The Top 3 Questions Divorce Clients Ask
Whether you’re just thinking about divorce or in the throes of it, you probably have a million questions swirling around your brain. If you’re like me, when something’s worrying you, it's hard to think about or do anything else until you find an answer. Worry is paralyzing.
Have you ever noticed when you’re faced with a concern, your brain automatically comes up with the worst answer possible? If you do this, you’re not alone. In fact, negative thinking is so prevalent that psychologists have given it a name. Ready for this one? It’s called “awfulizing.” According to research, psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis coined the term in the 1950’s to describe “the act of escalating a situation into the most negative possible conclusion, often with no concrete evidence to prove its validity.” That’s right - NO concrete evidence.
Yet you and I do it every day. And when we begin to awfulize, the amygdala, that almond-shaped gray matter in our brain cortex, triggers our fight-or-flight response. Our body responds as though we’re experiencing an actual threat, whether it’s real or not. And while divorce is a real threat, assuming the worst possible outcome for the myriad other things you’ll have to figure out is going to send your poor little amygdala into fight-or-flight hyperdrive.
if you’re one of the gazillions who jump to the worst conclusion (and I’m raising both my hands on this one), this would be an ideal time for you to try to work on limiting your “divorce awfulizing”. Divorce is stressful enough without your little gray almond making it worse. There are many articles with good tools for how to work on this. Here’s one I like:
“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”
It also helps to get real answers to help define what’s ahead of you. Even if it’s not a walk in the park, I think it’s always less stressful to know what you’re dealing with. So, let’s get to it. We’re going to take a few minutes here to knock out the 3 questions I hear most from women facing divorce.*
#1. How long will this take?
It’s the thing women most want to know in that initial consultation. Sometimes it’s because she’s been thinking about it for a while and wants it over with yesterday. But just as often it’s not because she wants out quickly, but because her spouse is pressuring her to get it done.
“My husband said we can be divorced in 30 days. That doesn’t seem right. We’ve been married for 9 years and have 2 kids! How long will this really take?” - Rachel, 34, Portland
Regardless of your own motivation, my answer is the same: It’s going to take a while. A while, like it takes a while to make a baby. Yes, we’re talking several months or longer. And even if you think your case is simple and straightforward, expect it to take longer than you think.
The shortest of divorce cases takes about 60-90 days from start to finish, and that’s when you agree on everything from the get-go. Those are rare. I’ve known quite a few divorces to last well over a year. And the longest divorce case I’ve been involved with? That one took 3 ½ years from filing to trial. It was the kind of case where they argued over everything (and ended with someone in jail, but that’s a story for a glass of wine and another day).
If you’re looking for a range, the average “uncontested” divorce (meaning you agree on everything) takes 3-4 months. The average “contested” divorce (meaning you don’t agree right away, but not necessarily that you go to trial) takes 9-15 months.
Part of why divorces take so long is the system, which is slow and inefficient. Judges are overloaded, managing hundreds of cases at one time. Usually they don’t have enough resources ($$) to get the job done any quicker than they are.
Also, your lawyer is busy. I know you think your divorce case is the most important thing in the world. And it absolutely is, to you. But if you hire a lawyer worth a lick of salt, she’s got other clients. And these clients also think their divorce is the most important thing in the world, and are demanding her time.
But the single biggest reason divorces take so long is because of you, and the person to whom you said “I do.” Years of doing this work taught me that divorces are final when both spouses are ready for them to be. I want to say that again. Divorces are final when BOTH spouses are ready for them to be. And not a minute sooner. It’s not going to happen when he wants, or when you want. It’s going to happen when both of you have enough information to make a decision, are ready to compromise enough to reach a settlement, and move on.
#2. How much will this cost?
We’re talking legal fees. Unlike personal injury lawyers, divorce lawyers can’t work on contingent fees, meaning you’re going to pay them for each hour, or tenth of the hour, they work on your case. While I’ve heard more and less on both ends of this, divorce lawyers typically charge from about $150 an hour in rural areas to $450+ in larger cities. How much your lawyer will charge depends in part on where you live and how much experience she has. So now that you know the hourly rate range, how much will this thing cost in total?
“My husband flipped when I told him my lawyer wants a $5,000 retainer. Is this normal?”
Deborah, age 42, Florida
Yes, Deborah, it is. Many lawyers require an up-front retainer. $5,000 is neither outrageous nor uncommon. Look, if your case settles quickly, you could spend less than that. (Hopefully your lawyer will refund anything you don’t spend.) But I wouldn’t expect it. One study on Nolo found that the average divorce costs $15,500. And if you don’t settle and go trial, you could be looking at $50,000 - $100,000 or more. I’ve seen cases where the fees ran well in excess of a million dollars! Before you freak out completely, that’s far from the norm. Just like 3 ½ years is far from the norm.
I want you to understand that cheaper is not usually better. There are billboard lawyers who will handle your divorce for $500. I say run away as fast as you can. I mean these people no disrespect, but you get what you pay for. A really good divorce lawyer is worth his weight in gold.
If you don’t have $5,000 - much less $50,000 - lying around, you’ll have to get creative. If you have generous family members or friends, by all means accept their generosity with a huge thank you (and later on buy them a nice bottle of bubbly). If not, you can look at borrowing on credit cards or a home equity line of credit, or borrowing against or withdrawing from your 401k. Just be careful with the latter, because you’ll need to set aside enough from what you take out to cover both penalties and income taxes on the withdrawal. If none of those are options for you, you can ask the judge to require your spouse to pay your legal fees. Ask your lawyer the likelihood of this happening, as whether to award fees is usually in the judge’s discretion.
3. Can I stop this from happening?
“I still love my husband and don’t want a divorce. But he won’t even go to counseling. Can I stop him from getting a divorce?” - Angie, age 47, Houston, TX
Oh friend, my heart is hurting if you’re asking this one. It hurts because it’s awful to want to stay married to someone who’s telling you he doesn’t want to stay married to you. And it hurts because the answer I have to give you . . . is no. No, you can’t stop your spouse from divorcing you, if he’s dead set on it happening.
If you believe your marriage is savable, then do everything you can. Ask him to commit to counseling for 6 months before filing. Better yet, ask him to go on a marriage retreat. Winshape has what they call marriage “intensives.” https://marriage.winshape.org/intensives My close friend’s husband told her he would give her the divorce she wanted, but only if she went on this 4-day retreat with him first. That was 3 years ago, and they’re happily-ish still married. If you think there’s a chance, do the work you need to do on yourself, and on your marriage. It may not be too late.
But if despite your best efforts he refuses to go to counseling, or goes but won’t do one thing the therapist recommends, then you’re going to have to face reality.
All states now have some version of a no-fault divorce, meaning your spouse can get a divorce if he tells the court it’s over. Eventually. You can slow it down, you can refuse to be rushed, and you can - and should - take your time to make smart decisions. Remember, your divorce will be finalized when both of you are ready for it to be (See question #1 above). So, while you can’t prevent a divorce if it’s what your spouse wants, you absolutely can take some control over the process and how you deal with it.
Now girl, I know you have many more questions. Every week here at Divorce in Good Company we’re adding meaningful content to help you find answers, stay positive, and be good to yourself. I hope this information helps you even the teensiest tiniest bit.
Stay strong my friend. I promise you, you’re in good company.
*Remember that these are general answers to common questions.While the answers will apply most of the time, they’re not set in stone. If you think your situation is different, ask your lawyer for guidance.