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Think Ahead Before You Divorce

Attorney Offers Tips for Planning a Life After Divorce

Video Transcript:

Chaim Steinberger:

It's a blend of realism and understanding yourself, understanding what you want. It's understanding what's realistic for you to obtain from a divorce, and bringing them all together and creating a life plan for yourself.

Rob Rosenthal:

So how do you make sure you're planning for your future when you're planning your divorce? Well, that's what we're going to find out today, because we're going to ask the lawyer.

Hi again, everybody. I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com, and my guest here to help us out is New York City attorney Chaim Steinberger. Chaim, good to see you again. Happy New Year. Thanks for joining us.

Chaim Steinberger:

Thank you, Rob. Always my pleasure.

Rob Rosenthal:

So I'm guessing when most of your clients first come to see you, their mindset is in the moment. They're thinking, “Right now. What can I do right now to get out of whatever situation I’m in?” And you are telling us they need to be thinking about after the divorce, even before the divorce, right?

Chaim Steinberger:

Well, it's even worse than you've just described. It's because—and I speak about this in some of the other programs that we've done—when somebody is really, really scared, the mind shuts down as a protective mechanism. It’s a survival mechanism that we have. When we're faced with danger, the mind shuts down everything that the mind doesn't think is relevant to the danger. So we get tunnel vision and that's all we can see, that's all we can focus on. However, it's very important that a person think about what's ahead, what's going to go on behind the divorce.

So job number one for the lawyer is to make the client feel safe so that the client can take that deep breath and expand their vision. So number one, because they're not threatened by the divorce, because if the lawyer makes them feel safe, they're like, “Okay, I'll get through this.” Of course, divorce is one of the most traumatic things that a person can go through, but then the other piece is that the client can take that deep breath and think about, “Okay, what is life after divorce?”
And the reason I say that; I have this young woman, she was actually a Pakistani woman, a mail-order bride, husband went to Pakistan, picked her up, brought her home, terrible thing; she had to bathe his mother, she had to wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning when his brothers came home from driving the taxis and give them dinner, and when she asked her husband, “Okay, can I go to the store? Give me money; I want to go grocery shopping.” He said, “No, no. You can't ever leave the house. You're stuck in here. If you ever walk out of the house, I'll have you deported.” And she came to me, and one of the first questions I asked her is, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” And her response was, “What do you mean? What do you mean? I need to get out of the marriage. I need to get out of the marriage.” That's all she could think about. And I said, “I understand, but if you tell me what you need so that I can help you move on, I may be able to negotiate for it.” And she's like, “No, no.” She couldn't think about it.

And so we showed up in court, and the husband's lawyer looks at me, we sit down to talk, and the husband’s lawyer looks at me and he goes, “Okay, Mr. Steinberger, this may seem strange to you, but in our culture, this is completely normal.” And I said, “You're very right, Mr. So-and-so. There's only one problem with your strategy.” And he said, “What's that?” And I said, “The jury we’re going to pick is going to be a Brooklyn jury.” And he goes, “Oh no. Maybe we should settle.” And we settled the entire case on that day.

Now, here's the rub: Six months later, this woman called me up and she said, “I wish I had taken your advice. I used to be a teacher in Canada; for me to be licensed to teach in New York City I need to take courses, I need to get certified, I need to get another license. If I would have known that while we were negotiating, I might have asked the husband maybe pay at all, maybe pay 50%.” But we would have negotiated and we would have set her up for her post-life divorce.

So you need a lawyer you trust. You need a lawyer who's going to shepherd you and carry you through safely. I just got a call yesterday from a woman, and she's like, “Oh my god, oh my god, my husband threatened this and this.” And I said, “Okay, so what's a problem? We'll deal with it, whether he does this, whether he does this, whether he does this. It'll be okay. We'll meet him on the field of battle, and we will prevail.”

And so, number one is to give the client safety, but number two for the clients, once you're safe, you can take that deep breath and you can say, “Okay, what do I want to do for the rest of my life? I'm about to write the next chapter of my life.What do I want that chapter to be like? And since you've been so kind and patient to listen to me, Rob, I'll share this, the best advice I ever got from Nathanial Brandon, was write out your epitaph now. Whatever it is that you want your tombstone to say, write it out now, and then lead the life that gets you there so that you're leading a goal-focused life; whether you want it to say, “He made the most money.” Whether you want it to say, “He was the best parent.” Whether you want it to say, “I was the best husband.” Whatever your values are, write it out. And so this way you're focused and you can direct your efforts toward the goals that you think make your life meaningful.

Rob Rosenthal:

So when you tell a client, Chaim, that they need to be thinking about what the future is, what they want after the divorce, they need to be thinking about all that before the divorce, are we just talking about finances? What areas are we talking about?

Chaim Steinberger:

What did Dr. Jerry Brown say? It's simple, but it's not easy. So, part of the challenge is this: you need to have a realistic expectation of how the divorce is going to play out. So you need a wise lawyer that has a sense. Like when you start a chess game, you have an idea of the strategy you might use. You don’t quite know exactly how each piece will move, but you have a general idea. A good lawyer can give you a sense of what to expect, and then you could talk about it. So it involves the children, it involves whether you're going to work or not, what type of work you're going to do. Too many people are stuck in dead-end jobs and you have to find a job that gives you joy. That makes life worth living. The old adage, find a job you love doing and you'll never have to work another day in your life. So I, and I assume you, Rob, we're fortunate, we do the work that we love doing, and it doesn't feel like work. This feels like fun. But people who are stuck in a marriage and particularly in a bad marriage, they often haven't thought about, “Okay, if I could do anything in the world, what would I like to do? How much money could I make? Is that enough to support me? Is that enough to support the lifestyle I want to live? Is that something I can look into? Do I want to go off and Eat, Pray, Love, and go off on a journey myself and just pay my way through it? Do I want to get another degree? Do I want to change careers?”

