It's Going to be a Complicated and Contentious Divorce – Next Steps
No one considers divorce an easy process. Divorce is often extremely stressful and draining on everyone involved. However, going through a complicated and contentious divorce can significantly affect your physical and mental health, so it is crucial to take concrete steps to protect yourself. Knowing these steps will not only help keep perspective during your divorce and give you the best chance at resolution but will ultimately protect your sanity and health.
Assemble your Team
The process of a divorce can feel lonely, particularly in a contentious one. Often, those going through divorce need a specific person to lean on for support. A family member, friend, or trusted co-worker are all possible confidantes that can be a beneficial "team member" during your divorce. Choose a confidant that will listen and support you and your decisions unconditionally, as talking through this challenging process can alleviate stress.
A therapist is another option if you prefer a confidential environment to express your feelings and gain professional advice to move forward. If children are involved, therapy may also be beneficial for them in coping with anxiety and emotional stressors.
During your marriage, you and your spouse may have relied on a joint advisor, as most couples do. However, it is a good idea to consider hiring a new financial advisor who can help you with your specific needs and long-term planning, with particular attention to your financial security post-divorce. An independent advisor can assist you in preparing accurate financial records required by the court and help you prepare for post-divorce. A professional like this who is on your side can save you money in the long run by helping you to avoid common financial mistakes.
Lastly, a competent and experienced lawyer is pivotal in a contentious divorce. When interviewing lawyers, ask questions that will provide insight into how knowledgeable they are on anticipated points of contention, like property division and child custody. You should also ask questions on billing and the cost of divorces like yours. A good lawyer will effectively communicate the divorce process and give you honest, reasonable expectations based on your personalized case. Additionally, a family lawyer can reduce hostile communication between you and your spouse by communicating with their lawyer instead.
Educate Yourself on the Law
The state primarily determines family law, so education on Colorado family law for a basic understanding will benefit you in the long run. First, Colorado is a "no-fault" state. Colorado courts thus do not assign fault on either party nor do they consider any alleged "bad behavior" of a party. There are exceptions where "bad behavior" may be considered in child custody decisions, but those are irrelevant to property and debt division.
Colorado also follows an approach based upon the "equitable" division of marital property. Thus, your family law judge has a vast amount of discretion to determine what specific division is "equitable" to both parties. A 50/50 split is not required under Colorado law.
You should know a little about alimony, known as "maintenance." Colorado judges award maintenance after considering several factors based on both the marriage and the individuals. The length of the marriage, the standard of living both parties experienced during the marriage, and financial and housework contributions are all marriage considerations. The court will also consider each individual's age, health, and separate financial situation.
In most contentious divorces, the parties cannot agree on one or more significant issues, such as property division, child custody, maintenance, and child support. The court is thus given authority to make these decisions if a settlement cannot be reached through negotiations. These cases inevitably take more time and are more expensive as both parties are given opportunities to collect and present evidence to the court for an informed decision. A good lawyer in a contentious divorce may help protect you in the litigation process and get you and your kids the best outcome.
Lastly, "word on the street" assumptions or, better described as rumors, that surround divorce are to be avoided as they cause unnecessary stress. Common examples include an equal split of marital property, custody awards automatically go to the mother, and young children decide where to live. Educate yourself on Colorado divorce statistics to learn how these decisions are made.
In a contentious divorce, the court controls any dispute over property division, alimony, and child support, so having accurate records will likely help you prove your case. Records may include property, financial, medical, and child-related medical, educational, and extra-curricular records.
Financial records are the first documents you should begin organizing. Recent pay stubs, individual and joint bank accounts, tax returns, retirement accounts, and regular monthly expenses are required. Medical records are generally only necessary when there is an outstanding bill or a medical issue in dispute.
Additional records the court will require related to property assets you obtained during your marriage, any joint purchases before marriage, and any unresolved debt. If you find yourself in an urgent situation or sense one may be looming, please consider taking photos and/or videos of all the essential property, including furniture and family heirlooms. If you are unexpectedly faced with vacating the home, you will have a clear record of everything in it when you left, including the condition of all items.
Cautions to Keep in Mind
All separating spouses have cautions regarding finances, disparagement, and emotions, but these become crucially important when the divorce is contentious.
All divorce proceedings involve the evaluation and distribution of finances and marital assets. This process will require accurate and thorough records of your finances, the property you obtained before your marriage, and the property you acquired during the marriage. It is in your best interest to be transparent at the start as there are risks of court penalties and disfavored distribution. Additionally, you should refrain from making big purchases once you begin separation. A judge may highly scrutinize big purchases on the eve of divorce and often may backfire. A classic example would be to quit one's job to obtain a lower-paying job in the hopes of paying less for child support or maintenance. In situations such as these, if the judge finds that your conduct was in bad faith, the judge may impute your prior income to you, thus putting you in a challenging position.
