Very few people are at their best when they are getting a divorce. That’s not surprising. It’s hard to operate at the top of your game when your entire life has just imploded and it feels like you’re walking around with an ice pick in your chest.
The irony, of course, is that, at the very time in your life when your emotions are raging out of control and you are the least equipped to make good decisions, you are expected to make one life-changing decision after another.
It doesn’t help that going through a divorce is like trying to find your way around a foreign country when you don’t speak the language. Even when you’re doing the best you can, it’s easy to make a wrong turn and get lost.
What is a Divorce Mistake?
Mistakes, like beauty, are often in the eye of the beholder. What you might think is a mistake (like giving up too much money in your divorce settlement), someone else might think is brilliant! (You might have lost money, but it helped to end your divorce months sooner than it would have otherwise taken.)
To me, a divorce mistake is anything that makes your divorce more painful or ugly. Anything that causes your divorce to take longer or cost more is also probably a mistake (unless you enjoy supporting your local divorce lawyer!)
A mistake is anything that hurts your children any more than is absolutely necessary. Finally, anything that violates your core values, or will make you cringe a few years from now when you think about how you acted is, in my opinion, a mistake.
While avoiding every divorce pitfall is next to impossible, if you can get through your divorce without making most of these mistakes, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
21 Mistakes to Avoid When Getting a Divorce
- Thinking your divorce lawyer will take care of everything for you. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, no divorce lawyer is going to do EVERYTHING for you in your divorce. No lawyer is going to gather all of your financial documents, separate your personal property, find a new place for you to live, or talk to your spouse about the kids because you don’t feel like doing it yourself. Lawyers handle the legal parts of your case. Period. The rest is up to you.
- Going through your divorce without a therapist. Divorce is 80% emotional. While you might think you are perfectly capable of handling your emotions yourself, when you are locked in battle with someone who knows how to push every button you have, staying calm and thinking rationally is a challenge. The same thing is true if you’re so depressed that getting out of bed in the morning is now a crowning achievement. Having a therapist or a divorce coach on your team can help your divorce go more smoothly than you may imagine.
- Getting a divorce without getting any legal advice. DIY divorce may be all the rage these days, but it has some serious downsides. What’s worse is that you may not be able to repair the mistakes you are making now. Yes, divorce lawyers are expensive. No, not everyone needs full on legal representation throughout their divorce. But, unless you have nothing to lose, going through your divorce without getting any legal advice at all is risky, foolish, and usually a huge mistake.
- Taking your spouse off of your health insurance plan as soon as you file for divorce. Please don’t do this – especially if your spouse has any kind of serious medical condition that requires medication or regular care! Not only is cancelling your spouse’s health insurance wrong but it can also prove to be an expensive mistake. You may be held liable to pay your spouse’s uncovered medical expenses. Plus, if you can’t get your spouse back on your policy because it’s not an open enrollment period, you may be paying for this mistake for a long time.
- Fighting over cheap personal property. Almost every divorce lawyer has stories about couples who spent thousands of dollars fighting over some item of personal property (a vacuum cleaner, an ashtray, landscaping rocks, etc.) that was worth a few hundred dollars – or less! If you find yourself fighting with your spouse over the Tupperware, stop! Ask yourself: “What am I really fighting about? What matters here?” If you are being honest, I promise you that your answer will NOT be “the Tupperware.” (THIS is why you need a therapist or a divorce coach!)
- Not taking charge of (and responsibility for) your own divorce. Whether getting a divorce was your idea, or whether your spouse wanted a divorce but you didn’t, once your divorce has started, you HAVE to engage with it. Burying your head in the sand will only make your divorce harder and more painful. It will also dramatically increase the chances that you will not get what is important to you in your divorce. No matter how upset or depressed you are, get up, man up, make some goals, and start taking action to achieve them.
- Moving out of the house with the kids, without telling your spouse. Unless you and the kids have been the victims of documented domestic violence, taking your kids and running is almost always going to come back and bite you. Even if you tell your spouse your address after you move, that still doesn’t mean that some judge won’t order you to return the kids to your home – quite possibly without you. That is not a position you want to be in.
- Not following court orders. Court orders are ORDERS. They are not suggestions. Not doing what your divorce judge told you to do can get you held in contempt of court, thrown in jail, ordered to pay fines, ordered to pay your spouse’s attorney’s fees, or subjected to whatever other punishment the court believes is warranted under the circumstances. Plus, it does not endear you to the judge. Later on, when you need the judge to decide some other issue in your case, don’t think that the judge won’t remember that you blew him or her off before.
- Refusing to compromise about anything. Divorce requires compromise. Period. Full stop. Unless your spouse totally caves in (which is not particularly likely) you are not going to get everything you want. You are going to have to give in on some things. The more you dig in your heels, the longer your divorce will take and the more it will cost. Plus, in the end, even if you go all the way through trial, some judge will still probably order you to give up things you didn’t want to lose.
