How to Prepare for Divorce:
Advice from New York City Divorce Attorney Elizabeth Erickson
Elizabeth Erickson is an experienced divorce lawyer practicing at Warshaw Burstein in New York City. Her approachable and friendly demeanor makes her easy to confide in, but her strong legal skills make her a formidable advocate. With more than a decade of experience, Elizabeth has represented clients in all stages of complex and high net worth matrimonial and family law matters, including pre-judgment and appellate proceedings.
In her interview with co-founder Casey Shevin, Elizabeth shares tips on how you can prepare for divorce.
Casey Shevin: You have been practicing as a divorce attorney for over ten years – what has kept you motivated to do this work?
Elizabeth Erickson: One of my strengths is directly counseling clients. I have the ability to take something that is extremely emotional and highly complex and then break it down and make it feel simple. I want my clients to feel like they have regained a sense of control in their life. That’s very rewarding, and that’s really why I have stayed with it.
Shevin: When you first start working with a client and they seem overwhelmed by the process, how do you break it down for them, so it feels more manageable?
Erickson: When someone makes the decision to get divorced, everything feels up in the air for them and totally overwhelming; but really, we break it down into basic categories of decisions: parenting time, child support, spousal support, and a distribution of property.
And when I can say, “Look, this is what you’re dealing with and this is how we are going to prepare for divorce and deal with it. It’s just these four or five topics, and we can take it one thing at a time. We just need to put one foot in front of the other.” It can be very calming.
Shevin: It sounds like when you first meet a new client for an initial consultation, often they are very overwhelmed. How do you think that changes when they leave the initial consultation?
Erickson: They begin to feel that there is going to be an end to this. That they are going to get their life back together. Many clients have told me that they leave feeling very relieved. They no longer feel like their life has been shattered, they feel back on track. I believe that that’s a very important part of what I can do for them. My goal for the first consultation is to give them the sense that it’s going to be okay.
Shevin: What are some of the things that can distract people on the way to their goal of getting divorced?
Erickson: What I always tell my clients is this is not about your principles. They may say, “Well, I know I’m legally entitled to X and I know I should only ask for that, but I want so much more on principle.” Well, it’s not about principle. That attitude is not going to get you anywhere, and it’s definitely not going to move you forward. Holding on to that may mean you’re going to be stuck in one position — fighting with your (hopefully) soon-to-be-former-spouse forever.
So, part of what I aim to do is give clients a very realistic view of what to expect. It’s a lot of managing expectations. I have a lot of colleagues that will go along with what their client wants to do, and I think that’s a tremendous disservice. That’s not our job. Our job is to manage expectations and tell our client’s realistically what to expect — that is the only way to move their case forward.
Shevin: Financial stress is typically a big issue for divorce clients. Once spouses split, their household expenses immediately increase. How do you help a client assess their financial needs and then build a settlement around those needs?
Erickson: Unfortunately, often you find that people will need to earn more money after divorce. That is always a piece of advice that I give to someone who’s not been working, or who is working part-time, but now needs to increase the money available to them. The fact that they made a decision with their spouse that they would be a stay at home parent, well that may not stay that way after they get divorced. In New York City it is almost never going to stay that way. Any spouse that has been home for any amount of time, unless they are of retirement age, is almost certainly going to be expected to go back to work.
Shevin: It sounds like you help clients accept the reality that divorce is a huge change in your financial circumstances, so the way you have to adapt the way you planned for your future and the way you the way you handle your day to day expenses.
Erickson: Sometimes clients are upset that I’m suggesting they go back to work after being a stay at home parent, and they say, “but we decided fifteen years ago that I wouldn’t have to work.” Well, that was a decision that you made when you were married for your life as a married couple. And now there’s going to come a time when you’re not going to be married. The more that you can proactively do right now to start improving your financial outlook, the better that you will be situated in the end. And it will make your negotiation a much smoother process because no one can claim that you’re not trying to contribute financially.
Shevin: Is it helpful if your clients prepare an overview of their finances for you at the start of working with you?
Erickson: Whether or not my client’s case is being actively litigated I ask them to complete a Statement of Net Worth. This is absolutely the most important document that’s going to be used in any divorce. It really sets the tone. It’s a roadmap that I go back to almost every single day I work on their case. I use the prepared budget to argue for my client’s financial needs. I would be concerned about any attorney that anyone would meet with that doesn’t ask them to do that.
[Editor’s Note: A Statement of Net Worth is a sworn financial disclosure required by the New York courts during divorce litigation. Clients that are not in active litigation may not be required to prepare a Statement of Net Worth, but some attorneys, like Elizabeth, think this is a very valuable and efficient start to representation, even when it is not required. Whether or not you are in New York, your attorney will want to understand the complete financial picture — completing Divorceify’s clickable Basic Budget and Basic Information About Me And My Family worksheets prior to your first meeting with your divorce attorney will streamline the collection of this important information.]
Shevin: When a client comes to your office for their initial consultation, what could they bring with them to get the most value out of that first meeting?
Erickson: Sometimes clients come to my office with bags full of papers. If you’re the party that has had control of the finances throughout the marriage and it’s pretty easy to get your hands on that stuff, I’d say come in with your tax returns, your most recent bank statements, a recent pay stub, and that’s usually enough to get us going. If you are the party that hasn’t been controlling the finances, and your access to information is limited, then come in with whatever you can get your hands on and we’ll sort it through. But, if you can work off of a summary or a conversation, that is often more helpful than spending the meeting clawing through piles of paperwork.
Shevin: What would you say to somebody who wants to keep the conflict level of their divorce relatively low, and is afraid that if they hire an attorney, it means they are going to have a nasty and acrimonious divorce.
Erickson: I run into that a lot. Sometimes people think that by hiring an attorney, it will demonstrate to their spouse that they are gearing up for a fight. But it’s not the act of hiring attorney that sends that signal, it’s who you hire. There are some attorneys that are very, very, very aggressive, and there are some attorneys that have a reputation of being more settlement-minded; if you hire an aggressive attorney, then you are of course signaling to the other side that you’re headed for a fight.
If what you truly want is just to know your rights and have someone speaking on your behalf, then you should make sure that you’re hiring someone who is settlement minded, and if your spouse thinks that by hiring the attorney you’re off to the races, then that’s just really unfortunate. Hopefully, they will have an attorney to represent them that can dissuade them.
Shevin: And what would you say to someone who is worried that the cost of divorce is just going to get out of control?
Erickson: When my clients ask, “How long is this going to take, and how much is it going to cost?” I tell them “Well, there are four things that will determine that: you, me as your attorney, your spouse, and your spouse’s attorney. And it’s entirely dependent on how reasonable those four actors are going to be.