Pets are another concern when involved in a contentious divorce proceeding. Colorado law states that pets are "personal property." They are thus allocated to one spouse or the other as a marital asset. Pets can be a massive point of contention as pets are commonly considered family members, thus increasing emotions because the court does not give them custody consideration. If possible, agreeing outside of the courtroom on pet disputes is ideal when both want custody. Otherwise, the court will treat them like any other property dispute, making the decision unpredictable and more stressful.
Another caution to consider is the disparagement of your spouse. While social media is often used as an outlet, it can negatively affect your divorce if used to speak ill of your spouse. Social media posts can be used in court against you and may even break attorney-client privilege between you and your attorney. It is in your best interest to keep your divorce off social media altogether.
Not only can disparagement negatively impact your divorce proceedings, but it can also cause psychological and emotional trauma to your children. Children often become confused and stressed around one or both parents because of disparaging comments, often leading to anger and even not feeling comfortable around a parent. Additionally, children may act out outside of the home due to their emotional confusion. Further, evidence of this conduct can be considered part of the children's best interest and affect custody. You may choose to include a non-disparaging section in your settlement agreement so that the court may hand down punishment for violations.
Lastly, it is crucial to take control of your emotions. Often in a contentious divorce, spouses will try to push the other out of spite or get a reaction. It is thus vital to limit communication between you and take your time in formulating a calm, non-reactive response. If you do need to speak to your spouse, make sure it is done in writing to keep a record in the event of a dispute. Regardless of your spouse's actions, uncontrolled emotions will affect your daily life. Take control by focusing on your health, particularly your sleep, diet, and exercise, as these decrease stress. In general, controlling your emotions will increase your credibility in court and keep you focused on resolution.
Domestic violence is, unfortunately, common in contentious divorces. This refers to acts or threats of violence from one spouse to another and other crimes against property or person. If you are experiencing domestic violence in your divorce, it is crucial to protect yourself and your children by knowing your rights. A court order may be obtained to leave the shared home (with your children, if applicable) and restrict contact. You should get an experienced lawyer because domestic violence and subsequent steps can affect many aspects of your divorce, including alimony and child support, and custody.
When children are involved, child abduction is another safety concern. Child abduction in a divorce proceeding occurs when one parent takes the child from the other or keeps them away when they do not have the right. If you are concerned this may happen, you have rights through the court. A court order may be issued to limit visitation, what child records that parent may obtain, and where that parent may take the child. An experienced lawyer will assist you in this complex process.
Learn about Litigation Options
Divorce proceedings have numerous litigation options, such as mediation, settlement conferences, and trial. While good lawyers favor mediation or settlement conferences, contentious divorces can be challenging to resolve these ways. Therefore, it is critical to obtain sound legal counsel focused on settlement options, even in the face of trial.
When a divorce is contentious, mediation and a settlement conference are required steps in an effort to resolve before trial. Both involve a neutral third party facilitating negotiations in a more relaxed setting than a courtroom. A settlement conference is merely before an already scheduled trial as a last effort to resolve. Both of these methods can be useful for contentious divorces because they allow your lawyer to present your position effectively and calmly. They also tend to settle with both parties more satisfied than they would have been had they gone to court.
Regardless of an amicable or contentious divorce, a trial should be seen as the last resort for resolution. Going to trial is stressful as you will need to gather more evidence, witnesses and be adequately prepped on your testimony by your lawyer. Trials are also costly and time-consuming. The more time your lawyer needs to prepare and be present in court means more fees. It is not uncommon for spouses to lose more money in the end because of trial fees than they receive from the divorce. Finally, there is no guarantee you will get the desired outcome. Judges have specific requirements to follow when deciding divorce disputes and only receive a glimpse of both sides to reach those decisions. If there is no chance of resolution through other means than trial, you must have an experienced lawyer.
While often ill-advised, you may be your representative and proceed pro se. People usually choose to represent themselves if they anticipate an amicable divorce with a self-represented spouse or cannot afford professional representation. Self-representation is not recommended in a contentious divorce, however, given their complexity. Additionally, self-represented parties are expected to proceed at the same standard as an attorney, often leading to paperwork mistakes. This option is generally more costly and less favorable in the long run in a contentious divorce.
For more information, the Colorado Revised Statutes and the Colorado court websites are valuable resources. If you wish to speak with an attorney, the experts at The Harris Law Firm would be happy to assist you.