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What am I an expert at? Well, among other things, divorce. 2 of my 3 siblings are attorneys, but not me... my experience is all personal and all painful. So when, in my circle of friends, a divorce is starting, often the refrain goes up "ask freeda!" God bless my friends, they've listened to it all over the last 15 years or so.
It isn't that I know the law that well. I do know certain things about the law in my state, as it pertains to us. But I am not an attorney and my advice is not legal advice. It is just self-preservation advice, and follows general themes: look out for yourself and your kid(s) first. Operate cautiously and within the law. Track everything. Make things as specific as possible. Look to the future and to a time when your life is different than now.
So, with no further ado, here's my divorce advice. Since I am NOT an attorney, it's really a letter to myself. Like, an essay. Anything but legal advice. Because it's NOT legal advice.
Dear 19 year old freeda,
Hey, you're getting divorced and that sucks. But you can keep the suckage to a minimum. You can make it so it just sucks now, and for the first couple of years while you get the hang of it. If you don't, it may suck until your kids turns 18 and beyond!! Be smart now. Go ahead and be hurt, be angry, be betrayed, but then set it aside for a bit and be smart.
- Get a parenting time plan in place as soon as possible. Be fair, but keep in mind you may be setting a precedent for what is to come. My divorce took about 18 months. Those 18 months set a pattern for the kid, and courts are invested in maintaining the status quo for the child. Make sure you have it in writing because...
- Start a calendar now. List when he calls her, when he visits her, and when he has her overnight. (And how it compares to what you agreed on.) If he walks away now, yet later tries to establish some dad-heavy custody arrangement, you will be able to prove what his pattern has been. If your child is young, you can show the judge that based on the patterns HE established, she's not accustomed to being without mom for very long at a time. You will want to make sure to document when plans get cancelled, promises broken - anything that makes it unstable and unpredictable for your child, as that is damaging to them. Remember, in court if it's not documented it doesn't exist.
- Make sure you have - in writing - a "plan A" for if he lives within 100 miles of you, and a "plan B" for if he lives more than 100 miles from you, because you don't want to have to go back to court if either of you wants to move. (Your state may still require it, but it does help set an expectation of what it will look like if that happens, which helps reduce conflict.) How often will parenting time occur? Are the costs shared? Or are they the burden of the parent who moved away? What if that is not affordable? Will you allow for extra telephone time or skype to maintain the relationship? Extra holiday and school vacation time? It took me nine months in court to get permission to move 200 miles away. I had to drive her back alllllll the way to our regular meeting place, just once a month instead of twice a month. It sucked bigtime, especially since when he moved, I met him halfway. Ugh, it still pisses me off.
- Don't allow him "first right of refusal" for child care. If your soon to be ex gets first right of refusal, that means ANY TIME you want to get a sitter, you have to ask him if he'd like to have the kid first, before you can hire a sitter or send her to your mom's. So basically you are asking his permission any time you want to go on a date in the future. Um, no.
- Don't shoot yourself in the foot. Make sure every right that is protected for him, is protected for you too. On a similar note, don't try to limit him in ways that you don't want to be limited, ie "no overnight guests", which may later hinder your romantic life. My divorce says the non custodial parent gets essentially unlimited telephone contact - and he does call her almost every day. You know what it doesn't say? That I get phone contact. So I have had periods of 2 months over the summer with ZERO contact with my child, and nothing I could do about it. Let it be a cautionary tale.
- Make sure that it is specified that he pays half of all work-related child care, half of extra-curricular activities, and half of orthodontia and driver's education fees. Anything that is above and beyond daily maintenance needs to be specified, and don't allow the phrase "mutually agreed upon" because then all he has to say is "I didn't agree to gymnastics classes".
- Think beyond the age your child is at now, to the "extraordinary" expenses they will incur as they grow. Are you aware that (at least in my state) driver's ed is over 200 bucks? Good luck getting half (or all, or any) from him if it isn't court ordered. School lunch costs me about 80 bucks a month. Yearbooks are about 75 bucks. Senior pictures are a couple hundred and so is driver's ed, a class ring, prom dress... These costs go up every year. Want to set aside a thousand bucks for their first car? Five grand towards a wedding? Really think hard about having him contribute some amount to a 529 plan for her starting now, because it is very hard to enforce divorce orders as they relate to paying for college once the child is over 18. (By all means, contribute an equal (or proportionate) amount towards these causes as well.) Now's the time. You will NOT get a second chance.
- Specify X number of weeks or days for him for summer break, not "all of summer break except X for mom" because the school breaks change a lot and you'll get shafted. Our summer break used to be mid June to mid august. Then they changed a law to extend the tourism season and added two weeks to the summer break. Guess who got that time? Not me!
- For summer, make sure that you cap how long she can be there "not to exceed 21 days" or whatever, or he'll find a way to squeeze his time around to take her for a huge block of time.
- Make sure that your Mother's Day parenting time and Father's Day parenting time encompass the whole weekend, not just X o'clock to X o'clock on the day of. You don't want to share that time and neither does he, so just build it into the pattern.
