The One Thing You Can Control During Divorce


Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS Divorce etc… podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica. 

T.H.: Hey everyone, welcome to the Divorce etc… podcast. Jess and I are excited and happy to have Jennifer Lazor here. She’s a divorce and family law attorney. She’s also the partner and co-founder of Lazor Rantas in New Jersey, but I would say, more importantly, she was very involved in my divorce case. She was a great sounding board as well as an advocate for me. And so I felt she would be a really great addition to our community of exEXPERTS. Welcome to our show, Jen.

Jennifer: Well, thank you, and thank you for that introduction. It means a lot.

T.H.: Yeah, it was a long road.

Jessica: I was going to say I’m really excited to have you on because T.H., obviously, talks about her divorce and her experience and everything that it entailed so often on the podcast and on our Instagram and things like that. I just think it’s great for people to be able to hear literally firsthand from someone who worked directly with her. Everyone out there who’s listening, this is the real deal right here.

Jennifer: This is OG.

T.H.: My divorce was very long, very expensive, and very emotional turmoil. I was happy to be out. Jennifer really was a very calm sounding board, not excited, not angry, but just kind of like, this is the reality. She’s going to tell us the reality today of things you can control and things you cannot control in your divorce. She’s going to manage your expectations overall right now. But remember, this is just direction and advice. Let’s get into it.

Jessica: Yeah. Everybody wants to know what they can control and what they can’t. I mean, are there things right off the bat that people come in with and you’re immediately like, stop right there? Because that’s just–

Jennifer: Absolutely. At the outset, I do want to emphasize it is qualified control, right? This is not a conversation about you’re going to take this by the reins, because you’re only in control of yourself. You’re not in control of the other side.

You’re not even in control of the process that you selected, whether it’s mediation, litigation, or collaboration. There are certain controls inherent to each of those processes that prevail as well. But yes, the answer right off the bat, there are things that you can do to improve your circumstances. This might seem like a strange place to start, but the number one thing you are in control of is your mental health and stamina for going through this process. You could be given the best legal advice money can buy, but if you’re not in a place where you can hear it, where you could accept that change is going to happen, or in a situation where maybe you’re just too depressed and sad to move forward, your lawyer can’t help you with those issues, but those issues really will impact your divorce process. I always like to in the initial consult find out who’s in your foxhole, who’s your team, and who’s got your back in this. Whether it’s a mental health care professional, whether it’s your Pilates ladies, whatever, this is not something you can do without mental fortification in whatever form that means for you.

Jessica: We are big fans of having your girl gang, having your community of support around you for sure. You’re basically saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, you want to make sure that people coming in are either in therapy, or have a place to be able to put all of this, because you are not the mental health expert, and you are not the therapist? We’ve had a lot of divorce lawyers talk about don’t waste your time telling me all of those things. I’m not a therapist, and that’s not what you need to pay me for.

Jennifer: So, yes, and I’ll add another component to that, which is there’s no relief, there’s no court order, there’s no agreement that’s going to give you emotional closure. If you are investing all of your energy and resources in pursuing that, you’re probably going to be disappointed. You might even make your divorce more expensive and last longer than it needs to because you’re not there yet. Does that make sense?

Jessica: It makes a lot of sense, particularly the idea that you’re inherently going to be disappointed if you’re not handling the mental part of the divorce.  

Jennifer: Yeah, if your goals are oriented in addressing your emotions rather than remedies the court or an agreement can actually give you in your divorce, I do think there’s going to be an element of dissatisfaction.

T.H.: We talk about that all the time and remind people that. Divorce is such a big word, right? It’s like, holy crap, divorce. It’s like a tornado hitting you. But a small part of it is the actual legal process. The emotional side of it that’s going to get you to move forward once you get that seal on that paper, which by the way, was January 24th for me, but then what do you do? I think that that’s really important to make sure that you have good support. I had my parents, well, I had my dad, and Jessica and I had each other. Yeah, but that was it. It’s not quantity, it’s quality. Because there were tons of people who wanted to get involved, but they were not going to be healthy for me to be able to get through all the surprises that came my way.

Jessica: So what are some of the other things that people can control or cannot control that they may not even be thinking about? Because I feel starting off with the emotional impact of it is a great place to start. Because I don’t think it’s the first thing someone would think of when thinking of what can I control in my divorce.

