What do you want your divorce to look like? A simple question, but it may be the key to taking the pain out of your split and helping divorce proceedings run better financially, emotionally and physically.
Listen to my recent podcast episode with divorce attorney and collaborative practitioner Juliet Laycoe for a modern day approach to surviving divorce. The full interview transcript is below, and you can find more information in her book “Divorce Wisdom.”
FINANCIAL TRANSITIONS PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JULIET LAYCOE
Robert: Hi, this is Robert Pagliarini. Today I have on Juliet Laycoe, a family law and estate planning attorney in southern Washington state; she also practices in Oregon.
Juliet, thank you so much for coming on today. We really appreciate it.
Juliet: Thank you for inviting me.
Robert: We’ve known each other for a long time, and we actually went to high school together. You’ve created this amazing law practice and you recently wrote a book called ‘Divorce Wisdom’ – I read it and I love it! So today, I wanted to bring you on to talk about the book and your practice.
One of the first thing I noticed when I visited your website (http://julietlaycoe.com/) is a big, bold headline that says, ‘Helping People Navigate Life’s Important Transitions,’ which is very important and relevant, because this podcast is about Financial Transitions. We go through a number of transitions in life. Some are less important than others, but divorce is probably – at least in my mind – one of the most important and significant financial transitions that one will ever face. And as someone who has been practicing law now for 21 years, you’ve got the expert experience. So I’m eager to discuss more with you.
In your book ‘Divorce Wisdom,’ the first chapter really surprised me. You write about how people should really know what they want, and you’ve worked with clients who come to you thinking they want a divorce, but then they find out that maybe they don’t. What can you share from those experiences that you’ve had? What are some reasons to not get a divorce?
Juliet: I think it’s important to remember that divorce is a permanent course of action. And oftentimes, I’ve worked with people (or people have consulted with me) that come into my office just wanting to do something. They think that divorce might be the answer to whatever struggles they’re having in their marriage, so it is really important to be sure that you want to set out on that permanent course of action. There’s an anecdote in the book (and it’s not an uncommon example) where a woman came to me, and really it was her mom that forced her into my office. As I was speaking with her and getting more information, it was clear that the woman really did love her spouse, but they were having some communication issues over finances. When you start to probe a little bit more, you find there are other options available to try to solve or resolve the communication difficulties.
In my own practice there are many reasons that I’ve experienced where people think they want a divorce, and then we talk through it and find there may be other options available. One of those reasons is communication struggles. Marital counseling or coaching can really help if there is a foundation of love and respect already there in the relationship between the couple; they can also help if the couple truly does love each other but lost their way for whatever reason. A lot of times couples will get influenced from a family member or friend to consult with a divorce attorney, when it’s not the best option.
Robert: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s funny, because I think a lot of people have this impression of family law attorneys (or attorneys in general), that they’re ruthless, cold and want to bring the client in and crush the other side. What you’re saying is very different. The approach that you take is almost as if you’re a consultant who has been brought in to make someone’s life better, whether or not that means divorce; often it is divorce, but that’s not necessarily always the answer. It almost sounds like you’re part quasi-therapist and obviously part attorney, really just trying to figure out what’s going to improve this person’s life. Do you think that’s a fair statement to say?
Juliet: I think so. I don’t pretend to be a therapist, although certainly the hats that I wear through the course of representing a client’s needs change. Circling back to divorce as a permanent course of action, I really want people that meet with me or that I end up representing to understand what the full spectrum is and the options that they have. It may not be divorce – although one of the options, it may not be the best one for them. So let’s explore other options that might be available to you to try and solve the difficulty in your marriage or relationship. That could be counseling, coaching or even a divorce. Then we break that down a little bit further into exploring what you want your divorce to look like.
Robert: Yeah, and I’ve worked with a lot of divorcees as well, and often it seems black and white. Either your marriage is going great or you’re having problems and it’s time for divorce. People don’t necessarily see the gray areas and realize that there are other options that should be thoroughly explored, because, as you said, divorce is final, and as you write in the book, it’s tough. It’s extremely challenging for everyone to go through, and it’s a long process that can be an expensive process. So you definitely should explore every alternative prior to deciding to go get a divorce.
Juliet: Exactly. Yes. I absolutely concur with what you just said.
Robert: Good, good. You’ve written in the book that you’ve seen good people really at their worst. And I’ve often said that family law attorneys have one of the hardest jobs in the world, because you’re working with people who are angry, sometimes they’re hurt and vindictive, and they’re in a really tough place – especially if they have kids. You’ve seen a lot of people go through a divorce and know what works and what hasn’t. What are some of the common factors that help a divorce go somewhat smoothly?
Juliet: Sure. That’s a good question. I think divorces that end up going well or smoother than most share some common factors, one being, a desire from both of the spouses to remain respectful and civil during the process.
