You have made the tough decision, or the decision has been made by your spouse, that you are divorcing. In the middle of all the mixed emotions you are dealing with, the five stages of grief, and the common worries about the future, you will also have to make very practical and business-like decisions about your family law case.
I am going to make several assumptions when writing this post. The first assumption is that I am working with a mother who wants to divorce. Second, there is no prenuptial agreement in place. Third, you do not already have an agreement with your spouse about all the terms of your divorce, and there are at least some, if not all, issues on which you disagree. Finally, I will assume that you have not already had a consultation with a qualified family law attorney but are planning to do so as you move through this process. And when you do, you will follow their sage advice.
All lawyers have different preferences and styles in their initial consultations. Some initial consultations will take a while to get scheduled, and others can be quick. Some are free, but most attorneys will require a consultation fee.
While I cannot speak to the goals of other attorneys in their consultations, the main idea for me is to gather as much information about the type of case, including the main issues and the ultimate goals of the client. You will receive a lot of information in the consultation. However, at least in my consultations, these initial meetings help ensure that the client and I gel and that I will be the right attorney to litigate the client’s case.
It is also my opportunity to determine the current state of my client and make initial notes about where I believe the divorce is heading. The main thing I am looking for is whether the client has reasonable expectations about what I can and can’t do through the divorce process and whether the law will allow the remedy the client is seeking.
After the initial consultation, you will have quite a bit of homework (unless you are one of the unicorn clients that come in with spreadsheets of finances and an incredibly good understanding of your pre and post-dissolution finances). Your homework will consist of completing a financial affidavit, collecting various financial statements and paperwork. Ultimately, this homework is designed to make you start thinking about what assets you want to keep, what you will need to do to live after the divorce is complete, and your overall money situation.
While you are collecting financial information, the first stage of your divorce is kicking off with your lawyer.
Throughout this series, I will break down the stages of the legal proceeding in your divorce into five phases: Initial Pleadings, Temporary Matters, Discovery, Settlement Talks, and The Final Steps. In this post, we will talk about the Initial Pleadings.
A pleading is basically a document requesting some type of relief in a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage with Children or a response filed when one of these requests is made. While I cannot go through every possible pleading that could be filed in a family law case in the beginning, I am providing some highlights and the most common ones.
Florida is what is referred to as a “notice pleading” state, so most of the initial pleadings are going to be sort of vague in an effort to keep very personal details out of the public eye of the Sunshine laws but also general enough to make sure you have covered all your bases on what you ultimately want.
There are some things that you cannot get at a final hearing if you have not put the other side on notice in your initial pleadings that it is something you want. Sometimes you will hear me call these “Letters to Santa.” In the “Letters to Santa,” in a Court case, you have to ask for what you want in general legal terms but also provide enough specificity that your spouse will know what you ultimately want if you are not able to agree and settle the case before a judge is required to make determinations.
The Petition of Dissolution of Marriage is filed with the Court along with a handful of other pleadings that offer proof of the jurisdiction of the Court to act with regard to the parties and children, give notice of the attorneys and their contact information and ensure that another court is not already exercising jurisdiction over the same issues at the same time.
For all intents and purposes, the Petition of Dissolution of Marriage is the initial pleading that requires attention.
This is the document in which one party says, “I believe our marriage is irretrievably broken. I want the Court to decide our assets and alimony issues and, if we can’t agree, make decisions about custody of our children.”
If you receive a Petition, it is normal to think that some of the allegations are ridiculous. It is my experience that most of the initial pleadings I read are very basic in nature, provide notice of all the legal things that are on the table, and do not differ too much from attorney to attorney (exceptions always apply).
The next step will be the Answer to the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage and likely a Counter-Petition. The Answer is a response, and it lists each item alleged in the Petition and states whether the party agrees or disagrees (or doesn’t know). It will likely be accompanied by a Counter-Petition which is the responding spouse’s chance to make their desires known to the Court.
These pleadings are the most important at this phase of the divorce process.