- Make sure that your meeting times are specified, like "From Friday no earlier than 3pm and no later than 8 pm." so you have something enforceable. A police officer told me that if the court order in my hand only states she has to come home on Sunday, then they can't do anything until midnight.
- Be very specific about the limitations on Spring Break from school ... does it start when they're released from school (which is Wednesday here), or does it start Friday or Monday? When does it end?
- Don't go off the cookie cutter holiday divisions the court hands you as a default. Think about what holidays are important to each of you and your families. I don't care about Halloween but I like to have her for Easter so we made a permanent trade instead of having every other year.
- You will get a lot of advice about emptying bank accounts, etc. Consult an attorney before you do anything of that nature. That is tricky, tricky territory.
- Put a provision in there saying that he can only claim her on his taxes if his child support is not in arrears as of Dec 31 of the tax year in question. I can't tell you how many tax years my ex claimed my kid without paying a dime of child support. So he paid nothing, then because he and his wife are low income, they got free EIC money from Uncle Sam. That's a racket.
- Don't freak out. He's going to say all sorts of garbage, and you can expect some ranting about taking your child from you. You've seen some of the idiots who have been allowed to keep their children. You are not going to lose your child. Don't negotiate with terrorists. Don't allow him to treat you like crap. End the conversation and take it back up when he can be civil and stay on point.
- Hope is the enemy. He's being nice this week? Reasonable? He's trying? Well yippy frickin' skippy. Don't waver from the course you have set, which is to come up with an appropriate, specific, and enforceable plan.
- Exhaustion is also the enemy. You will feel worn down. He's trying to wear you down. So you do stupid stuff like agree to reduced child support. Don't be in a hurry. You are going to live with this document which dictates a large part of your life for up to 18 years. Take the time to get it right.
- Impatience is also the enemy. You will meet someone great, someone new, and feel chained to your old life as you are trying to start a new one. If this new romance is real, it will still be there at the end of this mess. Take your time, and get it right!!!
- In court, you will be nervous. He will tell the judge all sorts of horrible things about you. Your job is to not react to that, because then you look like a loon. Respond only to the questions asked - by the judge, not by him. When it's your turn, raise only points that deal with the law. Character assassination only makes him look like an ass - but ONLY if you don't take the bait. Let him look like an ass. Related note: It's hilarious when the judge yells at him, but don't laugh. Also, don't argue with the judge, or he'll yell at you, which is terrifying.
- Speaking of only raising points that deal with the law, learn what the custody standard is in your state. My state has maybe ten points. I was able to go down each item well ahead of time, analyze whether I was superior or deficient on each point, and figure out how to express (preferably in writing) that I was superior. Since the process of getting to court took ages, I was able to beef up any areas that were questionable as to which of us would be superior. When we got to court, anything the ex said that was not related to those ten points, I disregarded. The judge never asked me to answer any of the ex's stupid accusations - he stayed on the custody standard and so did I. Also, the ex looked stupid because he didn't have any documentation to prove any of the points he was trying to make.
- Think twice about telling all your marital woes on Facebook, and to family and friends. What if you reconcile 3 months down the road. Will your family be able to have him over for Thanksgiving and have everything be okay? Or did you say some things they'll never be able to unhear? Related to this: sign up for some counseling if you can. It can't hurt.
- Remember: Your ex may become a better or more engaged parent. Instead of you handling all the parenting while he dorks around, he's going to have undivided time with his kid, and that may benefit them even if it does take him a while to figure out what the hell he's doing. In conjunction with that, you have to remember that he will do things different from you. That doesn't mean that he is doing it "wrong". I had a cow when my 8 year old got to watch Children of the Corn. Would a judge care? No - it doesn't affect her health and safety.
- I reiterate: He's a parent, just like you. Parents get to make decisions for their kids - even dumb ones. Think really hard about this, because it's going to happen!!!
- Remember: Some day you are going to want to dance with this guy at your daughter's wedding. Not because you like him, because face it, he's kind of a dick. But because you love your daughter and you want her day to be perfect. You want it to be about her, not about you. You want her to feel supported and loved and not have any other tension undermine that in any way. Because you are good mom, you will work tirelessly towards being able to give her this, one of your final gifts as a parent.
- Finally, look around you. You are surrounded by people who found true love after their first, second, or even subsequent attempts went awry. There are love stories happening every day. Maybe this wasn't yours. But your new love story may be just around the corner with someone else, like mine was. Maybe your new love story is about learning to love yourself, and to be independent. It's never too late to start over. It's never too late to find love. You deserve it, and your kid deserves to grow up in a house where healthy relationships are there for them to learn from.
image via zazzle.com
Another disclaimer: this is not legal advice, I am not an attorney, and I cannot be held liable in any way for your use of the above essay.
Oh, and to forestall any quizzical expressions, no I'm not getting divorced. I actually wrote most of this up for a friend who is starting the process right now. (I am disgustingly in love. Sorry, it's kinda gross sometimes. :D)
So, what are you an expert at? Leave me a comment, I really want to know how to can tomatoes! And if you are an attorney, or a survivor of divorce, how did I do? Anything you would caution against?