The first day that legal offices are open after Christmas is known as D-Day, when family solicitors are inundated with enquiries about divorce. While this may suggest that Christmas with the in-laws must inspire immediate decisions to divorce, in reality it's obviously not that simple. People have been considering it for months or more often years, and the final straw may actually have been earlier in the year but the couple stayed together so as not to ruin Christmas.
I take umbrage at the suggestion that it's a depressing phenomenon. I see it more like a particularly courageous New Year's resolution. Taking the undeniably stressful and painful steps of separation and divorce in the hope of a happier future is brave and uplifting.
Unfortunately, most of us misunderstand how divorce works, which can cause separating couples extra stress and difficulty. There are a few things about the process that I think it's really useful to understand at the outset:
- It takes ages. It's best to accept that you will have at least a few months of not really knowing what the future will look like. This is very stressful, particularly if you have kids. But there's often no alternative, and banging your head against a brick wall increases the stress, rather than reducing it.
- It's not one process, but three. People think of divorce as ending the marriage, dealing with issues like how to divide the money or property, and sorting arrangements for the children all in one go. But these are really three different processes, dealt with separately, but often going on at the same time.
- Life is not like TV. Few people can afford, financially or emotionally, to fight a legal battle. Some people think they need to get solicitors involved right away or go to court in order to 'protect themselves' and 'get what they are entitled to', but this is a costly and stressful misunderstanding of the system. It's best to agree as much as you can, either on your own, using family mediation, or (if you can afford them) having solicitors negotiate for you. Going to court is very much a last resort. In fact most people can't go to court about a family matter without showing that they have explored the idea of using family mediation first.
- Family mediation aims to help you agree how you will live apart. You can use it to help you agree how you will divorce, divide money or property, and/or how you will both continue to care for your children. For more details see our Survival guide to using Family Mediation after a break up.
- You're very unlikely to have to go to a court hearing. If you can come to agreements about children, money and property, it all happens on paper, which is good because going to court is not a fun day out.
- There is still no such thing as a 'no fault' divorce in the UK. Nor can you agree that, as is true in most cases, it's a mixture of bad luck and unfortunate actions on both sides. One of you has to divorce the other, and you have to use one of five reasons. Who applies for the divorce does not affect who gets what or where the children live, but it can cause an immense amount of extra conflict, delay and stress on both sides. It will be much better if you can agree who will divorce who and what they will say.
- There are no rewards for good behaviour or punishments for bad. What happens to the money isn't affected by who had an affair, or who did what hurtful thing. 'Past behaviour' is listed as one of the criteria for deciding how money is divided, but generally speaking, it doesn't work like that. It only counts if it has been really, really bad or if someone is trying to hide money and assets.
- There are no set formulas for working out who gets what. You need to try to agree between you (on your own or with the help of a mediator or solicitor) what happens to the money or the home. If you do take it to a court hearing, the court looks at what you both need for the future, not what you have put in.
For more advice, see Advicenow's Help to deal with family problems where you can find our Survival guides to divorce, and sorting out arrangements for the children, and sorting out your finances when you get divorced which aim to help you get everything sorted without having to go to court. We also have a series of step-by-step guides and films for those who do have to go to court.
Advicenow is a not-for-profit website, run by the charity Law for Life: the Foundation for Public Legal Education. It provides accurate, practical information on rights and the law.