When you’ve been slogging through a divorce process for months on end and you are nearing a resolution, you’re going to be thrilled to be finished and ready to sign, right? Well, maybe not. Many people, when negotiating the final terms of a divorce settlement, find themselves arguing over some small, apparently insignificant item.
Some years ago, I spent an entire afternoon and most of an evening negotiating the resolution of a divorce on behalf of my client, “Susan,” mother of a 12 year old son. Over the course of many hours that the two lawyers went back and forth, we discussed the division of property and debt, the maintenance and child support, and the parenting plan. Nothing was easy, and both sides were nearing exhaustion as we worked out the last few issues.
Then, I heard those five words no lawyer wants to hear after such a grueling process: “There’s just one more thing…” I turned to Susan and asked her what else we could possibly have left to talk about. She answered, “There’s an old motorbike in our basement. We bought it years ago at a yard sale and I’d like to have it.”
“Simple enough,” I thought, so I went to the conference room where the other lawyer had been meeting with Susan’s husband, “Bill,” to make the request. I assumed he would be out in a few minutes with Bill’s okay. Instead, he spent at least 20 minutes talking to Bill before telling me that Susan would not be getting the motorbike.
I had to find out what was so important about this bike and why Susan insisted upon having it. She told me that Bill was not a safe and careful parent and that the only way she could insure that her son would not end up being killed by a ride on the motorbike was if she could have possession of it.
I told the other attorney why Susan wanted the bike and, after more discussion with his client, he informed me that Bill would, reluctantly, give up the bike.
The next day, I asked Bill on the witness stand whether he agreed that Susan should get the motorbike. He hesitated, then stated he didn’t think it was fair. Only after a brief recess and some strong words from his lawyer did Bill agree to relinquish the bike.
So what happened? I think two issues coincided to create this last minute snag: one was the illusion Susan carried that she had some measure of control over how Bill raised their son while in Bill’s house. The fact is, Bill is going to be whatever kind of father he chooses to be regardless of Susan’s efforts to the contrary. Divorce will not fundamentally change someone’s personality or their parenting style.
Second, anyone going through a divorce becomes scared and nervous when asked to sign off on an agreement. They are afraid that they will regret not holding out for one more item or be sorry that they agreed to a commitment they may not be able to keep. Once they agree, they can’t ask for anything else.
Understanding that the end of the process presents these last minute challenges may help you prepare and then, perhaps, breathe a little easier when the time comes to say, “We’re finished.”