What should I do right now?
First, get informed about the process and how the whole thing works. This website was designed to get you there and knowledgeable enough to make informed decisions. So much of what you do in a divorce or custody situation depends on having information that is both current and relevant. For example, if you know how an issue is typically treated in court, you'll know not to take an opposite approach on that issue.
If you did try to swim up stream, you'll tire out, waste a lot of time, and it will cost you a lot of money. So, the first step is to know the outcome, before it happens. A family law attorney that knows the insider information can give you a good assessment of your likely outcome, which is what you need.
The problem is whether or not you find yourself dealing with a lawyer that's being fully accurate, or telling you what you want to hear. If a lawyer is just telling you what he or she knows you want to hear (to get you as a client), you're screwed because you're not getting the right information that you need upfront and in the beginning of your case.
Once you have the information to make informed decisions, you suddenly realize that the outcome of the finances are largely predetermined (with some wiggle room), and the real issue that may or may not be litigated comes down to the small details of the case. If you're a parent, you need to decide whether or not this is going to be a custody case.
Second, is get a lawyer. Not just any lawyer, you'll need someone that knows their stuff. Avoid lawyers that are friends or friends of the family; especially if that lawyer typically doesn't handle family law cases.
Third, if you been served, get comfortable that the divorce will happen. So, if your spouse filed a divorce case (and you don't want the divorce), it will happen anyway. Be mindful that your spouse may be willing to settle on terms that are more favorable to you, if you go along with the process. Some spouses will give you more because they feel bad for cheating. In these circumstances, cut your best deal quickly and finish the case. Many spouses tend to delay the inevitable, only to find out that their generous spouse, isn't so generous anymore later in the case after everyone has wasted money on attorney's fees. Take advantage of the spouse that wants the divorce. Waiting will likely only cost you in terms of outcome.
Fourth, if you're the one that filed the case (or are planning to file), then try to put the best settlement terms upfront. No one wants a Judge to decide family law matters, and no one wants to pay costly legal bills, and therefore, talk settlement early and get serious. Being cute with an unfair settlement offer will not end your case quickly. Instruct your lawyer to put your settlement proposal in writing. It is no secret with divorce attorneys that a settlement offer in writing is a wonderful settlement tool. Oral offers are not usually later misunderstood. By having clear and certain terms in writing gives everyone the opportunity to review (and revise) the document, comment on terms, and provide alternate provisions.
Nearly every case will end with settlement documents, so why not start your case with a working draft that can be revised in the process. It never appears to be a waste of money to put these agreements together. In fact, if custody is at issue, the mediator will likely want to review the working draft, and work from that document for purposes of mediation. How great is that! You are giving the mediator the map, by which to guide your mediation process.
Fifth, know the secrets that lawyers know. Most people do not understand the legal process and its implications; you should consult with an attorney regarding the entire process. Not all attorneys are exactly alike. Attorneys have different styles and skill sets. Your job is to ensure that your attorney is essentially the best at what he or she does. Second place in divorce is first place loser. Get an attorney that knows what they are doing. Lawyers that dabble in divorce likely are unable to provide guidance and advice on all the various unique aspects of divorce law, and the process. Anyone can look up a law, only a seasoned divorce lawyer knows how those laws interact with each other and how judges usually treat the situation.
Sixth, know everything about your finances (or as much as you can right now). If you have not been the one to keep track of money in your marriage, now is the time to learn all about your finances. The more you know, the better off you are in negotiating a fair settlement. Many spouses are stuck doing what is called "discovery" in their case, because they don't know anything about their finances. Discovery takes time and money to complete, and much of it could be avoided with a well educated spouse. Knowledge is essential to completing any divorce case.
Seventh, if custody is going to be at issue, be prepared and know the custody process. Having knowledge about the process is one of the most calming things that you can do to your case. A custody battle encompasses litigation and strategy, but more so, it involves a streamlined process. This process has been developed by the Court system over the course of many years. It's fairly automated and you can nearly set your watch by it. Knowing how the process unfolds in a custody battle, will put many spouses at ease on how this all works.
The mystery of custody battles is what scares most parents. Fear of the unknown. However, if you take the time to educate yourself, you'll see why a custody battle isn't the terrible thing it once was (like in the 1970s).
And finally, do everything you can to keep your case out of the courtroom, but be realistic. Many spouses and parents know they should keep court time to a minimum, but many become dreamy about non-court resolution. Settlements take hard work, concessions, and bring reasonable.
Many of my clients had previously been milked by the system with lofty ideas of alternative ways to finish a case, where later they became aware that those options were only marketing tools for slick lawyers. The time tested way to settle a divorce quickly, is by having a lawyer prepare settlement documents and going from there. Once on paper, working on a settlement becomes more targeted and efficient.