Jennifer: Learn your information. Know where your accounts are, know what the income is, and know what your expenses are. Now, information can come in waves, because information is not always accessible to a spouse. Maybe there’s one of you in control of that, and the other was more hands-off. Maybe accounts aren’t in your name. You might walk into the divorce process informationally deficient. But that likely will be remediated through information gathering as part of the divorce process. What I have found is that sometimes people, even as the information comes in, they’re overwhelmed by it. It’s a lot of paper, or a lot of computer screens now. I’ve heard it’s very little paper. We’re trying. But it’s a lot of information, particularly if you weren’t the spouse who did “this”. But there’s no way around it, there’s only through. You’ve got to start to understand the numbers of your case as soon as you can because it impacts multiple levels of what’s going on. You need to make a decision about what you’re willing to do to settle your case, or what you’re willing to do to push it to trial if the numbers aren’t what you want. You also need to be able to direct to a certain extent, your attorney, what issues to pursue. Just because your friend’s divorce involved a spouse who dissipated assets or had extramarital expenditures, that doesn’t mean yours does. You need to be able to have an informed conversation with your attorney about what really are our problems here? What are the issues that I want to spend money on to pursue? You can only have that conversation and you can only give that direction if you have a basic understanding of what’s going on. Nobody’s asking you to become a forensic accountant or an attorney yourself, but there is a role of participation that’s very influential, that you could achieve by reading the papers, by understanding, or speaking up when you don’t and asking questions. It’s a really important part of the process that’s 100% within your control.

Jessica: As a divorce attorney, I am curious to know what percentage of clients come into you that you feel are “adequately prepared” or informed versus the number of people that come in who really are maybe more like I was and T.H. was coming in, like, throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, not necessarily being organized or knowing what the issues were, and just oh my god, I got to get through this. Part of what we tried to do with exEXPERTS is help people to empower themselves by knowing what questions they should ask when they’re interviewing attorneys, and what issues and topics they should be prepared to discuss when they are going to meet with a lawyer. But do you feel most people are prepared or not?

Jennifer: I don’t know if I could divide it into a percentage or allocate it into a percentage. Some people are really conversant with the numbers, others are not. But what I really emphasize is a need to educate yourself when you’re not among those who are facile with the finances. And you know what? Sometimes we have to get an accountant involved, not for a full-on forensic investigation, but just to go over some basic principles or a financial adviser who helps to create a budget going into the future. It’s a remedial problem, right? It’s something you can learn if you don’t come into the process knowing it. You just have to be willing to learn it, which ties back to my first point. If you’re stuck, if you’re resistant to change, if you’re not in a place where you can participate in this process, it trickles down. It’s not just you need fortification to get you through the emotionality of the process. You need fortification because it’s difficult. There are a lot of different aspects to it.

T.H.: We actually just did a recording about that, how knowledge is power, and it’s your life. The big thing that is consistent for everybody going through a divorce is it’s a shift. It’s a shift. It’s an opportunity if you want to take it. But it’s only an opportunity if you empower yourself with knowledge so that you can stand on your own and feel confident with your choices, instead of being like, whatever, whatever she says, or whatever they want. You have to own those whatevers, because it’s going to come back to you and you can’t be upset about it. You really need to learn, and I definitely had a lot of learning to do. I think I learned a lot of stuff that I shouldn’t have even had to need to know. But now I know. It’s your life. I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. It’s your life. It’s your kids, if you have kids. And so I wouldn’t take it lightly. I think it’s really important to own where you are, what you have as an opportunity, and weigh the pros and cons. Like Jennifer said, some things aren’t worth fighting for. So put the emotions behind that somewhere else, and let’s get the business going here.

Jessica: I’m curious, when people come in, I appreciate that you’re saying anyone who comes in has to decide for themselves to some extent, what the major issues are, what they want to focus on, and inform you of what the problems are, so to speak. But I would imagine that a lot of people come in and they’re like, I don’t know. I need your guidance, and I want you to direct me on what this path should be and what road we’re going to go down.

Jennifer: That’s why the information flows. It’s not linear. It comes in. So as you’re getting account statements and things are making sense, maybe you don’t need a forensic investigation to see where 5.99 went or some nominal sum. So no, I agree. And it’s an unrealistic expectation that everybody initially sitting down in my conference room table is going to have the lens of perspective to say this is what I want to pursue in this litigation. I think my point is more we’re going to get that information, you’re not always going to be at a deficit, this isn’t always going to be an unknown variable, but partner up with me and make decisions about what is it worth to pursue, and what is something that maybe it’s not.

Jessica: Do you often find that people are coming in and giving you insight into what they do deem the problems to be? And in your analysis, you’re thinking to yourself, yeah, you’re totally focused on the wrong things.

