Trap #1: In the traditional family law system, the parties are directed to and often pressured to focus on legal outcomes, not life goals. Legal outcomes are not goals. Legal outcomes should be tools for the parties to reach their goals. If focused on the legal outcome, it makes sense that a property distribution should be equal or at least equitable. It also makes sense that income should be shared in a manner that gives both parties a sufficient amount to live their lives. In addition, if focused on the legal outcome, it makes sense to identify who has what authority to make major decisions about the children and to establish a schedule for the child to be with each parent. Short -term thinking makes sense when focusing on legal outcomes. In other words, the focus is on the interests of the State, but only on the short term distribution of property, money and children. From the beginning of a divorce case, the questions are about these short term legal outcomes. Most spouses get quickly wrapped up in a concern about these legal outcomes and thus begins the terrible choices that make post-divorce life miserable, especially when there are children involved.
However, if the focus is on the long-term financial outcomes for both of the spouses, the division of property and income should be one that increases the chances of a long-term positive outcome for both parties, whether or not that means an equal or equitable division or property, debt or future income at the time of the divorce. If the focus in on long-term goals for the children, such as that they have a positive experience of family life with separated parents, then how decisions are made and how each of the parents will be involved with the child are the questions to ask and answer. The focus should not be on what physical and legal custody will control the family. The legal outcome might be a rigid physical custody schedule, when we know that positive long-term outcomes for children need flexibility in the schedule. A bitter competitive win-lose approach to a physical custody schedule makes sense if a favorable legal outcome is the focus, but we know that the quality of the post-divorce parental relationship is far more important to outcomes for children than the physical custody schedule. Co-parenting and parenting is not a win-lose competition! In a well planned agreement, both parents can be actively involved with their children all of the time, including with the decisions about how to raise the children. Parents are never with their children all of the time. Children go to school, dance classes, daycare, sports practices and so on. Teachers often spend more time with children than do their parents. But the parents can be involved in all of those experiences. The same can be true after parents are divorced, if they focus on their family life after the divorce.
The legal outcome is nonsense with regard to control of child related decisions: in a healthy family, both parents are involved in almost all of the decisions (e.g., what chores and responsibilities will be good for the children in both residences). The parenting schedule requires that the home in which the children sleep needs designation and who is responsible for the children during the day, or parts of the day, but that does not lock parents out of the children’s waking lives. Our blog series on co-parenting describes how this is accomplished.
Trapping divorcing spouses into focusing on legal outcomes distracts them from their long-term goals and leads to self-defeating choices. Because lawyers are by training and experience focused on legal outcomes, it is up to the parents to keep the focus on long-term goals for themselves and their children. Again, our co-parenting series provides a roadmap on how to accomplish this.