Participants:
Nicole Donoian-Pody, Charny Karpousis Altieri & Donoian
Drew Burach, Archer & Greiner
Jennie Owens, Archer & Greiner
Brian Budic, Florio Perrucci Steinhardt Cappelli & Tipton
Lynda Hinkle, The Law Offices of Lynda L. Hinkle
Dawn Kaplan, Weinberg, Kaplan & Smith
D. Ryan Nussey, Klineburger & Nussey
Amy Smith, Weinberg, Kaplan & Smith
Sonya Zeigler, Zeigler Family Law

When a couple decides to divorce, they are faced with the perfect storm of intense emotions and complicated legal matters. And when children are involved, everything intensifies. We asked South Jersey family law attorneys to talk with us about what families should know if they are thinking divorce is in their future.

Once I decide on a divorce, who do I tell first: my spouse or attorney?

The first thing people should do is see a therapist and get some outside perspective. Then either see a lawyer or tell your spouse, whatever you’re comfortable with. Some individuals going through a divorce get along, so they can go through the process together. Other people are in abusive situations, and they really need to talk to a lawyer first and get a plan together so they are protected.
D. Ryan Nussey

Speak to an attorney first. Unless it’s a situation where you and your spouse are completely on the same page. You trust them financially. You trust them regarding the children. At least have a consultation with an attorney to find out your rights. Then you are empowered with what you know. Talk to your spouse after that.
Amy Smith

It never hurts to see a lawyer first. Every situation is different. Every marriage is different. But I can’t stress this enough, make that confidential consultation appointment, get the information. Then you can make an informed decision and plan accordingly.
Jennie Owens

It’s important to talk to an attorney first, especially in the case of domestic violence. For those clients, we can help plan a safe exit from their home so the client and their children are safe.
Nicole Donoian-Pody

It’s beneficial to speak with a lawyer. Not that you need to retain the lawyer, but I can tell you what the procedure looks like, what the timeframes look like, what are some practical issues that I see arise in every case. If you talk to me before you speak with your spouse, it really arms you with the information you need to decide whether to move forward – or when to move forward.
Brian Budic

If you go to the spouse or partner first, you may not be able to then go to an attorney, or you may have said things you wish you hadn’t said or agreed to things you wish you hadn’t. Power is so important. Consulting with an attorney first to get that knowledge will make you feel empowered.
Dawn Kaplan

 

The initial consultation

When a client comes to see me, they should be interviewing me. How can you get this case to a resolution quickly? What are the roadblocks in my case? What are the potential downfalls? What potential exposure do I have? What would you recommend to make this case move quicker? What are your fees? How do I pay you?
Brian Budic

Make sure to ask if the attorney you’re meeting is actually the attorney you’ll work with. Oftentimes you go into a firm, and you retain somebody you meet with, but then the case gets pushed off to another attorney. Some people may not care about that, but you should at least know that is how your case is going to proceed.
Sonya Zeigler

I ask in the beginning of a consultation, “What’s the one thing you read online that you want to ask me about? I want to distill some of those myths, because often what they read online isn’t true.
Amy Smith

When someone consults with us, the very first thing we do is gather information. We’ll ask, do you have children? Are you employed? What are your assets and liabilities? For some people, they can’t answer questions about assets and liabilities or the income of the other party. If they can’t, they have a lot of information gathering to do.
Jennie Owens

The best advice I can give about consultations is don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is not the time to be shy or feel foolish asking a question. Divorce is very personal. No matter the question, ask it.
Dawn Kaplan

What people may not realize about the divorce process…

People don’t always understand the amount of time divorce may take. You are concluding a marriage, which is perhaps a multi-decade investment you’ve made. You may have children. You will be dealing with a litany of serious and significant issues, and this isn’t something you get to redo three years from now.
Drew Burach

Everybody has a friend who has been divorced, so the stories a person may hear are someone’s individual circumstances told from their point of view. Our role at the outset is to explain what the divorce process is, the different steps and the options you have.
Jennie Owens

People often don’t understand that the spouse or partner we’re dealing with on the other side of the case – we can’t make them a better person. We can’t make them conduct themselves in a way that’s fair or equitable or what a good father or husband should do. Most times, whatever negative attributes that partner had, which led to the divorce, are now amplified.
Sonya Zeigler

