It happens more often than you might think. A couple decides to divorce, sits down for a long conversation, decides that they can amicably divorce, and makes some decisions about how they are going to divide their finances. They also agree that they can work together to figure out a schedule for the kids. Then one of them calls a lawyer and says, “My spouse and I have an uncontested divorce. Can you help us just paper our agreements?”
I receive calls like this with a fair amount of regularity. My first thought is that I love that the couple can sit down and have a civil conversation about what is often a very difficult subject to talk about. And then I start asking questions about the agreements. What I most often find is that the couple has reached agreements at a very high level. But as they say, the devil is in the details. I have seen divorce decrees from the 1970s that were 7 or 8 pages long. But did you know that a typical divorce decree today for a couple with children is often 60 to 80 pages long?
You may agree to “joint custody” (which is not even a legal term under Texas law), but how will the two of you make future decisions about education, medical care, or psychological and psychiatric decisions for your children should the need arise? I find that couples have often not discussed that level of detail, but when they do, disagreement arises. It is also common for couples to think that they have an agreement on a schedule for the children. However, when they meet with lawyers, they learn about different scheduling options and find that they each have a different opinion about which schedule is best for the children.
Similar disagreements arise with high level financial agreements, but often, they don’t understand how different assets can be divided. For example, before meeting with lawyers and understanding their legal rights, couples might agree to each keep their own 401Ks even if they have largely different balances simply because each one earned the 401K through their own employment. After meeting with lawyers, the couple would learn that both 401Ks are community assets and can be divided without penalty by court order. They might also learn that there are ways in divorce to withdraw funds from a 401K without penalty to pay down debts. But when it comes down to it, more information – necessary information – can lead to disagreement.
So, what does it mean to have an uncontested divorce? An uncontested divorce just means that you both agree to divorce. Beyond that, you and your spouse are opposing parties in a legal filing. It does not mean that you are hostile toward one another. It doesn’t mean that you have to go head to head with one another to fight over your children or your financial estate. It just means that you have differences on the details of your high level agreements and it’s up to you to choose the process by which you will come to agreement. You can choose an adversarial process that pits you against one another, or you can choose a process (such as Collaborative Divorce) that allows you to continue the conversations that you started with your spouse when you agreed that you had an uncontested divorce.
Rhonda Cleaves is a divorce attorney in Collin County who represents clients throughout the DFW metroplex. She is Credentialed by Collaborative Divorce Texas. For more information, she can be reached in her Plano office at (972) 403-0333.