News of celebrity divorces with mega-sized price tags might add to the sting we non-millionaires going through similar splits already feel. After all, multimillionaires can afford high-priced lawyers, therapists, babysitters and vacation escapes to help them through the strain. But what about the rest of us?
As high and mighty as power couples like Bill and Melinda, Kim and Kanye or Mary-Kate and Olivier might seem, divorce is a great equalizer. The property assessments might be different, but I can speak from experience in my work as a high-value divorce attorney, that money doesn’t prevent people from being hurt, jealous, spiteful, petty and subject to poor decision-making under the emotional trials of a divorce. But it doesn’t take a private jet to rise above these pitfalls and make your own divorce as smooth as possible. Here is a “translation guide” to put celebrity divorce terms to work for the rest of us.
Styled as "conscious uncoupling" by Gwyneth Paltrow, this is basically just a Goop-y way of saying “take the high road.” It also can be taken to mean, “Don’t let a total stranger in a black robe bang a gavel and decide what’s best for you.” It is also a phrase that describes two people who have decided to end their amorous love and sexual relationship, but still recognize a remaining friendship or co-parenting relationship that exists between the two for years to come.
In legal terminology, "conscious uncoupling" can also refer to an “uncontested divorce.” That’s when a couple has shouldered the hard work of creating an amicable split themselves, and they have come to equitable agreements on division of their home, assets and custody of their children.
This form of uncoupling is also budget-conscious, because attorneys aren’t needed to fight out every detail. They only come in to draft the paperwork — an enforceable contract known as a divorce decree.
‘Splitting up the charitable foundation’
Even if you don’t have a Gates Foundation-sized fortune, you may have children and a college fund to look after. Though children can raise some of the most contentious issues in a divorce — for millionaires and mortals alike — now is the time to focus on your role as a co-parent and partner, not a jilted lover. There are smart strategies to create equitable arrangements that put the well-being of children first, and squabbling aside.
It’s common for stewardship of a college savings account, such as a 529 account, to be awarded to one party to manage, but not all divorce agreements require ongoing contributions to college savings. However, putting your children’s future first may mean reaching an agreement that each spouse contributes a manageable percentage of their income each year.
While I’m generally an advocate for couples working to achieve as much agreement as they can on their own, if you are having difficulty agreeing on issues of child support or custody, there are next steps I recommend:
- First, get down to the absolute worst-case scenario that you could still grudgingly live with. One that means giving up some things you deeply want, yet is survivable. Ask your spouse to do the same. In other words, compromise.
- Failing that, Step 2 is to enlist the help of a legal professional. There may be a time for mediators and therapists, but if Step 1 has been exhausted, that time has passed. It is time to hammer out an enforceable, legal agreement.
So, you didn’t have a prenup that sorted out division of property issues before the marriage even began? That’s OK, neither did Bill and Melinda Gates. There are still a few options at your disposal if your marriage is in flux.
If something threatening to the stability of your marriage has occurred — such as infidelity — it might present a window of opportunity to create a postmarital agreement. This puts a financial agreement in place, to be deployed only in the event the union cannot be salvaged. State laws vary on this point, so seek legal counsel.
If you are in the midst of a difficult period but haven’t yet employed an attorney, you might seek the assistance of a financial adviser, or a marriage counselor, to get to a place of fiscal transparency.
The majority of couples, whether lean or loaded, don’t have a prenuptial agreement, which is primarily the province of the ultra-rich. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a fair financial shake.
During a divorce, just about everyone needs an opportunity to vent, a sympathetic ear, or practical advice at one or many points in the process. That’s OK. Phone a friend, go out for drinks, find a shoulder to cry on — but do it in person, in private. Resist the ever-present temptation to badmouth your ex on social media, no matter how furious or forsaken you may feel.
Social media posts can take on a life of their own. They live forever. They may be seen by professional contacts or by your children. They may even wind up as evidence in a courtroom hearing in which your fitness as a custodial parent is being assessed.
Even if there aren’t paparazzi gunning for photos of your ugly cry or tabloid reporters hoping you’ll have a messy court battle, maintaining a public face of grace under pressure serves your interests in myriad ways, some of which might not even be apparent until years in the future. Go ahead and scream. Just keep it out of the media.
Co-Founder and Partner, Kirker Davis LLP
Holly R. Davis is a legal commentator, entrepreneur, partner and nationally recognized litigator who manages over 30 associate attorneys. She founded and developed two multimillion-dollar law firms before the age of 35. Skilled in trial advocacy, business management, family law and civil litigation, Davis also is a weekly legal commentator for Court TV and Dan Abrams' Law and Crime Trial Network.