Lawyers are habituated to getting to the bottom line. Extraneous details are disregarded as dross and distraction. Of course, typical of the breed, the average lawyer will look to monetary outcome as the overriding measure of this bottom line. In personal injury cases, for example, it is all about the amount of settlement or verdict (if settlement is not achieved). This “monetization” of outcome is repeated in just about every kind of legal dispute. This focus applies, to often devastating effect, in the family law arena, as well. To be sure, there are lots of financial elements in a divorce resolution, each of which a person can get more of, or less of. How much alimony will be paid? Working husband wants to pay only $750, while long-unemployed wife says she needs $2,000. Perhaps the people have agreed that the wife will be awarded the family home. Predictably, she will obtain an appraisal which marks its value at $400,000 and her disputing spouse will counter with his $650,000 appraisal. In Washington state, where community property is divided in a “fair and equitable,” rather than equal manner, the person who has little current earning capacity will push for 60% of the joint property while the employed spouse will seek a 50/50 division and inch up slowly to agreeing to 51%, then 52%, etc.
Family lawyer are inured to the notion that a client’s interests are financial – and while that is a huge part of any divorce client’s concerns, it is by no means an exclusive, or even primary interest.
It has long been recognized that the one overriding variable which will predict a child’s well-being after their parents’ divorce is the degree to which that child is shielded from parental conflict. Bear in mind, this is not about parents choosing not to scream at each other in front of the child – that behavior is never justified. Nor is any negative statement about the other parent to, or in front of, the children. Yet a more common, and far subtler harm can be inflicted if the parents fight like warriors over a divorce settlement so that “he won’t win this time, like he always did” or “she won’t get away with this.” The battle of wills in even a moderately difficult divorce, in which two adults struggle with the urges and needs of a younger psyche – as if the other person is more a parent than another vulnerable adult, when coupled with the fear attending almost every severing of this intimate bond, will often lock people into a miasma of pain and resentment, which simply cannot be hidden from the children. Be they adorable 5 year olds or teenagers struggling to find their identity, any set-up in which loving Dad will be experienced as a betrayal of Mom and loving Mom will cause pain to Dad sets up an intolerable conflict of loyalties for children who almost always love each parent deeply and desperately. Children will almost always crack under the strain.
I often wonder how a parent, who dug their heels in for that extra $30,000, would respond to this question, after seeing their beloved child succumb to depression or alcohol/drug abuse or premature sexuality or behavior problems in school or poor grades: “If you could pay $30,000 to someone right now who could make your child okay again, would you do it?”
That’s why framing interests of divorcing people in terms of dollars or minutes of residential time with a child misses the biggest, non-monetary, interest of them all. We need to keep that in mind as lawyers and the divorcing, proceed down this shattered, and shattering, path.