First, can you explain a little bit about your own experience and what led you to the decision to divorce?
Of course, everyone enters a marriage believing they’re in it for the long haul. So, it’s always going to be a shock when it doesn’t work out that way. Soon after the birth of our second son, it was obvious things were taking a turn for the worse. Differences between us were surfacing and arguments became more regular.
An international move with my ex-husband’s job divided us further, and on our return to the UK, the marriage quickly imploded – we tried counselling, but nothing seemed to work. We limped on for another very unhappy year but it soon became clear a friend of ours was waiting in the wings for my ex-husband and when one person has checked out of the marriage, it’s impossible to turn the ship around.
Having decided to split, how would you describe your emotional state?
In the early days, there were lots of tears – I was mourning what was once a very happy marriage. Crucially, it was upsetting that my children – like me before them – would now grow up with divorced parents. Following my therapist’s advice, I asked my ex-husband to move out. Thankfully he agreed to leave, but the first big emotional hurdle was sitting the boys down and telling them daddy was going. Luckily our youngest (who was two at the time) didn’t know what was happening, but our four-year-old was terribly upset. That’s when the realisation I would be a single parent really hit home.
What did you do regarding advice at the time?
Because of our situation, lawyers were involved from the beginning. My ex-husband was in a new relationship and weeks after leaving the family home, he told me they were expecting a baby together. I wanted the boys to have time to adjust to the new status quo before they were introduced to this new set up, but my ex-husband and I fought over this, so lawyers helped us find a way forward through the mess. We did attempt mediation, which our lawyers suggested. It keeps costs down, but it does mean you have to be comfortable sitting in the same room together to work it out.
Was there anything you wish you’d done differently?
I wish I had someone like me to talk to. I leant on a good friend who was a divorcee and she was a real shoulder to cry on. But her divorce had been litigious, too. I didn’t have any examples of a more holistic and dare I say, friendly, approach. Instead, I was under the impression that involving lawyers was the right thing to do. I was working part-time and had two young children, so I didn’t have the headspace or time to negotiate the finer points of a financial settlement. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I had no idea how expensive a divorce would be either, and I wish there had been a cheaper and kinder way. Several decisions could have been made solely by me with the help of a divorce consultant. If you’re not sure what that is, they essentially act as someone to bounce ideas off, and it could have saved me thousands. It’s what sparked the idea for me to set up The Savvy Divorce Co.
So, tell us a bit more about the Savvy Divorce Co…
The aim to make the whole divorce journey less daunting and demystify the process. Obviously, each individual case is different and requires a bespoke approach, but ultimately, it’s about being there for your clients on a human level to address their worries and concerns. It’s my job to share my clients’ stress so they can concentrate on their jobs, children and their future. If a lawyer is needed, then we can work alongside them. A combination of us and the lawyer can actually work very well together. Specifically, it’s my own experience that makes me valuable to clients – with the benefit of hindsight, I know which fights which are worth fighting and which ones definitely aren’t – not only when it comes to protecting your sanity, but also your money. By using a divorce consultant, you have someone in your corner who has trodden the same path. I know what it’s like to hand my children over to their dad that first weekend, to lie awake worrying about money, to dread a house move. Your best friend hasn’t experienced this, your sister hasn’t and most importantly, your lawyer probably hasn’t, either.
Are new clients referred to you via their lawyers or vice versa?
I have very good working relationships with local family lawyers who realise there is a growing need for divorce consultants. Clients are recommended to me by lawyers who know I can assist them in a far more wholesome, and less expensive, way. After the first lockdown, three friends came to me for advice. Lockdown had been the last straw for their marriages, and they needed help. One is already putting the stamp on the financial and childcare arrangements and looking forward to an impending house move and a fresh start. We came up with a fair financial plan at my kitchen table and it was all approved by the lawyers.
So, hiring powerful, expensive lawyers isn’t the only way to get what you want?
In my opinion, this is a common misconception. A husband or wife can show off and name drop expensive legal firms, but it doesn’t mean it will lead them to a more favourable divorce settlement. All it means is their bills will be a lot higher and they will have less in the pot at the end of the process. There is a certain cache associated with different law firms, but it’s far better to go on a recommendation from a friend or from your divorce consultant. Many friends have used high-end legal firms and they don’t recommend their services.
When is mediation the right option?
