Divorce: it’s not like on TV

By Carrie Brunet Duncan, Contributor

Individuals seeking divorce should be wary of information that doesn’t come from a lawyer to avoid confusion and unnecessary heartache, Fredericton family lawyer Jennifer Donovan tells

Donovan, principal of J. Donovan Law Group, says she sends all of her clients home with a customized welcome information package after the first meeting to steer them clear of some of the misconceptions and hurdles they might face.

After working more than 14 years as a family lawyer, Donovan says that divorce can be complex and overwhelming for the uninitiated. With the slew of misinformation out there, she warns “it’s not like TV,” and reminds clients to steer clear of advice from well-meaning family, friends or acquaintances.

“Don’t listen to your neighbour or the guy at the coffee shop,” she says. “Every case is unique. If there is one factor that is different, it can change the entire outcome.”

When clients first enter Donovan’s boutique family law firm, their expectations are often cemented in what they have seen in the media.

“As a family lawyer, a big part of my job is managing expectations,” she says.

Clients often expect their divorces to be fast, efficient and inexpensive, Donovan says. Even in the simplest case, where there are no custody or support issues and no property to separate, divorce will take on average up to six months — after a one-year separation — if all parties are on the same page.

“We can be done in six months if both sides comply with financial disclosure requirements in a timely fashion,” she says. “If anything is contested, you have to be prepared for it to take a year, minimum.”

More-complicated divorces can lengthen that time, and drive up the cost significantly, Donovan says.

“High-conflict cases can quickly exceed $100,000 in legal fees and can drag on four to five years,” she says.

For clients that worry that their spouse won’t grant them a divorce, Donovan reminds them that it doesn’t require the participation of both parties.

“The court gives you the divorce,” she says. “Not your spouse.”

Donovan explains that other common misconceptions surround child custody and support issues.

“Many people are afraid that because they’ve committed adultery, it will cause them to lose their kids or entitlement to support,” Donovan says. “My plain language to them is, 'Don’t worry about that. The court doesn’t care what you did.'”

Contrary to popular belief, she says, where children live is decided by the court, not the kids themselves. They often think that when the child turns 12 they can make their own decisions, but that is not the case,” she says. “Twelve-year-olds don’t get to determine where they live.”

More commonly, teens aged 15 years or older may have the right to choose their living arrangements, Donovan says.

During their separation period, spouses remain legally married and retain their married rights, she says, adding that separation is a good time to look over financial affairs and ensure that wills, insurance policies and account beneficiaries are updated.

“Separation does not nullify a will,” Donovan says.

Seeking advice early and being prepared to spend the time and money to do things right will ensure the client's long-term well-being, she says.

“I always tell clients, 'It is a process that will eventually end,'” Donovan says. “'If you try to rush and cut corners, you will regret it. What you are doing right now will have an impact on the rest of your life. Legal fees are an investment in your future.'”

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