Jennifer: In an initial conversation with someone, I like to just let them talk and let them get it out and feel that they’ve gotten the information that they need to tell me. Once we’ve gone through that, then I might discern–it kind of depends on what you’re ready to hear. Part of that is would you have the information available to you to decide? Are we just speculating? Are we just guessing? Or do we have some information to back up our decisions? If somebody comes in and has a really extreme view of a position, I’m going to articulate that. They might not retain me, as a result of that

Jessica: What might an example of that be?

Jennifer: An example would be something like, I want to have the children 100% of the time, or the other person can see the children for dinner on Sundays, and that’s it. Absent extreme conduct that would warrant such a restriction, that’s probably not a realistic parenting time dynamic. So that would be a conversation. Or you hear “it’s my money”. You have to have a conversation about, hmm, no. Just because it’s in your name doesn’t mean it’s your money. It was earned during the marriage, so it’s marital funds. Those are some extremes that I’ve had to address at the outset.

Jessica: So what are some of the other things that you would recommend for people to really be taking note of and thinking of with regards to what they can and can’t control?

Jennifer: So my favorite one is tone. You set the tone of your litigation. If there is a bunch of nasty letters being circulated, number one, check your bill and find out how much you’re paying for those letters. Number two, find out what purpose do they serve other than create needless polarity and acrimony, which I bet you already have enough of. Letters, in general, state position, confirm notice of an event, or request information, but very commonly in my practice, I see pages and pages of ‘a pox upon you and your house’. On the one hand, it’s comical, because I’m distant enough from it to read it that way. But then there’s that moment of dread of, oh my gosh, I have to send this to my client, and it is going to create a spiral of okay, do we need to respond in kind? And let me explain to you why I don’t think it’s necessary to respond in kind. It’s a real problem I think, that the tone of the letters–or sometimes you have to prepare papers in court, and they’re written as though they’re from your perspective, but everybody knows your attorney is writing them and going over them with you. If it doesn’t read the way that you feel, if it doesn’t express who you are, you’re signing that, or your attorney on your behalf is submitting that. That’s your message. Are you okay with your message?

Jessica: That’s huge.

Jennifer: I think it’s so huge. I think at the end of the day, more likely than not, you’re going to be shoved into some sort of settlement situation. If you have piles and piles and piles of just white noise, and you haven’t really gotten into it, where are you going? What is the serving? Who is protecting? Is it just sport? Or is there a purpose behind it? Oftentimes, a nasty letter or an outrageous position paper will come in, and my client will challenge her spouse or his spouse. What is this? Why did you authorize this to be sent? And the response that trickles down is it’s just from the attorney. Oh, no, it’s not. That is you. You are paying for it and you are endorsing it.

Jessica: That’s a really important thing for people to hear.

T.H.: I think that is really important. Yeah, because otherwise, you’re not reading what your lawyer’s sending.

Jennifer: Right. Right.

T.H.: And so that’s like what I was saying before, you’re just blowing it off. You’re like yeah, whatever, just send it. Just send it. Then it’s a reflection on you. Also, if you are in front of the judge, that’s not a good reflection on you at all. We definitely had a lot of that in my divorce. It was definitely more coming towards us. I’m sure there were a few occasions where we responded in kind. It was a shit show. I mean, we were just running around in circles, and we weren’t making any progress for a very long time. But so what do you do when it’s not your side and you can’t control it? So if it’s my ex, just use me, stuff is coming in, and then how do we take control if the other side is just–I feel like we were dragged a lot, but we’re not fully going back to that. But what do you do when you’re in that position? You’re trying to handle this in a respectful way, and the other side is not, what do you do?

Jennifer: It starts for me with a conversation with my client. Because as an attorney, I don’t want to be perceived by my client that I’m being weak, that I’m not advocating for you. I need to get on the same page with my client that this isn’t advocacy, this isn’t strength, and this is just white noise. I have to be on the same page with my client, that our response is not going to be in kind, or we are not going to trade nasty superlatives with one another for the sake of doing it. And are you okay with it? Do you understand why I’m making that decision? Are you on the same page with me? Because I tell you, this is why it’s such an emphatic topic with me, because it has a domino effect. Somebody fires that first shot, and then all of a sudden what are you going to do? Constantly take the high road? At some point, your client might feel abused by that stance. Where’s my voice in this? I’m angry too. Why can’t I express my anger this way? I want to call him or her some names too. Then it becomes everything you don’t want your divorce to be. So it is very hard to not be the provoker of that. You want your client to feel protected at all times. I lose a lot of sleep worrying that everybody feels that way. You want to be a strong advocate for your client, but I can’t emphasize enough this is just bellyaching. This isn’t serving any purpose. At the end of the day, you’re all going to be sitting around a conference room table having exchanged all this, and you’re going to have to fashion a manner of speaking civilly with one another to form a solution to your divorce. So it is a lot of communication with your client to make sure that you are on the same page with how you are responding. It’s an important partnership issue. Do we see this issue the same way? Yeah, that’s I think my best answer for that.

