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The Clock Is Ticking

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A year or so ago, my wife and I were visiting with my parents.  They were watching a gameshow called Divided.  To my knowledge, it’s not a particularly popular show, so I’ll give you the basics.

Four players begin each game.  The four contestants must unanimously answer a question while sixty seconds ticks off the clock.  Money is deposited into a communal pool after a correct answer, but a correct answer is worth less the more time it takes to answer the question.  The team eventually cuts one person, leaving three contestants.  After the final round, the accumulated pool of money is then divided.  One contestant will receive 60% of the money, another gets 30%, and the last gets 10%.  The kicker is that it is up to the contestants to decide who gets which portion.  Once again, the contestants are put on the clock and the total pool of money is reduced further the longer it takes to reach a decision.  If they don’t reach an agreement by the time the clock stops, no one gets any money.

Episode after episode, I sat watching these batches of buffoons bicker amongst themselves.  Every time, the clock would strike zero and no one would walk away with anything.  “Can you believe these idiots?” my family would ask.  Something about it didn’t sit quite right with me.  Then it hit me.  Jesus Christ, it’s my goddamned career as a gameshow!

This show was no different than some of the clients who walk through my office.  Long ago, I arrived at the point where, after getting a good picture of the financial landscape, I can pretty much tell you how things should and will ultimately be divided.  Some clients object, though.  A small percentage of them would rather get 100% of nothing than 50% of something.

Their spouse’s financial ruin is the only thing that will satiate their bloodlust, even if it means their own as well.  Like some divorce kamikaze, they’ll sacrifice their long-term well-being for the shot at momentary glory.  They envision that, after dozens of depositions, years of divorce litigation, and a four-week trial, the judge has a magic sack of sorrys that’ll make the past twelve years of marriage worth it.

It doesn’t usually work that way.  The judge heard the same story in the last divorce trial.  She heard much worse in the rape case she just tried.  Her charity dealing with impoverished youth sees worse.  Your sob story about one affair isn’t moving the needle.

Chase it, though.  That’s what lines divorce attorneys’ pockets.  “We’ll spend whatever it takes, so long as you ruin her,” I can recall a client’s mother telling me.  Fifty-thousand dollars in attorney’s fees later, she was singing a different tune.

Parties may be paying $1,300 an hour during a mediation when you take into account the husband’s attorney, the wife’s attorney, and the mediator.  But by all means, let’s argue over the $600-bedroom suite for two hours.  After all, divorce attorneys are highly-ethical people.  Little known fact – Atticus Finch went on to practice family law after fighting for ethics and social justice.

I recall being three months out from a divorce trial and reviewing a client’s financial statement.  The couple had litigated for close to 2 ½ years and had dwindled their estate down to about $350,000.  The partner in charge of the case never once asked the client, “You do realize this trial is going to cost you and your husband about $75,000 each?  That’ll leave about $200,000 total to divide up – that’s it.  Don’t you think it’d be better to get, say, $175,000 now instead of $100,000 later?”  All that the partner would say is “she wants it all…so we’ll go for it all.”  She wound up with about 60% of the then $220,000 estate.  I guess she didn’t feel that extra 10% was worth it, since she stiffed the partner on the bill.

Just like those contestants on Divided, every hour that goes by is more money out of the pot.  Two attorneys can drain that pot quickly.  Whether parties are seeking financial security, retribution, or both, they’ll often disregard common sense and chase unicorns.

What difference does it make to the contestant who would’ve otherwise taken home the 60% if there is no 60% to take home?  I’m not suggesting you should roll-over in the divorce and take whatever is offered.  But be reasonable.  Continually ask whether a certain litigation path or tactic is worth it.  Ask yourself, will it move the needle, or does it simply line the attorney’s pockets?

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