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OC Leader Board: The Truth About Divorce

Editor’s Note: What follows are excerpts from “The Dissolution Solution: A Divorce Lawyer’s Advice on the Best Ways to Part Ways,” a book published last year by Paul Nelson, founder of Newport Beach-based Nelson, Kirkman & Levanger, and Michael Ashley. The Business Journal’s annual list of the largest law firms in Orange County begins on page 32.

It was a perfect wedding. Rachel picked the venue, a hundred-year-old winery in California’s Santa Inez Valley. Jeff hired the band, a six-member ensemble that could play everything from 1940s Broadway show tunes to the latest mumble rap.

After dating for more than three years and having watched many of their friends wed—then divorce—the two were determined to make their marriage last.

They would work out their problems. They would learn to compromise. Love, they believed, would indeed conquer all. Yet, five years and two children later, here they were, standing before a judge preparing to sign papers of marital dissolution.

How could it all go so wrong?

Divorce has been likened to death. It’s sad. It’s tragic.

It’s also a fact of life.

Almost no one goes into a marriage expecting to get divorced. But if it happens, it’s best to be prepared. And that’s what my book is about.

Now, they say you should never trust a skinny chef or a fat doctor. By this measure, you also shouldn’t trust a family law attorney who hasn’t been divorced.

Guess what? I’ve been there. I’ve done the deed. I’ve personally experienced all the pain, the anger, the rage, the self-loathing, the doubts, the recriminations, the resentments, the second-guessing, the sleepless nights, and the blessed relief that’s part and parcel of the divorce experience.

How do you pick a divorce lawyer? Experience, education, specialty in family law, associations. Ask trusted advisers. Get third-party validation.
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My beat is Southern California, specifically Orange County. More specifically, fabled Newport Beach, ground zero for Fox’s early 2000s hit show “The O.C.” If you’re going to practice divorce law, this is the place to do it.

The reasons people here in Orange County divorce are little different than they are elsewhere in the Western world. Yes, even the rich have financial difficulties, infidelity, domestic violence, boredom.

I also suspect a key reason the divorce rate here runs so high is frustration with unfulfilled expectations. People in SoCal dream big and desire perfection. It’s baked into the culture.

And when people’s aspirations don’t come to fruition, when even wealth and success fail to deliver personal happiness and satisfaction, they fight, blame the other, and look for an escape hatch.
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Thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs have built their companies from the ground up, treating them like their babies. They don’t want the business to fall apart because of a serious personal matter like a divorce.

Does the prenuptial agreement cast a gloom and doom forecast on what should be a happy wedding?

No.

Prenups help thwart divorce because the act of completing one forces a couple to contemplate worst-case scenarios before committing to a union.

It lowers the veil of romance and makes people look at nuptials using cold, hard reality. It also allows couples to know in advance what they will take—and not take—from a marriage upon its dissolution. If the spouses know they won’t be able to take each other to the cleaners, they’re more likely to look for ways to resolve their differences.

That advice is extremely good for anyone with any assets.

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I’ve seen some cases that could be plots on “L.A. Law.”

In 2005, a spouse sought $18 million from her husband, a real estate developer who offered $11 million. It was bad timing because the 2008 financial crisis damaged his business and she got $5 million instead in 2015.

In another case, a divorce that started as amicable ended in bitterness when the wife found out her husband spent $10,000 on a necklace for his mistress and then he found out she had forged documents allowing her to siphon money from their company. Eventually, all hell broke loose, the fangs came out, and what was supposed to be a quick, simple, and inexpensive divorce dragged on for three years.

An ex-wife who claimed she couldn’t work because of physical problems showed the judge her six-inch Jimmy Choo shoes. She lost her argument.

I had drinks with a client, who at the end of the case acknowledged that he was blinded by spite, and he could have saved himself and his bank account by working harder to protect his investment of more than 20 years.

I picked up the tab for the drinks. After all, he was already out $137,000.

The moral? You can intend to have a quick and simple low-cost divorce, but it’s a crapshoot. And as in craps, the odds are never in your favor.
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The price of an average divorce in California costs $17,000 without children and $26,500 with children.

I have a list of 10 top reasons to stay married. Three of those reasons are “kids.”

I saw a bitter custody battle that devasted their couple’s two teenage daughters, one who posted naked pictures of herself on Instagram and the other who dropped out of high school and used drugs.

Mental health experts will tell you a divorce, even a so-called amicable one, can leave deep, lasting scars on the psyches of everyone involved, especially children.

While a marriage can be dissolved, the pain a parental breakup creates can often last a lifetime.

Remember this: no one wants to be considered a loser in a divorce case; on the other hand, the person must ask: What does winning look like?

It may seem odd that a lawyer would want to discourage potential clients from getting a divorce that would be economically beneficial. The reason is that there’s a lot of business out there. Although specific numbers vary, experts will tell you there’s a 40% to 50% chance a marriage will end prematurely.

No one gets divorced because they feel good about how things are going.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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