I'm a family law attorney. Here's how you can settle your divorce without settling for less.

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The author.Courtesy of Raiford Dalton Palmer

The following is an adapted excerpt from Raiford Dalton Palmer's Amazon best-selling book, "I Just Want This Done: How Smart, Successful People Get Divorced Without Losing Their Kids, Money, and Minds." 

In a divorce, if you're in a courtroom, you've already lost.

Even if you win your case, by the time litigation starts you've probably already spent more money on attorneys' fees than you're going to get beyond what you already could have gotten.

Sometimes you can't avoid it. But if you're in my law office, I'm going to advise you to find some kind of settlement long before we show up at the courthouse.

In the course of handling hundreds of divorce cases, I have come to learn that knowing your goals at the outset is crucial. If you know what you want, you know what to ask for and which offers to turn down.

Beyond that, here are some tips on what to do:

Gather and validate your financial data, share it, and make sure you have the same from your spouse

The faster you provide your financial information, the faster both of you will be able to negotiate. It helps to annotate the balance sheet (example: "Chase Bank Checking #0433 June 15, 2021 statement"). If you feel unsure about your finances, talk with your attorney and a financial planner or CPA if you need help.

Know your chances of success and the likely range of trial outcomes

Get a realistic assessment from your attorney about how likely you would be to prevail in a trial. Work with your attorney to assess the true costs of your divorce versus any settlement you are considering. Consider the costs in time, money, and emotional energy — not just for you but for your children, family, and friends as well.

Try to understand your spouse's point of view

It helps to negotiate if you know why your soon-to-be ex-spouse is taking a certain position. For example, if you are the primary breadwinner, your spouse may be worried about being pushed off a financial cliff. We've seen this concern even in high-asset divorce cases in which the less-moneyed spouse will likely receive millions of dollars.

Be clear with your proposal

Initially, it is most effective to make your proposals in the form of a complete marital settlement agreement (MSA) and custody and visitation agreement. Summaries are useful initially but are too brief and lacking in information to be of much value in negotiations. If you are responding to a proposal, make edits in-line, for example, in a Word document with changes tracked.

No BS offers or demands

There are few annoyances in the divorce business worse than receiving a totally unrealistic offer. That is, there is no way the outcome set forth in the offer will be achievable in court. You may get one of these because your spouse has no clue about realistic outcomes of the case. Or this may be the go-to strategy for their attorney, who likes to ask for "the moon" and then negotiate down.

Be careful about lines in the sand

A certain type of hard-nosed bargaining — "Not one penny less, or we'll see you in court!" — might work in the business world, but you can't get another vendor or customer in divorce court. You're stuck negotiating with the person — or the judge will decide for you. If you do draw a line in the sand, you'd better back it up by being fully prepared to go to trial on those terms.

Settle some issues even if you can't settle all of them

I don't subscribe to the popular trial lawyer "all or nothing" deal: If you don't agree to all my client's terms, we won't agree to anything. That's silly and not how trials in the rest of the courthouse work. Many issues can be settled and taken off the table, giving clients some peace of mind for those issues and making the lawyer's job easier, saving everyone time and money in the bargain.

Avoid backsliding

Backsliding is another move to avoid in negotiations. You make offer X; they make offer Y. You don't like it, so you offer X minus 10 percent. Similar to fake lines in the sand, moving backward is disingenuous, and you lose credibility. You may reject their offer and stick with yours, but moving backward as some kind of "punishment" is a poor strategy.

Be creative

Maybe you can find a middle ground in unexpected ways. In Illinois, remarrying terminates alimony. Suppose your spouse is dating someone and wants to marry them. You could respond by offering a fixed-length term of alimony. That limits your liability but allows your spouse to remarry without losing their benefits. Some creative thinking like that might help you get around difficult issues.

Keep scale in mind

Keep the deal in perspective. People anchor on numbers and can lose sight of the fact that what they are requesting is not far from what the other person wants, and the actual differences are insignificant in the overall scheme of things. For example, $50,000 might seem like a lot of money, and it is in abstract terms, but not when weighed against the size of the marital estate and the cost of divorce.

Raiford Dalton Palmer, author of the Amazon best-selling book, "I Just Want This Done: How Smart, Successful People Get Divorced Without Losing Their Kids, Money, and Minds" is a longtime Illinois attorney and a managing shareholder of the Chicago-based STG Divorce Law, where he focusing on complex divorce cases, especially those involving high-income earners. 

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