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How to Negotiate a Divorce Settlement With Your Spouse

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Whether you’ve just started exploring the divorce process or already filed for divorce, you’ve probably wondered what to expect from your divorce settlement. 

Navigating a divorce settlement can be tricky. When you’re negotiating the building blocks of what will be a joint life split into two, the process inevitably brings up a lot of questions. 

Start with what you’re trying to solve. Divorce settlements include resolutions of various topics like alimony, division of assets, custody, and parenting time plans. Rest assured: these topics can involve a lot of emotional attachment, even in amicable divorces, and it’s normal for couples to feel some trepidation about how the related conversations will go.

But despite the dramatic Hollywood portrayals of divorce, settlement negotiations don’t have to be highly contentious. If you proceed with an open mind and a willingness to compromise, it’s possible to finalize your divorce in a way that establishes a positive framework for your future.

How do divorce settlements work?

A divorce settlement agreement is a legal document that details all the terms you and your former spouse have agreed to as part of the dissolution of your marriage. 

Because settlement agreements include specifics about short-term issues such as marital asset distribution and long-term issues such as spousal support and parenting time, it’s essential to engage in the process fully. You don’t have to engage in the process alone, though. Working with an experienced divorce attorney can help you address your concerns well before negotiations so you can feel confident in your goals. 

What to discuss during a divorce settlement

Divorce negotiations are not the place to re-litigate your relationship, but rather, a place to start building ways to navigate the logistics of your separate lives with as much fairness as possible. Keeping your negotiations focused on the decisions you both need to make helps reduce the amount of conflict and the length of the process.

Topics to discuss in divorce negotiations can include:

  • Spousal support
  • Child support
  • Child custody and parenting time schedules
  • Division of bank accounts, stock portfolios, retirement accounts, insurance policies, etc.
  • Property division and mortgage(s)
  • Asset distribution (jewelry, art, collectibles, furniture, etc.)
  • Debts
  • Pet custody

Keep in mind that your divorce settlement is specific to you. If you’re feeling unclear, your divorce attorney can help you understand your options and establish clear priorities so you can feel prepared. 

Five tips for negotiating a divorce settlement with your spouse

By definition, negotiating means arranging for or bringing about the settlement of some matter through conference, discussion, and compromise. The goal of your divorce settlement shouldn’t be to “win” or “beat” your former partner, but to protect the most important things to you, follow these five divorce negotiation tips.

1. Communicate effectively

It can be difficult to talk to your ex, but clear and calm communication is critical to successful negotiations. Whether or not your divorce attorney is present, conversations and correspondence should be free from personal attacks, exaggerations, or argumentative language. 

But just because you should try to keep an even keel doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for yourself, whether it’s directly or through your attorney. 

Generally, it’s best to keep discussions centered around facts, not emotions or assumptions. It can be challenging to control your emotions if your former partner angrily exaggerates, lies, or obfuscates, but responding in kind is more likely to escalate the situation. Escalations often result in both sides digging into their own trenches, which makes it harder to compromise.

Even routing all communications through your representatives is better than having every interaction devolve into an argument.

2. Don’t withhold information

Lying or hiding information during a divorce settlement negotiation will further erode trust with your former partner and potentially expose you to additional legal consequences.

For example, there can be many negative consequences if you aren’t truthful about valuations or appraisals related to your property settlement. Portions of your agreement could be set aside. The judge could fine you or find you in contempt. Your spouse could sue for sanctions, counsel fees, or different property distribution.

Even if it’s not a matter of running into legal consequences, being transparent during the process will help your settlement move along more smoothly and reduce the risk of having to revisit issues later. As such, you and your attorney can better protect your case from further attack or the need for modification down the road. 

3. Ask questions

Since divorce settlements have long-term implications, doing the work beforehand to be prepared and fully understand what you’re negotiating is key. 

Modifying a divorce settlement after it’s finalized isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. It’s better if you proactively work to understand:

  • The assets you possess, and what they’re worth
  • If you have had your assets appraised and by whom
  • How New Jersey’s family law affects your case
  • The possibility of dispute resolution alternatives such as mediation

Knowledge is negotiating power, and you can ask questions without being confrontational. Don’t be afraid to ask questions whenever you don’t understand something. Don’t wait to challenge arguments that are inaccurate or misleading. 

4. Focus on goals

When feelings are running high, it can be easy to forget that settlement negotiations aren’t about scoring points. But tit-for-tat is a short-term approach to what should be a long-term solution. Instead of worrying about the score, keep your mindset firmly focused on what you want your life to look like a few years from now.

Your goals

It’s unrealistic to expect you’ll be awarded everything on your long list of wants. But if you prioritize that list, your attorney will more likely be able to design an effective strategy to help you get the most important things. 

For example, say your top priority is achieving a parenting time plan that allows you to maximize your time with your children while making allowances for necessary work travel. If you and your legal team stay focused on that goal, it will be easier to give up something third or fourth on your list. If your primary goal is to protect the equity you’ve built in your home or business, you’ll be more likely to recognize the need to negotiate around cars, real estate, or investments.

Your spouse’s goals

Whether you feel they deserve it or not, it’s essential to recognize your spouse also has their own goals for the divorce settlement. Knowing what is likely at the top of their list can give you leverage for your big asks. Looking for win-win scenarios can help you avoid a drawn-out and hostile divorce trial.

5. Consult an experienced divorce attorney

About 90% of divorces in New Jersey settle before going to trial, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need an attorney. Often, having an experienced divorce lawyer to guide you through mediation or settlement negotiations can spare you the financial and emotional cost of going to court. Lawyers can also help you understand the hidden costs of divorce, like tax consequences, future expenses, etc. 

But for that 10% of cases where a divorcing couple cannot agree on a settlement, having an attorney who understands you and your goals is the best chance you have of protecting your future.

Our Morristown, NJ team is here to help

The team at Jacobs Berger is committed to de-stressing the divorce process as much as possible. If you need help navigating your divorce, contact our team to coordinate your strategic planning session today.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.