Normally, people contemplating divorce have some idea of what to expect from a divorce. They have witnessed divorces on television and in movies, and often personally know at least a handful of people who have been through a divorce. Increasingly, people have also experienced their own parents’ divorce. In spite of this "second-hand" experience, facing your own divorce is one of the more frightening events in life. Not only do you face a court-sanctioned ending of possibly one of the more significant relationships you have ever had, you also must begin to think about such unpleasant things as the division of property and new living accommodations. In many cases, there is also the unhappy prospect of no longer seeing your children on a daily basis.
Predictability and divorce do not go together. But, armed with realistic expectations, you will have the best chance of being satisfied with the end result of your divorce. Consequently, it is wise to understand the realities of what a divorce can and cannot do for you.
What Divorce Can Do
Property Division. A divorce court will attempt to divide the property of a marriage in the most economic way possible. Most states will exclude from this division any property that was acquired prior to the marriage or that was acquired via gift or inheritance. In some states (community property states) this involves a 50/50 split of the property acquired by the parties during the marriage. Other states (non-community property states) will inquire into the couple’s individual financial circumstances, financial plans for the future, and other relevant matters in attempting an equitable distribution of the property.
Because the division of property is never predictable, if you have a strong need for some item of property, it may be best to have your attorney negotiate and settle the property distribution ahead of time with your spouse’s attorney. For example, you may decide that, although you would really like to stay in the family home, you really need to keep your business. Therefore, you might forgo the home in favor of the business. In this manner, you can attempt to strike a mutually satisfying agreement for dividing property with your spouse
Support Obligations. Courts will also determine a couple’s support obligations. This can come in the form of child support and spousal support (also called "alimony"). Child support payments are now largely set by state law, but deviation from those standards are not uncommon. Also, child support orders may depend on the custody arrangements ordered. In general, spousal support largely depends on the facts of each divorce and the divorcing couple’s financial circumstances. Therefore, here again, any attempt at predicting a court’s ultimate support decision is often difficult.
Child Custody and Visitation. Aside from the distribution of wealth, the other main function of the divorce court is to set child custody and visitation schedules. This too is anything but predictable. While courts often try to make their decision based on a set of factors said to promote the "best interest" of the child, these decisions can vary from case to case and court to court. After all, in making custody decisions judges are naturally influenced by their own beliefs, opinions and values. Further, judges usually see and hear only the worst of people during heated custody proceedings. So, based on their limited "view" into the parents’ lives, a divorce court may not always make the "best" possible decision when it comes to custody. Here again, negotiation and settlement are important options to keep in mind. Everybody involved in the divorce, especially the children, will benefit from a cooperative child custody arrangement.
What Divorce Cannot Do
Guarantee Precise and Equal Division. A divorce cannot accomplish an exact or mathematically equal division of property and time with children. Because no two people, no two marriages, and no two divorces are alike, the judge who enters a divorce order must make the best decision with the limited time and information available. It may not always be the fairest possible decision that could have been reached, and it is certain not to favor you individually in every possible way. Divorce courts often have to make the best of terrible circumstances. For instance, there can be no satisfactory custody arrangement when one parent lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming and the other lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Ensure Civil Relations. Even though a court can set custody and visitation arrangements, it will not be present every Friday when it is time for mom to drop off the kids, and it will not spend the weekend with dad, making sure he does not make snide comments about mom around the children. Ultimately, a court order is just a piece of paper. Mom and dad will STILL have to civilly deal with each other to carry out the terms of the custody and visitation order. Divorce does not take away your responsibility towards your children, and this includes dealing with their other parent, because divorce does not make your ex-spouse any less your child’s parent (one exception being cases of abuse).
Maintain Your Standard of Living. You should also recognize that a divorce court cannot increase your salary to prevent your standard of living from declining once you divorce. Unfortunately, from an economic standpoint, it is simply much cheaper for two people to live together and share expenses than it is to maintain two separate households. Divorce will change your standard of living and there is little, if anything, the court can do about the change.
Resolve Emotional Issues. Finally, a court will not be able to punish your ex-spouse or morally vindicate you for all of the bad things that happened while you were married. Moreover, the divorce process will not heal your emotional wounds or even take away the necessity of grieving the failed relationship. That is your job, although you can seek assistance through therapists and support groups.