Not everybody starts the divorce at the same emotional spot. You sometimes have to allow that spouse to kind of catch up. Hopefully people want to resolve their issues amicably, but one side might not be ready to do that. When people are not amicable and want to be litigious, the process can take a lot longer.
Dawn Kaplan

People don’t realize that street fairness is not statute fairness. The way that the court looks at things is often not going to be the way you’re looking at them. We have laws. Judges apply them and we have to obey them. Many clients have to adjust to that before making decisions about what they’re going to do.
Lynda Hinkle

Once when I was a young attorney in court, a judge said to my client, “You can’t unravel a 20-year marriage in three months.” That’s so true. If you can come up with your own agreement, then it’s going to be a lot quicker. But if everything is going to be a fight, it’s going to cost more money and take more time.
Nicole Donoian-Pody

 

A difficult part of divorce…

Without a doubt, if you have children together, the reality that you are not going to see your children every single day is very difficult, even if you are amicable and you’re on the same page as to custody. For people who don’t have children, dividing finances over two households can be very difficult.
Dawn Kaplan

For some people, change is the toughest part. But for others, change is the best part. A lot of times we talk about kids who will have two homes, but a very valid argument can be made that two loving homes is better than one fractured home.
Drew Burach

We tell people you have to decide to love your children more than you hate your spouse. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do.
D. Ryan Nussey

Generally, there are three main components in a divorce. First are issues related to the children, which would be custody and parenting time. Second would be the division of assets and liabilities. And third are support issues – alimony, child support or other financial considerations. The difficult part about getting a divorce really comes down to the parties and what components they are most concerned about, or what they disagree with each other about.
Brian Budic

There’s absolutely nothing easy about the divorce process, from beginning to end. But perhaps the hardest thing is renegotiating your identity – figuring out who you are now. Some people hold on to the anger and bitterness so much that it becomes their identity. That is the saddest consequence of divorce. I’m always trying to encourage my clients to move toward things they couldn’t have imagined for their life when they were still in the marriage.
Lynda Hinkle

It’s hard for clients to realize they’re not in control anymore. To some extent, they’re putting control in the hands of a judge who they don’t know – a judge may be deciding parts of their life, may be deciding what’s best for their children. That can be really scary.
Amy Smith

We always recommend to people that they see a counselor, because divorce is akin to a death. It’s a lot of change. Some people feel like they took their life, put it in a pillowcase, turned it upside down and shook it.
Nicole Donoian-Pody

 

Cases of Domestic Abuse 

People who are living in a domestic violence situation can be men, women, straight, queer, rich, poor, doesn’t make a difference. The fact is that when someone is hurting you and you need to address that legally, the system is not going to be gentle on you. Some people are not ready to leap into having a judge get involved and having their neighbors and friends looking at the situation and judging them. So we must trust survivors to survive and to get to where they need to be over time – no matter how much time that takes.
Lynda Hinkle

First, it’s important to get them to talk to somebody, whether it’s Catholic Charities, Provident House, Project Sara, any organization that has the resources to help these victims. You can say, “Leave,” and you can say, “You shouldn’t let them do that to you.” But until they feel empowered and they have resources, they can’t leave. I let them know resources are available. They’re local, and they are here to help. That’s the first step.
Amy Smith

The state of New Jersey treats issues of domestic abuse very seriously. So the advice we can provide in these very difficult situations is that the law is strong. But these are the cases that stick with you.
Drew Burach

If somebody is in an abusive relationship, you have to get a plan together. Because often, we’re coming in years after the abuse has been underway, and their self-esteem is undermined. They don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves or the process. We can help them feel safe so they can move forward, but that involves having a plan.
D. Ryan Nussey

When someone is in an abusive relationship, the key is finding someone – a lawyer, therapist, family member – who has their back. Try to communicate with other people so you can hear the truth about the process and the law in New Jersey, because oftentimes, these abusive spouses brainwash them. They make them think: “You’ll be penniless. You’ll never see the children. You’ll be homeless. Everyone’s gonna think you’re crazy.” But be strong. There are resources out there to help.
Sonya Zeigler

