Questions for a divorce lawyer

Anyone going through or contemplating a divorce has basic questions, so DoOver.com asked leading divorce attorney Mary Commander.

Q:What is the first piece of advice you give to divorce clients?

A: The advice I give everyone is to try to avoid litigation because of the emotional wear-and-tear and the expense. If you can look at alternative means of settling your case, then you’re the one who controls your fate — not a judge.

Q: What’s the difference in cost between mediating and litigating a case?

A: In 30 years of practicing, I’ve always said that you’re going to spend 10 times more on a contested case than an uncontested case, but now I think that might be low. The truth is you have no idea what the costs will be if you argue in court.

Q: What can you do to make sure your divorce is uncontested and you don’t have to argue in court?

A: A lot of it depends on who (your ex-spouse) hires as an attorney. If he (or she) hires someone with a mean and nasty mindset ... then there’s not a lot you can do. Except courts these days are very interested in getting people into mediation. A lot of times you will have a spouse who has unrealistic ideas, and one trip to court will show them the reality.

Q: What are the first steps in divorce?

A: If you’re initiating it, I tell people that before anybody files, your best bet is to schedule a time to sit down with the other spouse to determine how much you can work out yourself. Then you use mediation before you run off and file in court. Otherwise things have to calm down from that initial filing. So if you start out with a business plan about how we are going to dissolve this partnership, you’ll be better off. You can’t avoid court in all cases.

Q: Should a spouse hide money if they think the other will take off with it?

A: It’s hard these days to hide much money, and most people know what money there is, so the person can be made to account for where it went. There’s certainly no harm in having your own bank account just to have your living expenses, not to get rich on it. Just to make sure you can pay your bills.

Q: Are you seeing an increasing trend of homemakers who divorce their spouses and demand high settlements?

A: A lot of people talk to friends, neighbors and watch TV and develop ideas about what they’re entitled to receive rather than basing it on any real legitimate guidelines, and they are difficult to dissuade. Courts look at things from a more practical perspective, and there is a limit to how much money there is available to be distributed. This does seem to be a common problem.

Q: What can a client do to help ensure a peaceful divorce?

A: The main thing is that you need to make sure that you try to keep the business part of things separate from the emotional part of things. The money really is a separate component. The custody-visitation part needs to be handled separately. The emotional part of it may require that you get separate therapy help. Courts encourage as much contact as possible. More contact with a mediocre father is better than no contact with the father. You can’t say, “He’s not paying child support so he can’t see the kids.” You need to keep things in each category. And you’ll benefit in the long run.

Q: What happens if a spouse does not pay child support?

A: You can go to the Division of Child Support enforcement or Juvenile Court and get administrative action ... There’s no excuse to not go out and get it. The one who wants something is going to have to be proactive. The tools are there.

Q: What is a reasonable alimony expectation?

A: There are no guidelines like there are for child support. It varies from case to case, but the primary thing is the income and expenses of the parties, the length of the marriage, and other things like the property division. If you get a large piece of property, then you’ll probably get less alimony.

Men get alimony too. It just depends on financial need and the ability to pay. If someone’s been married for a year, they’re not going to get it. If they’ve been married for 10 years, they’re probably going to get it. The reason for having alimony is to keep people from being burdens on society.

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