Another factor is if the spouses that are getting divorced share a common goal between them, such as kids. It’s tough on both the parents and kids going through a divorce, but if the spouses have a shared goal that they’re going to place their children as the number one priority, that can oftentimes help make the process go smoother and be less stressful. Another common goal between spouses that I’ve seen work really well is a shared vision for coming out okay at the end of the divorce process, whether that be financial or emotional equity. I think that attorneys play a huge role in the divorce process, and if the attorneys representing the spouses also share that common goal or desire to maintain civility and respect throughout the process, that helps tremendously.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what process option you actually choose in order to get divorced. What I mean by that, in terms of a process option, is if you’re going to fight to the bitter end in court, or if you’re going to choose another option, like mediation, collaborative divorce, or utilizing your attorneys through some structured settlement negotiation process.
Robert: Yeah, so those are great points, and you talk about coming together with this mutual level of respect and a common goal, and then you talk about the different approaches to divorce. You can lawyer up and fight it out in court, or you can choose mediation or collaborative divorce.
So there’s going to be someone that’s listening to this conversation that we’re having who is considering a divorce. What approach should they take? Should they come out with guns blazing and get the best attorney and try to win everything? Or should they consider mediation as a first step? How do you coach someone to determine which approach is better?
Juliet: I think the first question that someone should ask themselves is what do you want your divorce process to look like? This is typically the first question I ask clients, and it’s pretty rare to hear someone answer that they’d like to fight to the bitter end with guns blazing. So that’s an opportunity for me to then explain what the options are. I think that people oftentimes believe that litigation is the only means to get divorced, and litigation is really just utilizing the court process where a judge makes all the decisions for you and your spouse because you can’t come to a consensus. With litigation, you’re basically availing yourself or giving up control over the process and allowing the judge to make those decisions for you.
Mediation is a fantastic option to consider for reaching resolution or settlement outside of court. Mediation is where the parties work with a third party, called the mediator, to try and come to consensus on whatever issues or disputes they have. The mediator facilitates the discussion and the parties actually work towards resolving their issues.
Collaborative is synonymous with collaborative divorce or collaborative practice. That’s a very structured process where the parties and their attorneys all commit to resolving their divorce outside of court, and they actually sign an agreement that they aren’t going to litigate, no matter what.
Robert: Is that what separates collaborative from mediation? With mediation, you can go in with the best of intentions, but if you don’t really like what is being mediated or if you decide that you just can’t agree, you always have the option of going to court.
Juliet: Yes, the one thing that both mediation and collaborative have in common is that it’s a totally voluntary process. The parties in either process are doing it completely on their own accord – nobody’s forcing them to do that. In mediation, as you stated Robert, if thing’s fall apart, the parties always have the option of going to court and asking a judge to make a decision for them. In collaborative, the very unique thing about a collaborative divorce is the participation agreement where both parties, their attorneys and any other professionals working with the couple (this could be a financial advisor or a parent specialist) all sign an agreement stating that they will not use litigation as a means to resolve the divorce. This keeps everybody invested in the process of trying to reach resolution. I won’t say that you can’t litigate in collaborative, but what happens because all those parties have signed this participation agreement is that if things break down in the process itself and the parties want to get out of or terminate the collaborative process, they cannot use any of the professionals that have been helping them this far. So their attorneys have to withdraw, as well as the other professionals that may have been working with them as part of the team. None of these parties can assist them during the litigation process, and oftentimes, some of the information that they glean during the collaborative process can’t be used either.
Robert: So you basically have to start over and the professionals who are participating do not have a financial incentive to leave this up to litigation.
Juliet: Yes, but I want to couch that, because in my experience, all of the professionals that are involved in collaborative have done some pretty extensive training in collaborative practice, and they know the benefits of working towards a resolution. I can speak for myself, being a collaborative practitioner, that a tremendous amount of satisfaction comes from having success in that process. Even though yes, I’m getting paid to do my job, I also get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing people work through a process that maintains their privacy and respect, and that places both themselves and their children as number one priorities to make sure that the entire family (although separated or disconnected in one way) ends up at the end of the divorce in an okay – or better than okay – position.
Robert: Yes, absolutely. I’m a huge proponent of mediation and collaborative divorce and doing anything that doesn’t get the courts involved. I’m sure you’ve seen your own fair share of horror stories, and I’ve seen them as well, and nobody wins in that kind of situation. Would you recommend that people start with mediation or collaborative? How do you which is the better approach?
