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The Three Worst Mistakes People Make When Getting a Divorce

Having an expensive, runaway, ruinous breakup is more avoidable than you think

When most people think of divorce, they think of animosity, custody battles and couples duking not out in a court battle.

There are some very good reasons divorce has gotten such a bad rap. For starters, it is a difficult and daunting process (even without having to navigate legalese and the court system). Also, until the fairly recent past (mid 20th century), divorce was all about winning and losing (whose "fault" was it for the demise of the marriage?). Finally, it's easier to leave someone you hate than someone you still have a warm place in your heart for (although the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference).

So people gear up for battle and make some pretty costly mistakes because they simply don't know any better.

Mistake #1: Asking your friend, neighbor or cousin for the name of the lawyer they used last year.

You might be surprised to hear this is the wrong way to find an attorney but I've seen this get people into more trouble (and rack up more unnecessary charges) than anything else. Why? Because not all attorneys are created equal. Some attorneys are bull dogs and some are hand-holders; some are collaborators, some are litigators and some are mediators; some specialize in custody disputes, some are better with a self-employed spouse situation and some are more knowledgeable about pre- and post-nuptial agreements; some care that you have limited funds and some don't, some are ethical and some are not.

The attorney who was so fabulous for your sister's divorce may be the absolute worst lawyer for you.

REMEDY: Do your research! Don't just pick the most important professional you'll ever have working for you based on a recommendation. Get several names and ask the recommender why they liked the attorney they are suggesting. Have a list of questions for the attorney based on your set of circumstances. If you are divorcing someone who is a venture capitalist and you've never been involved in the family finances, ask your prospective attorney what he or she knows about the V.C. world. Instead of telling them your marriage history, use your free consultation call to find out about how they operate and what they specialize in.

Mistake #2: Being overly aggressive or deceptive out of the gate.

Unless you know you're going to do battle with your soon-to-be-ex, don't assume the worst. How you start the divorce process sets the tone for the entire process thereafter and if you pull a preemptive protective move, your spouse may feel threatened and feel they have to act in kind. This kind of situation escalates so fast it's absurd.

One man I'm working with got scared when he saw how much his wife was spending once they both agreed to get divorced. Although he says he meant to notify her right away, he reduced his wife's credit limit without telling her. She discovered it by trying to make a purchase and having her card declined. Given that she was humiliated and scared (because she was completely dependent on him for money), she saw this move as him playing hard ball. She retaliated by hiring a shark of an attorney who was only too happy to dredge up the past, create an exaggerated story of his abuses and file a restraining order against him. As an added bonus, she had him served at work in the middle of the day in front of all his co-workers.

Now they are off to the races. They've probably each spent nearly $4,000 and they haven't even filed divorce papers yet. At this rate, they could easily spend close to six-figures before it's all said and done.

REMEDY: Dial it back! Ask for a time out and a "do-over." And let the other person know in no uncertain terms that you are sorry for the mistake you made (in this case, both made mistakes so either could apologize). Let your ex know that you have every intention of working WITH him or her. It may take a while for trust to rebuild but the sooner you turn the dynamic around, the sooner you can get on the right (and less expensive) track.

Mistake #3: Putting too much emphasis on "fairness."

All too often, one or both spouses get so wrapped up in the fight and getting what is rightfully theirs, that they forget about what really matters—like the children. Obviously, not everyone divorcing has kids and this dynamic can also apply to childless couples who get carried away with getting what's rightfully theirs, But, in divorce, there is no such thing as fair and neither party should expect to feel "whole" at the end of the process. The term most attorneys encourage their clients to use is "equitable" which basically means evenly divided or fair enough.

Unless one spouse is giving way more than he or she needs to, you should expect to feel like you're losing something—and perhaps even something major. I'm not suggesting that you walk away in the face of an egregious oversight but fighting over every last thing can cost you more in the long run. If your attorney is ethical, he or she will help you see that it's not worth fighting tooth and nail for a $10,000 car when it will cost you $9,000 to do that. I've seen more people fight "in order to prove a point," only to wake up a year after the divorce with tremendous regret. The money or asset they fought about was clearly not worth it yet they had to prove their point.

REMEDY: Get (and keep) perspective about what is worth pursuing and what is not. Surround yourself with people who can talk some sense into you when your rational mind goes off-line (which it undoubtedly will). Revenge doesn't exist in divorce because no matter much you try to punish your mate, you, your kids or both will invariably end up the losers. Keep in mind that money you pay to the attorneys is money that you and your kids will never get back.

CONCLUSION" Divorce is hard, but adding a tremendous bill to the mix can make it downright destructive. Spending ridiculous sums of money is more avoidable than you think and if your attorney isn't heeding your request to stop drumming up charges, you may have to find a new attorney.

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