When parties first engage in the divorce process, they often do not know the law, how their situation looks from the outside, and how things unfold in court. Part of the attorney’s role may be to give the client a gentle wake-up call. Sometimes when you’re strategizing with them, they’re not sure what tools you may use to try and seal their case.
In part because clients aren’t always telling you the full stack and sharing all their skeletons, I would not tell a client that I could get them relief such as sole custody, 100% rights to a business formed during the marriage, a guarantee that the statutory cap will apply for maintenance and child support when the income exceeds the cap, or the ability to relocate with their children — all of which are big-ticket, multi-dimensional items of relief.
In sharing the personal details of their lives, clients are often vulnerable — opening themselves up to outsider’s judgment and/or disapproval of how they are managing their lives. Attorneys need to know the larger context and help the client see it too.
During a recent client intake, the client revealed that she wanted to not have to pay her husband a penny, even though she earned more than him, to get primary residential custody, and to carte blanche be able to relocate with the children domestically. The latter one, being the one she desired most was the biggest wild card in her case, carrying the greatest improbability.
Her argument that she could offer them a better life elsewhere (perhaps questionable in it of itself in light of them already having the garden, backyard, family nearby, good schools, and residing in a good neighborhood in New York) was overshadowed by the overarching question — Can you offer the children a better life elsewhere than the life of having a father regularly present in their lives who they’ve seen daily to date and have a good relationship with?
Another case presented a high performing husband and father who worked long hours in finance. He wanted custody of his children stating his wife was an alcoholic and good for nothing. When we dug deeper, we learned that he, in fact, drank more than she did, but in light of his high performance at work, he considered himself a highly functional drinker and avoided using the term alcoholic altogether to describe himself. It appeared his wife had unraveled some several years back after she was let go from a prestigious job and never managed to regain her footing after that, but his contempt for her undermined who she was now, which was a functional enough mother, perhaps sloppy at times, but still quite present and active.
A case in point on the support end was a father making over $600,000 for the 5 years preceding the divorce who was adamant that he would only pay the statutory caps for maintenance and support, stating that they were modest spenders and quite frugal. There was some truth to this, except that they lived in New York City, and that alone meant that their modest living would require payments above the caps to sustain the accustomed lifestyle.
There is also the controlling personality type who called the shots during the marriage with the other spouse going along. These clients often think they will be able to navigate the divorce in a way to continue to get their spouse to go along with them, except that their spouse, self-aware enough of their namby-pamby quality, typically hires an overly aggressive attorney to compensate, who pushes back at every turn.
We all get these laundry lists of desired reliefs. As a service provider, we work for the client and are their cheerleaders, but realistic ones, that don’t overpromise and underdeliver; this is a key element of being supportive and effective for the client.
Being a cogent advocate and mouthpiece for the client and helping them to see the full breadth of their situation’s appearance to an outsider when all the relevant factors are weighed are not mutually exclusive; they are part of the same overarching role.
Please contact The Law & Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein with any related questions.
Cheryl Stein, Esq.
The Law and Mediation Offices of Cheryl Stein
745 Fifth Avenue, Suite 500
New York, NY 10151
Phone: (646) 884-2324