Juliet: Usually in my very first consultation with somebody that comes in for a divorce, we walk through each process. I love visuals, so I have a diagram that shows every different process option, from sitting and talking calmly each other, to mediation, to collaborative, to settlement negotiations and then to litigation. I have a bias. I like working on the spectrum that involves collaborative and mediation and trying to resolve things outside of court, so I’m very open with folks that I consult that I like to work on this end of the spectrum. Then, I ask them what feels right to you? What sounds like a process that you think you and your spouse could participate in? And I would say that a large percentage of those opt for mediation or collaborative. Occasionally, I will get a few folks who can sit down at their kitchen table and talk civilly and handle divorce on their own. Though, most of the time people end up in my office because they aren’t talking well with their spouse. Obviously in divorce there are struggles in the relationship, so they may not be able to communicate effectively, so having a process like mediation where you have a neutral person helping to facilitate the conversation, or collaborative where you’ve got a team of professionals working with you to help facilitate the discussion, is often very beneficial for folks in divorce.
Robert: You mentioned that very few people initiate saying, ‘I want to lawyer up and take my spouse for everything I can get. Let’s go to litigation as the very first move.’ Very few people start with that intention, but sometimes it gets to that point. What causes mediation or collaborative to devolve in such a way where they find that’s their only option?
Juliet: We’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about mediation and collaborative, but there are of course situations where those aren’t going to be options for people. It could be because one of the spouses (no matter what) will not sit at the negotiation table and will not entertain the thought or notion of trying to problem solve their situation outside of court. In those cases, yes, litigation, unfortunately, has to be the process option that the parties go down.
I think the other scenario that I frequently see is where there is so much anger or distrust between the spouses that they cannot trust a process outside of court to resolve their divorce. I have seen that, where emotions are high (obviously), and it’s a stressful situation when people separate, and if there is some other scenario that has occurred – whether that’s an affair or substance abuse or whatever else – where somebody is so angry that they cannot think rationally about another way to resolve their situation.
Robert: Do you think that maybe they are thinking rationally? That there is this level of distrust where they don’t feel like they’re going to get their fair share through mediation? That’s a phrase that I often hear from a spouse going through divorce; they feel like they’re going to be taken advantage of, and if they go through one of these other forms of divorce, that somehow, something’s going to be overlooked and that their best interests are not going to be taken at heart. What’s the response? Is there some validity to that?
Juliet: Of course. People are always concerned about making sure they’re going to be okay on the other end of a divorce. I often hear those comments as we’re talking about mediation or an option outside of court, whether it’s, ‘I don’t want to go through mediation because I don’t feel like I’m going to get my fair share,’ or ‘who is going to be looking out for me in that process?’ And there are ways to balance that or neutralize that, both in mediation and collaborative process. If one spouse feels like they don’t have somebody looking out for their best interests or they’re not sure they’re going to get their fair share (perhaps it’s a situation where one spouse has nothing to do with finances or doesn’t have a good sense of what their assets or debts are, which is common, unfortunately), there are ways to neutralize that. Having an attorney on board for that person is one way. Making sure that sufficient financial documentation has been exchanged ahead of time is another way to ensure that that spouse will have some working knowledge before going into mediation. Utilizing a financial advisor to help pair settlement scenarios and projections on where that spouse will be if he or she receives this kind of financial support and these assets is critical. In mediation you can do those things, you can use those tools or other resources. In collaborative, one of the key tenants for all of the professionals in that process is to make sure that both parties in the divorce are getting their needs met and that it’s a fair and equitable resolution for both of them. And the attorneys in the collaborative process obviously represent one client and have a duty to that client, but we also have this duty to make sure that all assets are disclosed, income is known and that both spouses feel competent in the information that’s being exchanged and the scenarios that are being discussed.
Robert: What happens if one spouse doesn’t feel like the other spouse is being completely honest or disclosing particular assets or income?
Juliet: In that case, if it’s in the collaborative process, we talk about it openly. Collaborative is a very transparent process. If one spouse really feels like assets are being hidden or that they don’t have complete information, we get that concern on the table and we discuss options for getting some resolution to that. Does that mean we need more documentation? Does that mean we need to go to the accountant that the parties have used? Does that mean that we need to get a forensic accountant to start analyzing bank statements and income? There are things that we do in the collaborative process to make sure that concern like that is addressed.
In the mediation process, you can use those same things, although, because it’s not collaborative, the other side may not have a shared vision or a common goal of making sure their spouse they’re about to divorce feels comfortable in the knowledge that they have. As an attorney representing one of those spouses, the spouse that is feeling that concern, I would be doing all of the things that I said I would do in the collaborative. I would get the forensic accountant on board to analyze tax returns, income statements and bank records. I would make sure that the client I’m working with has some additional support, either from a financial advisor or (potentially) a mental health therapist. Oftentimes the feelings of distrust or fear of not getting their fair share are rooted in something else. It may not be something tangible that we see; it may be something emotional that a mental health therapist can address and help them prepare for a discussion of mediation.
