After you have the basic information and an idea of how property division works, your attorney can get to some of the areas that will follow you long after the divorce and potentially cost you down the line. Issues involving spousal support, child support and the custody of any minor children are not only difficult to negotiate, but often wind up back in court if one party is unhappy with the arrangement or there is a significant change in circumstances.
While this may be inevitable at some point, negotiating to agreeable terms in the first place will put you in a far greater position than simply settling on something you are unhappy with and figuring you can change it later. The factors that determine the outcome of these issues are very subjective to location and can be extremely circumstantial, so be prepared to provide examples and ask questions when they arise during your initial consultation.
Who will have to pay alimony, how much and for how long are very common questions when trying to figure out an idea of how the divorce will pan out. The requirements and laws determining maintenance awards vary by state and circumstance, so the more initial information you can give your attorney up front, the more reliable of an assessment you can get (though don’t expect it to be absolute — many things can change throughout the course of the case). Some of the information you will want to have available includes:
- The income of both parties — A disparity between incomes plays a major role in determining whether or not a spouse is awarded support. Bring the last few years tax returns if you have them available, and if not, try and come up with as close of an estimate as possible; your attorney will be able to verify the exact number later.
- Earning history and income potential of both parties — How much you both have made and where your career potentials cap out will also factor into who receives alimony. If one spouse left the workforce for an extended period of time to stay at home with the kids, it could adversely affect their earning potential and make them a more likely candidate to receive maintenance.
- A snapshot of monthly expenses —Alimony attempts to balance and retain the same standard of living after the divorce that was held during the marriage. Combined with each individual’s income, an attorney is able to estimate how much support the courts will likely deem necessary during and after the case. If you have an organized and documented budget, this information will be easy to access. If not, simply do the best you can to come up with a rough approximation of your monthly expenses.
- The length of marriage and age of both spouses — While this is just basic information, your attorney should explain how strongly these factors play into your state and county’s decision for awarding alimony. Generally, the longer you are married and the older you are, the higher the chances of having lengthy (or even permanent in the case of some states) alimony awarded. Similarly, the closer a couple is to retirement when they divorce, the higher the chance of a lengthier term because there is less time for the receiving spouse to work and save.
Custody and child support
Many separating couples have minor children, which makes the already complicated process of divorce even more emotional and difficult. While it would be nice if there was a presumption of 50/50 parenting time when both parents are fit, that is not the case. This leads to drawn out custody hearings where the father is often left to prove why he deserves time with his kids. During the consultation, your attorney should explain exactly how custody, child support and visitation are determined in your jurisdiction. Everyone will likely have different and unique circumstances to discuss, but at least be prepared to talk about the following:
- Historic involvement of both parents in the child’s life — If one parent worked long hours so the other could remain home to take care of the kids, your attorney needs to know it. This plays a major role that factors into both custody and child support. Additionally, the courts usually look to “the best interest of the child” when it comes to placing custody, so an honest assessment of you and your spouse’s parenting ability is needed. This should include both your strengths and weaknesses, as well as any lifestyle choices that may be seen as adversely affecting the child’s “best interests.”
- The difference between legal and physical custody — There is often confusion when it comes to what the different types of custody actually mean. Some people seek “joint custody” because they think that means they will have equal time with their children, but that is not necessarily the case. Legal custody dictates who has major decision-making power in the child’s life, such as medical or education choices. Physical custody determines who actually has the child in their physical care. One parent is frequently issued joint legal custody but not equal physical custody, which results in the other parent receiving primary physical care. This means the non-custodial parent only gets to see their child during specified visitation periods with a child support payment to top it off.
- Determining an ideal arrangement —There is no such thing as the perfect parenting schedule after a divorce, as both parents likely want to see their children as much as possible. The best you can hope for is a 50/50 physical custody split, and despite a growing push for equal parenting to become the norm, it hasn’t happened yet. The more information you give your attorney, the better they can create a plan to fight for the most parenting time possible under current laws and practice (as unfair as they might be).
- Expenses on top of child support — Receiving a child support obligation is pretty much inevitable unless you are awarded primary physical custody. On top of this payment, however, can be many additional expenses that you must be prepared to share. These include healthcare not covered by insurance and child care, but the courts can also include educational expenses that extend into college.
Clearly, there are many complicated issues to figure out when going through a divorce, and you won’t be able to cover everything in your half-hour to an hour consultation. These topics are barely scratching the surface of what your attorney will need to build your case, but they hopefully give you an idea of what to expect.
While you technically don’t need to bring anything to your initial consultation, the more preparation you do beforehand, the more you can get out of the meeting. Since attorneys charge by the hour, it is best to make the most efficient use of your time as you can.
Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series describing general discussion topics of initial consultations.