- Not verifying the numbers on your budget and balance sheet. Even if you were the spouse who managed the money in your marriage, making a budget based upon what you “think” or “remember” your income and expenses to be, without taking the time to double-check your numbers, can cause your budget to be complete garbage. No matter how much of a pain it may be, verifying that your divorce budget and balance sheet are accurate can save you from making enormous financial mistakes in your divorce.
- Withdrawing large sums of money out of the joint account without your spouse’s knowledge or agreement. Do you really think your spouse won’t notice? Really?! Unilaterally removing large sums of money from your bank account is the quickest way I know to get yourself slapped with an injunction that freezes all of your financial accounts. Plus, a judge will probably order you to return the money, and maybe pay your spouse’s attorney’s fees too. It doesn’t matter that the only reason you did this was to prevent your spouse from doing it first. Do things the right way. Talk to your spouse. Talk to your lawyer. Do what the court says.
- Telling your kids all sorts of horrible things about your spouse (even if they are true!). Your children are products of both you AND your spouse. When you start bad-mouthing your spouse to your kids, you hurt your kids. It doesn’t matter whether you are telling your kids “the truth.” There are some things that children just don’t need to know about their parents. So, take the high road. Resist the temptation to over-share.
- Doing anything on purpose, just to hurt your spouse. Yes, hurting your spouse (especially when s/he hurt you badly first) may feel good for a while. But it will almost always make you feel bad later. Who are you? What are your values? What kind of an example do you want to show your kids? As tempting as it may be to needle your spouse just because you can, resist the urge. Later on, you’ll be glad you did.
- Kicking the can on sensitive child-related issues. If you and your spouse disagree on critical parenting issues, you need to discuss those issues, and find some way to resolve them, during your divorce. The same thing is true if you and your spouse have had fertility issues and have to decide what will happen to frozen embryos. Dealing with these issues now will be emotional and difficult. Putting off the discussion until after you are divorced, and expecting to deal with the issues then, will likely be worse.
- Not making a post-divorce budget before you settle your case. You may think you’ll be fine after your divorce is over, but unless you actually run the numbers, you can’t know for sure whether the budget you have in your head will actually work in practice. What’s more, you need to base your proposed budget on facts, not feelings. For example, if you plan on moving out of the marital home after you are divorced, and you haven’t researched what a new apartment will cost – do it now! You don’t want to start your post-divorce life living on the streets or eating cat food because you miscalculated your living expenses when making your budget.
- Asking your kids to deliver messages or money to your spouse. You are an adult. Be one. Keep your kids out of the middle of your divorce. If you and your spouse have issues, work them out yourselves. Don’t involve your kids.
- Not keeping a joint calendar for the kids’ during and after your divorce. Keeping track of all of your kids’ activities, medical appointments, and schedules is daunting for intact families. When you are getting a divorce, or once you are divorced, it’s even harder. There are lots of digital parenting tools that can help you automate your kids’ schedule so that everyone knows what is going on with the kids all the time. The sooner you start to use that kind of a calendar, the more smoothly your kids will transition into their new situation, and the more you will lower everyone’s stress level.
- Not understanding the tax implications of your divorce settlement before it is final. You don’t have to be a CPA. But, if you don’t understand some basic tax principles, you may find that the amount of money you actually get in your divorce settlement is dramatically different form the amount of money that you thought you would be getting. Before you agree to any divorce settlement, run the numbers by an accountant or your divorce financial planner. That will reduce the risk that you will be surprised later.
- Hiding money. Yes, this one is controversial. If you hide money and you don’t get caught, then hiding money (essentially stealing from your spouse) seems like a good idea. The problem is, if you do get caught (and most people do), you will usually end up paying way more money than what you would have paid if you had been honest in the first place. Plus, whether you believe it or not, karma happens. You may get away with stealing money now. But, some day, some way, what you do will come back to you.
- Not making sure your parenting schedule works BEFORE you enter it in court. A lot of things that look good on paper turn out to be a nightmare in real life. Until you have lived with a parenting schedule for a while, it is hard to judge whether it works or not. You may find that your kids don’t function well with the schedule you and your spouse set up. Or, you may discover that exchanging the kids during the height of rush hour traffic makes everyone’s life miserable. The best way to make a parenting schedule is to set it up, start living with it, change it as necessary and THEN put it into your final divorce judgment.
- Assuming that you can change your divorce judgment later. Many people include terms in their divorce judgment that they don’t really agree with because they assume that they can just change those terms later. That’s not always true! While the portions of your divorce judgment that pertain to your kids may be modifiable, other parts of your judgment may not be. Plus, changing your divorce judgment will require you to go back to court. It will cost you time and money. There is also no guarantee that the judge will allow you to make the change that you want.
Avoiding Mistakes in Your Divorce
Getting a divorce is fraught with potential pitfalls. These are just some of the most common mistakes that people make. There are more.
If you want to avoid making critical mistakes in your divorce, there are two things you must do: 1) educate yourself, and 2) put together the best divorce team that you can.
With the right knowledge and information, and the right professional guidance, you should be able to avoid making the most painful divorce mistakes. That, in turn, will put you in the best position to start a new life once your divorce is behind you.
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