Except in cases where there is abuse, a high-conflict custody divorce can usually be avoided, if both parents would agree on what’s most important, learn to compromise in the best interest of the kids and work together.
- If parent’s can’t agree on what’s best for their kids, it could become a high-conflict case.
- It’s really one person who is the driving force to making it into a high conflict situation.
- Last thing
OUR GUEST – Elysa Greenblatt, Partner at Greenblatt Law LLC
Jessica: Hi everyone. It’s Jessica and TH of the exExperts. No matter where you are in your divorce, we’re here to help. You know the deal. We’ve lived it, so we get it. Today’s podcast is going to be all about custody and even how to know if your situation is considered a high conflict custody case. Elysa Greenblatt of Greenblatt Law here in New York City, and full disclosure, my divorce lawyer, is here to give us all the crucial info that you didn’t even know you need to know. I do want to say this is not legal advice that Elysa is giving us today. Please don’t use this in lieu of consulting her personally or consulting your own lawyer, but we’re just going to be talking about things to give you some background and give you some information that you might need to know. Welcome, Elysa.
Elysa: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Elysa: Thank you.
Jessica: I just want to start off with, I know that custody issues in and of themselves can be super sensitive. You actually do a lot of what you call high conflict custody cases which sounds a little scary. Can you tell us exactly what that means?
Elysa: Well, I would say in high conflict custody cases, the two parents really can’t figure out how to see eye to eye on most things. For one person it’s black, the other it’s white, and one person often in those situations wants to have sole custody and not involve the other parent and not have to deal with the other parent in making decisions. Everything’s a fight from the big things to the little things. The little things such as what clothes the child is wearing. You wouldn’t think that that could take up lawyer time, but it can. And to the bigger things on whether a child can travel with the other parent, especially now during COVID, that becomes a big issue, or where a child is going to school or medical treatment, or whether a child should be in therapy. High conflict cases, a lot of times you’ll have that as an issue that you just cannot agree on. If parents can’t agree on what’s going to be best for their kids, then it’s usually a high conflict case.
Jessica: How does a person – because some of the things that you brought up, I did not have a high conflict custody situation. I don’t even know TH whether or not I would consider yours having been necessarily high conflict, although maybe it was since you guys had to have custody experts involved. I’m wondering Elysa how a person would even know whether or not their situation falls into the category of high conflict? I wonder if there are people out there who just think their situation is normal?
Elysa: Well, I would say, first of all, in terms of normal, there are a lot of normals [there’s no normal]. When people come into my office to talk about a custody situation, a lot of times they think you’ve never heard anything like this. We sit there and we listen, but in most cases, we have heard something like it. I’ve yet to hear something and think, oh my god, I’m never going to hear this kind of situation again in my career. I would say if you find yourself in court, and the court is appointing experts, usually that’s a high conflict case. If the court is appointing someone to represent your children, an attorney for the children, in most situations that’s a high conflict case because they’re bringing in a third party to speak for the kids. That’s usually a good sign that you’re in the midst of a high conflict case.
TH: For me, my children were young. They were all under the ages of 10, three kids, and we did have to hire custody experts. I feel if one side wants it, then both have to do it. There wasn’t an option for me. Personally it wasn’t something I was going to do anyway, but it just prolongs the process. Now looking back, it just took a lot of time. If both sides don’t feel like they need it, is there a way to back them out of going down that rabbit hole?
Elysa: It’s hard. I think rabbit hole is a good way to describe it. I think your situation is not that unique. It happens a lot where it’s really one person who is the driving force to making it into a high conflict situation. A lot of times it’ll be one person who’s saying, these kids are really struggling, they’re really not doing well. Then we’ll start looking, well, they’re doing okay in school, and the other person’s just not seeing it. But if you have one person going into court and telling the judge, my kids are not thriving, they’re not doing well, I can’t agree on anything with my spouse. The judge usually is going to end up ordering a custody evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist and an attorney for the children. It can be very one sided. In my practice, we’re very settlement minded and we like to settle these cases, but it’s sometimes impossible if one side is pushing it to bring in all these experts and make everything a fight. Then it’s going to be a fight. That’s unfortunate. It is as you said, it’s very time consuming, it’s very expensive, and it also draws the children into the conflict in a way that in some cases, they just don’t need to be there.
