By Sandra Radna, Law Offices of Sandra M. Radna, PC
A significant life event like divorce is almost 10 times more likely to alter mental and emotional wellbeing like depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress. This can prove especially true when navigating the complexities of a highly contested divorce.
A “contested divorce” is when the spouses cannot settle on terms like child or pet custody, division of marital assets, or spousal support like alimony. In a “highly contested” divorce the parties are unable to agree to the terms presented in a settlement, resulting in litigation.
Going through a contentious divorce requires legal counsel, personal introspection, and knowledge. As a divorce lawyer of almost 30 years, I consistently see my clients struggle through the frustration, disillusionment, shock, and pain that people go through when they are not properly prepared for the divorce court system.
Here, I discuss the main pillars of how to manage highly contested divorces, in preparation for your day in court and beyond.
Get Your Mind Right
Divorce can be a traumatic experience. Most people who are in the process of divorce experience fear, shame, guilt, or are just pissed off. This is normal and a natural progression of the grief attached to the loss of a relationship that was never intended to end when the marriage began. These feelings are a normal part of the process and they are important to validate. For my clients, the first step is to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, and give them space, so that they can get their minds right to plan.
Focusing on knowledge and understanding the divorce process can help to take emotion out of the situation. If initiating the divorce, then it is important to spend several months in the planning stage, to learn about certain rights, the related costs, and the next steps. If served with papers, then consult a lawyer to understand the options available and ask for delays to allow time to plan a strategy.
Ending a marriage is a difficult decision and can create emotionally charged situations. It’s a high priority for both parties to do their best to put feelings and resentments to the side, not only to preserve mental health but to ensure each party has an optimal strategy for establishing favorable terms for custody, property, and spousal support. When in court, it is in the parties’ best interest to present a calm and rational persona to the judge.
Focus on the Children’s Wellbeing
While working to remain calm and setting aside emotions can be beneficial for both parties in a divorce, it’s also critical for divorcing parents to do the same, to protect the well-being of the children as much as possible.
The courts will assess both parents to determine if one is unfit to provide care, sometimes under supervised visitation. If the court receives proof the children are unsafe with a parent due to violence, mental health issues, or substance abuse, they’ll act in the children’s interest. If a parent has a mental illness under control by medication, or past substance abuse mitigated by recovery, courts may rule in favor of spill custody.
Courts, regardless of certain past transgressions, often rule that custody should be split 50/50 acting in the best interest of the child and parent. This can prove challenging for parents deemed unsafe based on previous evidence of coercive control, violence, or substance abuse. If a parent feels the other parent is unsafe, they should work with their lawyer to provide significant evidence of the claim
One area that is so important for divorcing parents to align on is custody or visitation agreements. It is important to establish and agree upon custody and visitation rights. Without a clear agreement, one parent may use the child as an act of manipulation by restricting access, making them unavailable during agreed-upon times, and sharing personal or untrue details with the children to unfairly push them away from the other parent, resulting in parental alienation.
Additionally, sometimes we see the parent, not in the primary home shut out of visitation and important decision making on behalf of their children, including education choices, and healthcare-related decisions, among others.
During such a difficult time, it’s also advisable to set the child up with a therapist. This will provide the child a safe space to receive counsel and guidance that can’t be sought out through their parents and allows them to speak their true feelings.
Dealing with a contested divorce puts strain on parents who might feel tempted to harm the other partner. It’s crucial that parents consider the long-term consequences of a heated divorce on the well-being and psychological development of their children. Kids who feel betrayed by one parent will often develop insecurity issues and trust problems later in life. Handling problems privately, with legal counsel, give each child an opportunity to grow and engage with both parents.
After the divorce is finalized, parents should keep records concerning visitation and custody. If they feel the other parent is not following the court’s orders, having detailed notes available and working with an attorney will help determine if returning to the court is necessary.
Recordkeeping should also extend to support payments, both upon receipt, and payment for activities such as kids’ sports or college tuition. Get proof of payment letters on official letterhead and request such documentation from the parent if it is apparent they are not making the proper payments. Talk to the other parent through email or text to prove you made various reasonable requests and to confirm or refute the completion of the task or payment.
A Lawyer is Mandatory
Never go through a contested divorce without an attorney, otherwise you will be at a severe disadvantage. Going against a contentious spouse and their lawyer who understands the ins and outs of divorce can push you to make decisions that are not in your own interests. Hiring an attorney means you have someone in your corner who has only your interests in mind.
Consider these key reasons for hiring a divorce attorney:
- They will prioritize concerns, determine resolutions, and put you in a position of strength
- An attorney will know how to articulate agreements that protect your rights and wishes, and ensure all documents are legitimized through a judge’s signature.
- No one understands divorce like a divorce attorney. They have the credentials and experience to navigate the situation as strategically as possible. Friends and Google can’t offer the same guidance.
- An attorney will understand how the law applies to your specific situation, as every divorce is unique.
However, before you go hiring someone, it’s vital you meet with the attorney in person. You want to make sure whoever you hire will listen to your concerns but is confident in their direction, unafraid to dissent from your opinions or feelings since they are standing on years of professional experience and education. You can use the local bar association to identify a reputable lawyer with references or ask for a referral from a friend. When using Google to find a reputable lawyer, be sure to check their reviews to spot any potential issues that you feel may arise.
Above all else, ensure your attorney understands the specifics of your case and has experience navigating them. Perhaps you have a special needs child, or the divorce pertains to an LGBTQ+ relationship, or there’s a complex family business at the center of the dispute. You want an attorney who knows what they are doing and is well connected to provide referrals to other specialized attorneys or professionals who can further advocate for you, that prioritize protection for your children and property.
Prepare for Your Day in Court
Highly contested divorces often end up in court. Both sides are not yielding, so they need to present their case and move forward after the judgment is reached. Attorneys will prepare their clients for court by describing the process and expectations. They will give their clients guidelines on proper attire, body language, and how they can make a positive impression on the judge.
This includes arriving early, establishing a pre-court plan with the lawyer, and being patient. Do not bring your children to the courtroom, as this might seem to the judge that you’re involving the children in the case and pushing them to “take sides.” This can backfire as it calls your judgment and parenting into question.
Judges put everyone on a level playing field, they do not “take sides” without hearing evidence. They cannot make any judgments until the presentation of all the evidence, and that only happens through a trial.
Divorce judges see many cases and view the proceedings as a contract dispute. They are not emotional about your arguments, infidelity, or the years of drug addiction that led to divorce. They treat every case the same, as their job is just to oversee the dissolution of your “contract” and get both sides to move forward.
A contested divorce may take a long time to resolve. Prepare yourself for multiple court appearances and stay in close communication with your lawyer about the next steps, any filings needed, or evidence, to move forward with proceedings toward an acceptable conclusion.
A highly contested divorce requires time, patience, and perspective. Find a reputable lawyer to get educated on the process of divorce, especially if they are highly contentious, to work toward the best possible outcomes for you and your family’s future.
Sandra M. Radna, Esq. is the owner of New York-based Law Offices of Sandra M. Radna, PC. With over 28 years of experience, Radna specializes in highly contested divorces, child custody, pre- and post-nuptial agreements, domestic violence, and more. Radna is also the author of the book You’re Getting Divorced…Now What?