T.H.: And then I think everyone should hear from you also, based on my experience, when you go to court and you choose that path, I felt like I gave up a lot of control. I had a judge who knew nothing about me and was just reading the written word and making decisions. And so if you think that being in front of a judge is where you want to be, explain more how you’re kind of putting everything in the hands of strangers, right?

Jennifer: Well, you’re not kind of, you are. You’re absolutely doing that. Now, look, sometimes you’re the actor that makes that necessary. Sometimes you’re not, and you’re there because of the other side. A judge is many things, but somebody who knows you, somebody who has the ability to soak up your case the way that you have lived it forever, that’s not available to you. There are just not enough resources for the judge to know you that well. The judge is there to have a trial. If you have filed a divorce complaint, the judge thinks should there to have a trial, notwithstanding the fact that most cases do settle. I want to circle back to your initial question, but I want to make this point too. There are settlement initiatives built into even a litigated divorce process. The problem is they come pretty late in the game after–

T.H.: Yes, a ton of boxes of paperwork first.

Jennifer: Oh, I know. Yeah. So in terms of trying not to surrender your control to the judicial system, or even mediation can become a pretty big event in terms of time, multiple appearances, and preparation of work. I mean, I’ve had mediations that go on for months. It’s the sooner you could get control of your matter by doing some of the things we’ve talked about, informing yourself about the information, trying to control your tone, and being in a place where you can make decisions that further yourself and your family. When you’re in a litigation mode, there’s talk about I want what I’m entitled to.

Jessica: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of talk like that.

Jennifer: So here’s the thing, though, what you’re entitled to is such a subjective inquiry in New Jersey, because the law is very circumstance-driven.

There are 16 different factors for each issue that a court has to weigh, and one judge could see them very differently than another judge. So in New Jersey, which is where I practice and all I can speak of, what you are entitled to is a very fluid concept. I think you need to get to a point with the aid of your attorney, and if you’re working with experts, to be able to identify here’s what I want, and here’s what I need. Your settlement probably lies somewhere in between want and need. Entitlement is too esoteric of a topic to even introduce into the equation.

Jessica: I think the idea of wants versus needs is hugely important for people to hear because I think that that can get very muddled in terms of what people are hoping to get out of it. Would you agree with the philosophy of if both parties leave thinking the other person got a pretty good deal, that that you made out okay?

Jennifer: Probably there’s some truth in that. What I like to do, and this is another one of those questions that is revisited throughout the lifespan of your divorce process, I will at different junctures ask, what are the top three things that are most important for you to achieve? And just always have those at the ready. Sometimes they’re always the same thing. They never change. But sometimes they change

Jessica: Over the course of someone’s actual process. You’re saying you may have asked T.H. that question in the beginning, and then maybe six months later asked her–

Jennifer: Maybe you give a different answer six months later.

Jessica: Interesting.

T.H.: Yeah, because you’re in a different emotional state six months in also, good or bad.

Jennifer: And it’s informational as well.

Jessica: Right, you’ve found out different things.

T.H.: Or information that you thought was correct, is wrong. You may have been looking for something that was never there.

Jessica: Yeah, well, I mean, look, the whole topic in general of what you can and can’t control in divorce is such a sensitive one, because a) everyone’s coming at it from such a different place. Everyone is in such a different emotional state. It’s really hard to compartmentalize the pain and the anger and the resentment and bitterness that someone may be feeling from their divorce, with okay, but we need to come out of this in a practical matter and think pragmatically about how this is going to look.

T.H.: And you’re ready to go punch a wall.

Jessica: Yeah, exactly. It really is just a great topic for us to be talking about. Thank you so much for your insight on all of that. I think it’s really helpful for everybody to hear. I think there are probably a lot more things that we could discuss with regards to what you can and can’t control, but I think this is really a great place to start. I appreciate you taking the time and sharing that with us.

Jennifer: Oh, no, I enjoyed the conversation a lot.

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