TH: Yeah –
Jessica: That’s my – Go ahead.
TH: No, I was going to say they don’t need to be there. They were little kids. If they really had a voice, maybe an older child, I mean, I guess you handle it differently based on the ages of the kids and where they are in their developmental life. High school teenagers are probably going to be more vocal in most cases than a four year old who you’ve got to give them goldfish and it’s good. [Right] Not always. I’m not minimizing it, but it’s very emotional, it’s very costly, and it was a huge waste of time in my mind for me and my family, personally. I feel the emotional part of divorce drives 60% of what happens. If I were all caught up in it then I would think everything I’m saying is 100% right. If I could step out of my skin and look at it like you would, because they’re not your kids and it’s not your marriage, and that’s why we hire you to give us an objective point of view. You have to be able to step out of your skin, otherwise you’re just stuck.
Jessica: I also wonder how much scarier it ends up becoming for the kids when it gets to that level. We’re all so worried about how screwed up our kids are going to be later anyway. We’ll never know what the emotional impact of the divorce was until they’re probably in their 20s or beyond when they can actually express how they were feeling back in the day. But it makes me wonder if people are part of a high conflict custody situation, what would you say are the three most important things for people to consider?
Elysa: Well, I would say, first, try to figure out what it is that you can agree with your spouse on or with your co-parent, because maybe if you can limit the issues that you’re fighting about, then you can get out of the situation sooner rather than later. So that’s one thing. Another thing is keep your kids – I mean your kids are in it in a high conflict case, but to the extent that you can, keep them out of it. Don’t bad mouth the other parent to your kids. It can be really hard in New York City where we’re all living in apartments, and we’re all on top of each other, but we all get on the phone with our friends and our family to talk about what’s going on in our lives. Limit that when your kids are in the apartment, that’s not the time to be venting to your friend about what’s happening. Or even if you’re not venting, it’s not the time to be just recounting what’s happening. Going with that also, don’t leave your stuff around that relates to the divorce. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had situations where the kids find the papers in the divorce. Whether it is papers that were left out on the kitchen counter or you have a family computer that everyone leaves and you haven’t really encrypted things or done something to make sure your kids don’t see it. That’s really just a big no. You want to keep your kids away from reading that stuff. And also, I’ve had cases where people are saying, okay, well, I’m going to tell them when they’re 21, they’ll be old enough, and they’ll read all the papers. No, just no. It’s not going to be a good situation. It’s not advisable to do that. I would say in that circumstance, you’re really too in it to see how bad it is, but I’m telling you, it’s really bad. Then the other thing I would say is to listen to your lawyer. You want to find a lawyer who is not just going to ‘yes’ you. You want to find someone who has experience with custody cases and who’s really going to advise you. In our firm, we’re not there just to tell you what you want to hear. Our goal is I would say that we’re very child focused, and we want to get these cases finished with the least amount of heartache possible for you and for the kids. You may not like what your lawyer is telling you in terms of the advice, but maybe try to take a step back and listen to what you’re being told and think there might be a reason that someone who’s not in it is telling you this.
TH: Are there resources that parents can use for their kids if they are in this situation? Resources online or any kind of guidance you can give, to any great books, any –
Jessica: Other than what we offer on the exExperts?
TH: No of course, but we can’t be with you 24/7. For the few hours in between, is art a good outlet? Keeping them outside? Keeping them with their friends? What do you recommend?
Elysa: You want to keep their lives as normal as possible and give them those outlets outside of your family. Your immediate family is going through this turmoil, so if your kids have friends or extended family that they can spend time with, you definitely want to keep that up. In terms of resources, a lot of kids who are going through high conflict cases do need to be speaking to a therapist. Sometimes there’s a therapist in school to talk to and a lot of schools have something called the Banana Splits program.