Robert: And let me just make sure I understand the collaborative divorce process. Would each spouse have their own attorney? Or is there a single attorney?
Juliet: Each spouse in a collaborative divorce has their own attorney representing them, so there are two attorneys involved in the collaborative divorce process.
Robert: Got it. Versus a mediation where there is typically the mediator and then you may have your own attorney.
Juliet: Correct, the mediator is a mutual third party facilitating the discussion. Mediators oftentimes have law degrees or legal backgrounds. They might also have a background in mental health. They may or may not have practiced law, and they don’t represent either party in the mediation because they’re neutral.
Robert: Right. You mentioned a few minutes ago that often one of the spouses is not necessarily as knowledgeable when it comes to the finances as the other. They might not have a relationship with the tax preparer or the financial advisor or attorney. They don’t really know how much debt is out there. They don’t pay the bills. In those situations, how can they become more knowledgeable and become more financially competent?
Juliet: That’s a common question I hear, and it’s something I experience in my own practice. It’s really common in marriages for one spouse to manage all of the finances or investments and for the other spouse to just coast and feel some security that their spouse is managing it. But when there’s trouble in the marriage or a divorce is imminent, the spouse that has not been as involved or familiar with their banking, finances or investments can really feel scared. There are ways they can increase their comfort level, their knowledge, and basic understanding. I explore this quite a bit in one of the chapters in my book, but briefly, I would say, start looking at whatever records are available. Look at your bank statements; what’s coming in and what’s going out? What are you spending money on and what’s being deposited into the account? That’s a good starting point. Look at your tax returns and see what income is being reported. Also, look at what kind of interest or dividend income is being reported, because that will give you a sense of what assets you have at which financial institution and if you have any 1099 miscellaneous income. You can get a free credit report online and see if there are any debts associated with your social security number that you might not know about.
The other thing I would recommend doing (whether it’s before you file for divorce or while you’re going through the process) is getting the right people to support you. The right people may include your lawyer and a financial advisor who can help explain things and do projections for you. I’d also recommend a mental health person, because as I alluded to earlier, sometimes people feel a tremendous amount of fear that’s based in insecurity. A mental health provider might be able to help them process things a little bit better as they’re going through a divorce.
Robert: Yeah, and as you and I’ve both seen, divorce is a very, very long process. It’s tough physically and emotionally – certainly, it can also be financially. In one of your chapters, you discuss that you have to know what you’re getting into. I like to think of it like you’re training for a physical event. This is something that’s going to take a lot of strength and mental fortitude, and you have to prepare for this because it’s going to be tough and challenging. You write about this as well in your book. In your opinion, what are some ways that people can begin to physically and mentally prepare for divorce?
Juliet: The key thing, especially if you’re the spouse that may not want to be divorced, is that you cannot hide or deny the fact that the divorce is imminent. You can’t say, ‘I don’t really want a divorce, therefore I’m not going to participate.’ From the get-go, you have to reach some level of acceptance that this is going to happen, and even if you don’t want it, it would be better for you to be a participant in the process, because it’s your future and the decisions that you make (or that are made for you in the divorce process) will last a lifetime. It’s a life-altering process, a life-altering transition. So you need to be a participant.
Mentally, you can prepare by finding the right kind of people to support you and for you to rely on. I talk about this quite a bit in the book, but I would minimize the time you spend with people who are negative or who constantly talk negatively about your spouse because that’s not going to be super helpful to your overall attitude about the process. You really want to hang out with people who build you up, make you laugh and provide you with some objectivity. If you’re really struggling with some intense emotions, I wouldn’t be afraid to see a mental health counselor or professional.
From the physical aspect, I recommend exercise – even if it hasn’t been your jam in the past. Start walking or doing yoga. Even 20 minutes of some sort of cardio will boost your mood and decrease your stress level. Also, from a physical standpoint, never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your healthcare professional about a temporary sleep aid that might assist. When you get a good night of sleep, you are able to think clearly and make better decisions the next day. I suggest that you should limit your intake of alcohol, that you not medicate with food and that you overall practice that your body is a temple – even when you’re going through such a tough time, like a divorce.
Robert: I love that, Juliet. Great, great advice and just a fantastic book. Where can people learn more about you, your firm and the book?
Juliet: You already mentioned my website: http://julietlaycoe.com/. The book has its own website: https://www.divorce-wisdom.com/. You can get the book through all major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBookstore). And you can follow me on social media:
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/JLaycoe
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/julietclaycoe/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/julietlaycoe/
Robert: I love it, and I recommend that everyone get the book. It’s a great read and there are a lot of surprises in there. Thank you for coming on and sharing some of your wisdom with it. I truly, really appreciate it. Thank you so much!