This is a great time because you're turning over the leaf and you're starting a new profession. Too many of us have what is known as golden handcuffs, where you start a job, you start making money, and now you're not making enough to make it joyful, but you're just making enough that you can't quit and move on with your life. So when you're in this interstitial period of massive change in your life, it's a good idea to take a long walk, maybe near an ocean, or near a lake, and think about yourself, think about your life, think about what brings you joy, and figure out what it is you'd like to do. Then you need to talk to a really good lawyer, maybe to the financial person and figure out, “Is this realistic? Can I make it work with effort and with wisdom and determination? Can I make it work?” I don't want people hanging their hat. Somebody says, “I want to be the best guitarist in the world.” Well, either you have a talent or you don't, so being a guitarist in a band may be fun at night as an avocation, but you might not want to do it for your vocation because you might not be able to support yourself and your family.

So it's a blend of realism and understanding yourself, understanding what you want, it's understanding what's realistic for you to obtain from a divorce, and bringing them all together and creating a life plan for yourself.

Rob Rosenthal:

I would imagine some people, Chaim, when they're asked that question like in the example you used earlier, when you say, “What does your future look like when you see it post divorce?’ They've never even thought about it. They don't have any ideas, so it probably takes a little time to come up with an answer. Is that the kind of thing where the attorney can kind of guide them and help them in that path?

Chaim Steinberger:

So I'm an attorney, but people say I talk more like a therapist, but that's not where my licensing is. So if somebody gets to that point and they say, “Well, I don't know what it is. I know where my strengths are.” Then I'll say, “Okay, maybe step back, maybe take a walk with a best friend, maybe you got a therapist, maybe you explore that.” A lot of it is really getting in touch with your own emotions, understanding who you are and what you want to do. So that's not something typically. This is outside of the daily work of the typical lawyer; lawyers aren't usually life coaches, but this is something that clients need to think about. As I said earlier, because everything is connected to everything else, you can't just say, “Well, I want to become the best baseball player in the world.” Well, I need to know whether that's realistic, considering how old and pudgy and slow I am.

Rob Rosenthal:

But part of I would think the benefit of having an attorney who has the experience is, if you say, “I want to go back to teaching.” Then you've got somebody who can go, “Okay, well, here's how we can kind of help you get there. You need to think about this, and this that you may not have thought about.” That's where the experience is helpful.

Chaim Steinberger:

Exactly. So what the attorney brings to the table is to give you a good prediction of how the case will play out. So perhaps you get more money, but less support, or she gets less money and more support, or perhaps there's enough money and enough support to go around. Perhaps it's just inappropriate for the husband to pay for the wife’s further training, maybe not. But these are issues that need to be discussed and looked at in the context of the divorce and what assets the married family has, and what a judge is likely to do as Bob Mnookin of The Harvard Negotiation Project says, “All negotiations happen in the shadow of the law.” So you need to know what the law entitles you too. You need to know what maybe you could push for, maybe with a stretch, and then you need to know what's not realistic. Understanding the differences between them becomes very important, and for that you need good wise legal counsel.

Rob Rosenthal:

I'm assuming that not all the family law attorneys think like that. There are probably some who just go, “Let's get this done as fast as possible. You said you want this, and that's it.”

Chaim Steinberger:
As in any profession, there may be 5% or 10% of the people who play a high game; when I ask brain surgeons and heart surgeons, what percentage of their colleagues they would entrust their mother to, they tell me maybe 2% or 3%. So there are maybe a handful of divorce lawyers who are committed and dedicated and will do the hard work and really know the facts of your case and get into the reasoning behind the case with the creativity to make creative arguments, but not too creative so that they’re off the wall and get dismissed. So that's a unique blend of qualities and a commitment to the client. If you find somebody like that, don't let them out of your site because I make sure that when I have an accountant, when I have a doctor, I want the best I can afford so that I can rely on them. I call my trusted advisors and I get an answer and I know I can take it to the bank. So a lawyer who's sort of half in there and wants to take the easy way out, maybe you're getting a good enough result or not. It depends on the case.

I had somebody recently consult with me and say, “I want to know. Can I win this?” And I'm like, “I can't give you that answer quickly. That's an answer that needs to be researched, and that's an issue that needs to be prepared, and then as we're going along, we need to be able to make the best case possible.” I've had cases where four of the lawyers have failed where I walked into court and the judge told me, “Counsel your client’s got one foot in rikers,” and I spent a of time and effort, and the client's money, showed up in court four weeks later, had a two-hour oral argument in front of the judge and flipped the entire case around. But that takes a lot of hard work, and you have to go searching for that needle in the haystack, and before you find it you don't know how long it can take. And once you find it then it becomes simple. So once it's done you go, “But of course.” But until you get it done, people think it's impossible. So having a good lawyer is very important, and if you have one God bless. Good for you.

Rob Rosenthal:

A wealth of information as usual, Chaim. Thank you so much for making some time and answering our questions.

Chaim Steinberger:

It is my pleasure to share this with you, Rob.

Rob Rosenthal:

That’s going to do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been New York City attorney Chaim Steinberger. Remember if you want the very best information or you want to be sure that you can choose a lawyer that lawyers choose, go to askthelawyers.com. Thanks for watching everybody. I'm Rob Rosenthal with AskTheLawyers™.

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