Jessica: TH started that at her kid’s school because they didn’t have it at the time.
TH: I did! I started it at school, and my older daughter didn’t have any friends who whose parents were going through a divorce, so she did not want to go. Then my younger daughter had a bunch of friends, she still wanted to go, maybe didn’t want to go. My son, I would get calls, your son showed up for Banana Splits, but you didn’t sign the document. But since you started the program, I’m assuming you’re okay with him being here? I’m like, yes, absolutely. Then my oldest daughter as her senior project brought Banana Splits to the other public schools in our town. That was something I would really love to talk more about maybe on another podcast, but I’m sorry, I interrupted you.
Jessica: You know enough about Banana Splits.
Elysa: It’s a great program and it’s so important for kids to have other kids that they can talk to who are going through the same thing. I would say that if you’re going through a divorce and there are custody issues, definitely speak to your school and find out if they have a Banana Splits program in place. And if not, talk about how to get one going because I’m sure that in any school there are other families that are going through similar things.
TH: We can put up a resource link for Banana Splits and a whole worksheet of how to introduce it into your school.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I’m wondering when it comes to these kinds of custody situations, and again, acknowledging that everybody has a different situation, and TH and I are the perfect examples of that. We literally got divorced at the exact same time, started at the exact same time because of the same circumstances of our exes having had affairs, but our paths through the divorce process were so extremely different. But I am still kind of wondering if there are any sorts of ‘standard’ things that all parents really need to know or think about when they’re dealing with divorce with kids? For example, I have some friends and sometimes I’ll be talking to them and they’re talking about the conversations with their lawyers and working out their custody agreements. I’m thinking maybe their kids are 11 and 9, and I’m like, well, have you thought about their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, if the family’s Jewish? Have you thought about high school tutors? Have you thought about who’s paying for college? Or if they go to college in California, because we live in New York City, who’s paying to have them come home X number of times a year? What about when they get married? Just all of these things that I’m wondering, are there things that you feel, like I said, are ‘standard’ that a lot of people may not be thinking about?
Elysa: I think that all those things that you mentioned are good things to think about, but I would bring that to how important it is to get a lawyer who does custody cases and has experience with custody cases. There are a lot of us out there in New York, and then all over of course. But those kinds of things that you mentioned are the things that when we’re writing custody agreements, we’re going to bring up. In terms of school vacations, how is that going to be dealt with? In terms of just knowing different families, whether they’re going to be certain family events, and whether the kids are going to have to travel and who’s paying for it and flexibility. Those are the kinds of things that come up a lot in cases, but if you have someone as a lawyer who doesn’t do a lot of custody cases, they’re not going to be thinking about them.
TH: There’s still stuff that comes up. I have two in college, so there’s always something else that comes up. The truth is, I’m sure you would say this too Elysa, is you can’t think of everything. Then you have to focus just on the big stuff and hope that as responsible parents, you guys can figure out the small stuff. You may not be able to, but do you want to go back to hiring a lawyer and stirring the pot again or are you going to sit down? It’s not always easy. I’m not saying it is, but I feel like I have to get into a mindset to then handle business, and then business is handled. It’s hard to think of everything, but there are certainly – I mean, we were just talking about what her allowance is going to be for living in an apartment, the other one’s living in her dorm, and so they have different allowances and budgets and who’s paying for that? It’s endless actually, probably. It takes a good salary.
Jessica: I wonder if later there’s anything with, I don’t know, I just wonder what that emotional impact is. I know we talked about it briefly at the top, but what does that become later, or whether or not if everything is worked out in a satisfactory manner during the process, if it then makes the relationship easier to move forward beyond that?
Elysa: I would say that that is the case in a lot of situations. When you’re in the midst of a high conflict case, you aren’t really thinking long term. You’re not thinking ahead. The further you go down that road, really towards a custody trial, the harder it’s going to be later on in your co-parenting relationship. Even if you ‘win’ and get what you want, you’re not writing off that other parent. You’re going to have to deal with that parent for the rest of your kid’s lives. If you’ve brought up every single skeleton in your co-parent’s closet throughout the process, and you’ve really done everything to really obliterate them in court, that’s it’s going to have long term effects on your ability just to even go to family events. Imagine going to a high school graduation with the parent that your lawyer made breakdown in tears on the witness stand and have a nervous breakdown. It’s really very scarring. There are situations where you have to do it, there are situations that are just so horrible that you are in this case and it has to be, but there are a lot of custody cases that don’t need to go that far.
