collaborative Professionals of Nevada. Collaborative divorces are a wholly new idea in Nevada, and the whole premise is based on resolving disputes with respect. It’s kind of similar to mediation in which the couple has one person to coach them through divorce’s rough waters, But instead of having one person, there’s a whole team of experts working in the best interests of the couple.

Basically, the couple signs a contract that said they will not take their dispute to court. A group, not just attorneys, but also financial professionals and mental health professionals and any other experts who may be necessary to the process work together as a team to help a couple divorce. The contract also requires open financial disclosure.

Having a team on the “project” may speed the process, allow the couple to split amicably and may even cost less than an antagonistic divorce with attorneys, although it could also turn out to be much more expensive. In a typical divorce, the attorney ends up giving financial advice, even though he or she is probably not an accountant. The attorney probably also ends up giving emotional counseling, despite the fact that few attorneys are psychiatrists or psychologists. The list of duties performed by attorneys in divorce goes on and on—and the attorney is likely the least qualified, but most expensive, person doing the job—except for the actual legal stuff.

The contract is not without teeth. If one of the parties—who comes up with these words?—breaks the contract, all the professionals involved in the collaborative efforts are conflicted out. So the couple must start over. Needless to say, there’s a financial incentive to play fair.

“The No. 1 benefit of collaborative is non-economic,” said Surratt. “The goal of collaborative is to keep people civil, to preserve relationships—meaning, you’ve got two parents with a 3-year-old child. They are going to have to co-parent that child for the next 15 years. Our goal is to get them to communicate, to teach them a new way to talk with each other—even though they’re divorced, they’re still both parents. We want to preserve the relationships, making sure they’re still calm and relatively working well together by the end of it.”

Sound too good to be true? It’s a divorce method that’s got adherents all over the world. Nevada, being the old-school state it is, has been slow to get on the bandwagon, and Surratt has only collaborated on four divorces using this procedure.

Another benefit to collaborative is couples are not exposing their lives to the world. It’s all confidential because there’s no court filing until there’s a settlement agreement. Then a couple is just asking for a decree, and they’re not having a big, long drawn-out battle in the court records where any reporter can access it.

All you need is love
Say what you will about the childishness of some couples who are divorcing, in cases where there are children, it’s the children who will suffer the most serious impacts of divorce. Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. If the parents work together to instill respect for each other—even when they can’t have a joint checking account—the children will probably come through it OK.

Terry Lowey, a Reno psychologist with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, said the best way for even the most rancorous couple to divorce is with … love.

“Once a couple has made the decision to divorce, it’s a good idea to talk to the children together,” said Lowey. “Don’t badmouth the other parent. Assure the kids that this isn’t about them, it’s about the grownups, and both parents love the children very much, and they will continue to be mommy and daddy and work together as a team in the children’s best interests. I believe that in this situation, as in any situation, the most important thing is not to harbor bitterness and resentment. You can approach anything, even the most distressing situation, with love and with a sense of reconciliation.”

Lowey said children don’t need divorcing parents to buy them anything their hearts desire or to slack on the parental discipline. Really, children need parents to continue being parents—even if they no longer live together.

“When kids see parents treat each other with respect and kindness, that gives kids more sense of security than anything,” she said. “Parents don’t realize how much how they treat each other impacts children and their sense of well-being in the world. My belief is you can do that, even if you are getting a divorce.”