The Dangers of a "Do-It-Yourself" Divorce
Recently I had a couple come to me with a separation agreement that they drafted themselves and signed, making it a binding agreement. I believe it was done in an effort to reduce the amount of time they would spend in mediation. Through my normal process I bring up the topics and comment on how they can proceed to agreement after they have understood all of the particulars and how one decision can affect another. But each time I brought up a topic they had in their agreement, I was told they already agreed to it.
As we got further into the mediation, it was becoming apparent that what they had “agreed to” didn’t consider or address many other detailed factors which are very important. That then caused disagreement between them because they were each stuck in their own way of thinking with what they had agreed to.
In some cases, what spouses think they have agreed to does not correspond with what the agreement says. Other times, the language in the agreement might be vague, unclear, and open to various interpretations. This lack of clarity can cause both spouses to think that they are getting what they want without looking deeper at related factors to find out for sure.
In many instances, DIY separation agreements do not address some of the most important issues at all. These documents are often cookie-cutter templates that might provide a good general framework, but by necessity, they cannot go into great detail about a couple’s specific circumstances. Signing an agreement like this without fully understanding it can lead to critical errors, leaving a mess that will be much more costly to clean up later.
Those general separation agreement templates might work just fine if you don’t have any complicated issues to resolve with your divorce. For example, maybe you have not been married for very long, you have no children, do not own any real estate, and you have no other assets to speak of. In a case like this, it may be fairly easy to just sign the piece of paper, file everything with the court, and go your separate ways.
But the reality is that most divorces are not that simple and straightforward. If you have been married for even a few years, there is a good chance you have at least one child, and you probably own a home together and possess other assets, such as an IRA or 401(k) plan from work.
Did you know that the assets within an individual retirement account that accumulated during the marriage are generally considered marital property? Did you know that you might be eligible to receive alimony/spousal support at least temporarily?
What about your parenting plan? Did you remember to account for your child’s extracurricular activities or the fact that you have to work weekends twice a month? Did you work out your holiday visitation schedule in a fair and equitable manner?
This is just a sampling of some of the complications that can come up during a divorce. And when we delve deeper, it can lead us to uncover other issues that might not have been discussed.
It is great if couples can come to general agreements in advance of divorce mediation, but it can be detrimental when they DIY their divorce agreement without first being educated on some of the critical issues that should be addressed. Trying to save time or money with a DIY agreement that you don’t fully understand is likely going to cost you a lot more later on.
One of the biggest roles that I play when mediating is educating couples on all aspects of divorce and how one decision can affect another. By taking some time on the front-end to delve into these issues and ensure that everyone is on the same page, it will save couples the inevitable headaches and expenses that they may encounter down the road.
Divorce mediation done thoroughly and correctly still costs a fraction of what it will normally cost to litigate, so it makes good sense all around for couples to get their divorce agreement right the first time.