Jessica: This is all such interesting information and unfortunately so needed by so many people navigating divorce. Our weekly newsletter is called ‘What I wish I knew’. I know you’re not divorce, but as a lawyer who deals with these kinds of things, who probably hears people all the time being like I wish I knew, what would you say would be like the most important thing that people should need to know that they probably don’t know?
Elysa: I would say, one thing, if we’re talking just in that high conflict custody realm, I think that a lot of people don’t realize that a lawyer is going to be appointed for their kids. They would say I wish I knew that, and that the lawyer is not looking out for their best interests. In New York, that lawyer is advocating for what the child says he or she wants, other than some very specific circumstances. You might not be getting what you want by having that person appointed, and you’re also going to have to pay for it. A lot of people I think would say, I wish I knew that I’m going to be paying for this person that’s not necessarily helping me out.
Jessica: That’s huge. That’s really important.
TH: Don’t you also think that whichever parent that child is with, they’re preparing them as best they can to like, okay, mommy loves you, or daddy loves you, and you’re going to get a lollipop after, or whatever it is, a new car or whatever, I’m sure they pull out all the stops, but then you lose control.
TH: When the courts take over, and they did take over in some parts of my process, the scariest part is losing control. Not having the information, not knowing what’s happening behind the closed door is all very, very scary. You’re like out there without a net or even water underneath you. That’s just from my perspective. I wasn’t in the situation that you’re talking about to that degree but even a little bit, what’s happening when they’re meeting with the expert? I’m not there. I’m not there cheering them on, big smile, mommy loves you, don’t throw me under the bus, kid. But you’re not going to say that, or I would never say that, but that was certainly something inside that I was worried about. Mom said whatever, and then some stranger can totally misconstrue it. You lose control the more the court gets involved. That’s just my add-on to that.
Elysa: Definitely. You’re looking at a situation when you first decide to divorce where you and your spouse can make the decisions by yourselves and figure things out. Once you go down this road, you have a third party who doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your family, doesn’t know how you want to raise your kids, who is going to be making the decision. On the point of coaching, and what the other parent can do, we definitely see it. I represent kids in my practice and sometimes I can tell that it’s going on in the really egregious situations. There are things that we look for, but I would say that it happens all the time. It can be kind of subtle too. It’s not just sitting your kid down and saying you’ve got to tell this person this. It can be more subtle than that. It happens all the time, so definitely consider that that’s going to become part of your situation.
TH: Yeah, it should be like a ‘Beware’ sign.
Elysa: [Laughs] Yes.
TH: Like across everything you do, on your phone, your computer screen, the door: Beware – Slow Down – Caution.
Jessica: Totally. All right. For anyone listening, Elysa, who wants advice, either reach out to you, or talk to you directly, what are the best ways to get in touch with you?
Elysa: The best ways are email. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on social media. You can find us on Instagram @greenblattlawllc, on Facebook at Greenblatt Law LLC, and you can also always call our office. Our number is 212-819-9599. I have a great associate Gabriella who I know will be speaking to at another time, but she and I are always available to take your calls and respond to emails and help out with your situations.
Jessica: Excellent. Well, thank you again so much for joining us. TH, did you have one last word?
TH: I was just going to say it was a pleasure to get to know you on this podcast, and certainly, Jessica, presented you here because she had a really good experience, so it speaks for itself.
Jessica: Right, that’s why we highly recommend Elysa. For everyone else watching or listening, be sure to follow us on social media at exExperts and click below to subscribe to the exExperts podcast. Of course, please share our website, podcast, and our resources for anyone you know that may be starting or going through a divorce of their own. Until next time, just breathe.
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