This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.
Every family law attorney likes to please a prospective client. And every client with family problems likes to hear pleasing things from potential lawyers. The problem is that a potential client needs to be a savvy consumer. Too often, lawyers try to sell exactly what the client wants to hear, whether or not that result is achievable.
And just as often the potential client only hears what he or she wants to hear. Every law school student learns the legal expression caveat emptor, or “buyer beware.” That simple piece of legal wisdom is no less applicable to the client as the consumer of legal services. The client who comes away from a legal experience most satisfied with the result is the one who has realistic expectations from the outset.
• Within the context of your divorce case, your spouse’s bad behavior probably does not matter nearly as much as you wish it did. A murderer gets punished under the criminal law. Someone burnt with inappropriately hot coffee might be entitled to money, and the perpetrator might have to pay some punitive damages under the tort laws.
But under the divorce law, the court’s sole goal is to equitably divide assets and debts and figure out what’s best for your children. The divorce laws care about bad behaviors like infidelity, emotional (non-physical) abuse, alcoholism, and many other issues only to the extent that the behaviors either hurt the children or waste marital funds. So, while we fully understand that you are angry and want nothing more than to watch the judge rip your spouse limb from limb in open court, understand there is little we can do about these issues. The divorce court is simply not going to punish them.
• Your spouse is going to see your children. It is surprisingly common for clients to come into my office and give me a laundry list of reasons why they should have sole custody of the children. Many want their spouse to have minimal visitation time, and some would like it to be supervised for one reason or another. In most cases, I have to counsel them that their expectations are unrealistic. Shared parenting is more common than sole custody.
Ohio counties have default visitation schedules, generally every other weekend, a midweek visit, and split holidays and breaks, which generally represent the minimum amount of visitation one might expect. We get that this is an extremely emotional time for you and you are very upset while going through a divorce. In time, that will hopefully subside. But in the meantime, your children deserve to have relationships with both parents. And you owe it to them to not force them to take sides.
• If you have not been working, the divorce court may expect you to go back to work. Or, if your spouse has taken off time from his or her career to raise the children, he or she may be expected to go back. This is in no way a given. It depends on many factors such as realistic career options, needs of the children, and ability to work. However, when a couple divorces, finances will change. It is a fact, but it is a fact that many clients forget. Money that once supported the household must now support two households. The law understands this, and it will not necessarily require one spouse to maintain everything after the ink is dry.
• Even if your spouse did not work throughout the marriage, he or she is still entitled to share in the employer-sponsored retirement benefits that you accrued throughout the marriage. This law harkens back to the days when women worked little outside the home. But its reasons for remaining in existence are valid. The law is based on the premise that a marriage is a joint enterprise. Even if your spouse was not gainfully employed or simply made less than you throughout the marriage, it is presumed that both sides contributed to the household in some way.
• It is in your best interests to listen to our advice. This may sound intuitive, but many clients forget this basic principle when they start researching on the Internet and talking to their friends, co-workers, Jacob from the gym, and great-aunt Esther. Not all advice is created equally. No two divorces are alike, and what worked or happened in one may not in another. And, what is seemingly making sense on the Internet or in self-help books may have little or no application to your case.
*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.