You’ve heard the doorbell ring. You go to the front door and open it, only to be met by a stranger who is handing you something. He says, “Are you Ms. Smith (insert your name)?” You have to think a minute about the answer, because you are facing a stranger and you have no idea what he wants. He leaves so fast you think you must be imagining this. But in your hand you are holding something.
You never thought you’d be reading these words: ACTION FOR A DIVORCE. And suddenly, a million things are going through your head.
What is your first step when you get served divorce papers?
Breathe. Breathe. And after you sit down, breathe again. There is a process to follow and here are your most important next steps …
Do not hide
Now, your first inclination might be to put your head in the sand. Hiding is a normal and expected response to the fears that you are facing as a result of those divorce papers. To you, those divorce papers signal the unknown, a future that could be radically different from the present that you have been living, and in ways that you cannot foresee. In order to overcome these natural feelings, you should set about finding a good team to represent and support you. In addition to your attorney who will play an important role (see step below), you may need a divorce coach who can help educate you and guide you, and/or a therapist who can help you maintain your mental strength. Or both. I know this sounds daunting, but I assure you that the time and money you spend now, connecting with the right people, will reap great rewards for you personally and professionally by keeping you tethered and strategic.
Get a good attorney and the right support
You will need to find a good attorney. A divorce coach can help you with vetted referrals, or your divorced friend may have some ideas. I suggest getting three referrals for matrimonial attorneys, and visiting all of them. I also recommend you only visit referrals who are willing to give you 30 minutes of their time without charging you. What you are looking for is someone who is smart, compassionate and experienced. You will need someone who is willing to listen to all of your concerns, even the ones that are not traditionally legal concerns. But, you also want to find a legal person who can protect your interests and fight for your rights, too.
Being served vs. serving divorce papers
Most people think that it’s better to serve your spouse papers than to be served. It is not always that way. In all states, including New York, the laws allow for a ‘no fault’ divorce, and most divorces are filed due to irreconcilable differences in the marriage. In these cases, being the party who gets served doesn’t really matter much. Certainly, if you are served with divorce papers that accuse you of adultery, abandonment or one of the other causes for divorce that may still exist in your state (like New York), you will be forced to defend against those grounds and unfortunately, this will cause you more angst, time and money.
You need to get prepared for a legal action. Being prepared means a few things, depending upon your circumstances:
1. If you have children, you need to provide them with the love and support that they will so desperately need at this time. For this, I highly suggest that you visit with a family or child therapist, who can help you with the challenging things like how to tell the children, how to help them manage through the transition and how to support them so that their suffering is minimized as much as possible. Most importantly, your children will feel the pull of their loyalties to you and your spouse, their other parent. This pull can be very distressing to them, and is often so distracting and stressful that it affects their ability to handle the other responsibilities they have, their relationships with others in their lives, and it can affect their mental health. It is critical that you understand this pull of loyalties, that you identify the behaviors or actions on your part that exacerbate them, and work hard to avoid them. Your divorce coach can help you manage your parenting challenges or a divorce lawyer can provide you with referrals to experienced family or child therapists.
2. When you are alone at home, spend time going through your family’s financial records. Make copies of all deeds, leases, or other important documents. Go to your online bank and credit card accounts and download three (3) years of your back statements to a zip drive. While you are doing this, you should secure the online accounts by changing the passwords. If you are locked out of any of those accounts or cannot find the important documents, make a list of the accounts and documents that you know exist to provide to your attorney.
3. Start dreaming about your future as a single person. Yes, I know it is hard, almost impossible, but it is a habit that you need to develop and the sooner you start, the faster and easier it will be to realize your dreams. Marriage is great. It is an institution in our society because it is great. But, singleness is no less great. What have you held yourself back from doing (or what has your spouse held you back from doing?) that you have always wanted in your life? In particular, is there a work or educational pursuit that you have put on the back burner? Now is the time to start dreaming about those things. The dreams will provide you with guiding light when you need it.
Robyn Myler Mann is Partner and Director of the Mediation Practice Group of the Law Firm of Poppe & Associates, PLLC in New York City. Ms. Mann offers a free consultation to potential clients, and is available to discuss whether your matter would be best served by mediation or a more traditional legal approach.