During this stage, you will also submit basic financial information to the Court, including your Financial Affidavit. You will exchange Mandatory Disclosures (a list of financial information defined by statute that must be given to the other spouse) with the other side. Most lawyers will also ask for some additional information right off the bat with initial discovery requests. At this point, you will turn in all of the homework you did.
Family Law Standing Order
After these initial pleadings are received and accepted by the Court, the Court will issue a Family Law Standing Order. Now here is a document you really want to study, review, ask your lawyer questions about, and follow! While a pleading filed by a spouse or their lawyer is like a letter to Santa clause, an Order is like a Command from an Officer in the Military.
Unlike pleadings where allegations are made that could ultimately be found to be untrue, exaggerated, or irrelevant, Orders are the Court’s written decisions. They are the law in your case unless and until the Order changes or is replaced.
In Escambia County and Santa Rosa County, the Standing Order has certain things that you are not allowed to do while the divorce is pending. For example, you cannot remove your spouse or your children from their health insurance, you can’t take on any debt in your spouse’s name, and you can’t destroy marital property.
In Escambia County, the standing order also addresses the timesharing schedule for your kids if you don’t have an agreement with your spouse, which is a week on/ week off rotation with each parent.
Yikes- I know- this can be the scariest part for most mothers.
Santa Rosa County does not have the schedule outlined, but in both counties, the orders dictate quite a lot about the children and the decisions that can be made about them while waiting on further Orders of the Court. It is very important to discuss with your lawyer and understand what the Standing Order says and what it does not. Many arguments between spouses in the early days of the divorce could be avoided by fully understanding the Order and the pleadings filed in your case.
Knowledge is always power.
Patience is Key
During the initial pleading stage of the case, there are lots of timelines that your lawyer will provide to you. For lawyers who are very used to deadlines, these do not cause us stress or anxiety, but for clients who are waiting on an answer and it is the 19th day of a 20-day deadline, it can be an excruciating wait.
Patience is key during a divorce. Just because it doesn’t feel like anything is going on in your case because deadline clocks are ticking doesn’t mean nothing is happening.
Trust your lawyer to let you know when you should be anxious about deadlines and/or allegations made in the initial phase of divorce.
This is the perfect time for the client to seek counseling if you feel too emotional to make business decisions or feel overwhelmed. You will be facing many important decisions, considering job opportunities, looking into schooling options to continue your education, and starting to look for alternative places to live (if you know you will not be staying in the marital home or if it will be sold).
Start getting your ducks in line and get yourself centered on preparing for whatever type of case you may be facing. If you are likely to be in a high-conflict divorce, get yourself mentally centered and physically rested so that you can sustain what may be protracted litigation. Try not to overthink (easier said than done) everything that is happening in your case while it is just beginning to unfold, and ultimately cultivate patience.
Divorce is usually a much slower process than anyone wants, and patience is what will help you see your case to the end in a measured and practical way.
Focus on Your Children
Most importantly, this is the time that you must focus on the health of your children. While you cannot help them if you are not helping yourself, remember that little ears hear so much. They know when you are talking in code on the phone about your spouse, even if they are as young as 18 months or two years old.
Do not share any details of the divorce with your children, except for things they must know or what you and your spouse have agreed to tell them. Obviously, they will have to know if one parent has decided to leave the home, and you may agree to tell them you are divorcing. However, use the utmost discretion when it comes to anything mentioned at all during your divorce.
Not only can it impact your case, but it can also impact your child for a lifetime.
In the next Untying the Knot post, we will talk about specific issues within the Court’s jurisdiction to determine and the “PEACE” acronym in making those determinations. In addition, we’ll touch on some of the booby traps that may impact your case (trust me, family law’s specialty is the booby trap).
Autumn Beck Blackledge has been practicing law for over 20 years and started her own firm in 2014, practicing exclusively in Marital and Family law. She is a Pensacola native and graduate of Tate High School and Florida State University, and FSU College of Law.