It works well when there are no third parties involved and crucially, if the separation is friendly. Meeting twice a month to thrash out finances and childcare arrangements without involving lawyers can be very satisfying and a much more holistic approach. But it’s worth bearing in mind this process has to be based on honesty and a strong foundation of good communication between both parties.
Is there such a thing as a fair and cheap divorce?
There are many ways to save money in a divorce. At The Savvy Divorce Co, we teach you ways to keep the cost down when you choose to involve lawyers, or ways not to involve them at all. First, don’t use a partner at the law firm – go for an associate, and remember, every email costs you money, so don’t use your lawyer as a therapist. Try and isolate each area of your divorce, too. Will a house sale be the big sticking point, the level of monthly maintenance, spousal maintenance or school fees? Remember some fights are not worth it. Prioritise what is most important to you. Maybe you are happy to take a larger tranche of the equity from the family home in exchange for not having a claim on your husband’s pension in the future? Whatever it is, we can help you think it all through and come up with a list of priorities.
What’s your opinion on those pre-packaged, online divorces?
Like with mediation, these are a great option for anyone whose separation is friendly and when both parties are in agreement. Or, if your children have left home or there are no children, then a divorce can be much more straightforward – it’ll just come down to a straight division of capital and assets.
What’s your advice for protecting children in a divorce?
Children can suffer a great deal during a divorce. The most important thing is not to involve them, and don’t use them to get what you want. Yes, they will hear arguments and see you cry – no-one is superhuman. But it’s important to keep children informed of each stage in an age-appropriate way, for instance if there has to be a change of school or a house move. Remember, young children thrive on routine. So, no matter the instability, stick to day-to-day rituals and any new childcare arrangements. If older children are involved, it will be tempting to lean on them for support. They may be willing but try to seek guidance and support from friends or professional therapists first. It’s also easy to spoil children during this time. Don’t. It only really serves to make the parent feel better than the child, and the elation will be short-lived. It’s much better to free up some time for family dinners and be present with your children. This way, you will also notice if there are any changes in their behaviour, which you may need to act on.
What if custody gets ugly – do you have any advice?
Your mantra should always be ‘the children come first’. What’s best for them isn’t often best for you or your ex-partner, and this can be the hardest part of a divorce settlement. You need to take a step back and look at the situation from the outside or from your child’s point of view. Be mindful that if you don’t come up with a solution, a trip to the family courts will take its toll on you emotionally. Be very mindful that Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) should really be spending their time helping families where children are in danger, not a family who can’t agree on a straightforward childcare arrangement. Most arguments over childcare actually arise when there is a financial dispute. You can’t muddy the waters between the two. If your ex-partner is refusing to pay maintenance, you still have to hand the children over to him for the weekend. Legally, the two aspects are different entities, even if on a human level it’s very painful.
What would you tell stay-at-home mums who think they’re in a vulnerable position?
Being a stay-at-home mum should pay its own salary, and in a divorce, it does. If you have been married for 20 years and brought up the children and supported your husband’s employment, you are certainly not in a weaker position. The wife is entitled to a fair share of all the assets built up during the union – for instance, equity in the family home, other capital assets and even a share of the husband’s pension.
Is there any way for women to be fully in control?
The only way for you to be in the driving seat is to petition for divorce first. This way, you can be more in control of the timetable and also aim to stay one step ahead. There are many ways to establish whether a marriage has broken down but ticking a certain box on a divorce petition neither grants you a position of strength or weakness. Adultery is very common, but even if your partner has cheated, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be be entitled to more in a settlement.
We’re in a pandemic and unsurprisingly divorce rates are high – what would you say to that?
Lockdown has brought certain emotions to the fore and has been a reckoning for many marriages. While it has strengthened some unions, some individuals feel more and more isolated within their relationship. The pandemic may have made your differences more apparent and these differences won’t magically disappear overnight. So, while it’s important not to make any rushed decisions, it’s perfectly possible that further emotional and financial investment in the marriage may be futile. If you think that’s the case, then now is the perfect time to start afresh.
Any final words of wisdom?
There are so many things I wish I’d known. But if someone could have told me anything, I wish they’d said when the drudgery of divorce is over, you will find you a new normal for you and your family. The landscape will look very different, but it will be so much brighter. Asking for a divorce is the bravest thing you can do. It’s far easier to stay trapped in an unhappy marriage. Finally, remember you can’t control everything. Concentrate on the things you can and leave behind what you can’t.
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