We always recommend clients seek counseling, and sometimes we will work with them to try to put a safety plan in place, which involves having an alarm installed, parking your car in the garage, making sure your phone is not subject to a tracker or some type of software that lets the other person know where you are. But if someone is going to start to step away from an abusive situation, it’s very important that they’re in counseling, because they need that emotional support.
Nicole Donoian-Pody

 

Determining Child Custody

I say to my clients who don’t want the other parent to have as much parenting time but who don’t really have a reason for that, how would you feel if you are the parent who doesn’t get to see their child as much? You want to see your child. So does the other parent.
Nicole Donoian-Pody

Most often, the courts want parents to make the decisions. The first thing we do is start on an equal playing field – 50/50. Then we work backwards and say, well, maybe this case isn’t 50/50 for many reasons: work distances, schools, substance abuse issues. We have to look at what’s right for each individual child.
D. Ryan Nussey

A question we get asked a lot is: What happens after the divorce has been finalized and the child starts to get older, at what point does my child get to decide whether or not they want to spend time with the other parent? There’s no magic age in New Jersey where a child can wake up and say, “It’s my 14th birthday. I don’t want to have parenting time with mom anymore.” There has to be a change in circumstance before a court looks at that. It’s the job as joint legal custodians to encourage and facilitate parenting time with the other parent at all times, because that’s in the best interest of your child – obviously absent abuse or neglect situations.
Jennie Owens

Child custody is best determined by the parents themselves, because it’s their lives and their kids. It’s their opportunity, in a very difficult situation, to present a stable situation for the benefit of their kids. You want to have a disagreement about alimony? Ok. You want to have a disagreement about businesses? Sure. But if you want to look for an opportunity that benefits your kids, that’s where you should focus.
Drew Burach

It’s always better for parents to make a decision as to child custody or parenting time. Because presumably, the parents know what’s in the child’s best interest, and they both have the best interests of the child in mind. So the first step in deciding custody should always be negotiation between the parties.
Brian Budic

I have lots of clients whose children want to have someone hear what they have to say, because they have strong feelings about what’s happening. I hope that sometime in the future we take into consideration children’s desires, particularly older children – certainly not a 4-year-old, but a 13- or 14-year-old. If they have an opinion and they want to voice it, I wish they could have it be considered seriously.
Lynda Hinkle

 

Helping your child during divorce

It’s not the child’s fault that the two of you fell out of love, and that is still their parent. So even if you’re aggravated or angry, try to maintain your cool until you can communicate with the other person without the children being around. Don’t speak ill about the other parent, because that’s somebody the child still loves.
Sonya Zeigler

The best thing parents can do to help their kids during a divorce is not get them involved. Don’t fight in front of them, if at all possible. Always try to say good things about the other parent, even if in your mind, you don’t believe it. For the sake of the child, you should still be positive about the other parent because every child has the right to love both of their parents.
Amy Smith

One thing we’ve seen lately is parents going to co-parenting counseling, which can help with things like when to tell children you’re getting a divorce and how to work through any communication issues. Every child is different. But if both parents recognize the importance of making sure their children are protected, hopefully they’ll be on the same page.
Jennie Owens

When parents make children part of the war, that is the absolute worst thing you can do. The ideal is when the parents can put away their egos and issues, and co-parent in a way that’s respectful and loving.
Lynda Hinkle

You can choose your battles. Sometimes it’s okay just to let things be and move on. Sometimes if you look at the big picture, you’ll find a bit more peace.
Drew Burach

When you tell your children mom and dad are getting divorced, do it together as a united front, as difficult as that may be. Assure them that these issues are between mom and dad, and have nothing to do with them.
Dawn Kaplan

Our goal as parents is to raise children into healthy adults who go on to prosper. If you keep that mindset at the forefront of this process, you’ll be successful.
D. Ryan Nussey

 

Would you choose family law as a specialty again…

I represent people who are just like me every day, and I get to help them go through a very difficult time. That’s very rewarding.
Jennie Owens

I would choose family law again. I love when I can give my client all the information that their spouse has, whether deliberately or not, withheld from them over the years. I help them come out with a life that is much better than the life they had when they were together.
Sonya Zeigler

I wish my brain worked in a way that would make me good at patent law, because that seems much calmer. But my brain doesn’t work that way. My brain wants to focus on high-conflict situations and try to unknot them, so this isn’t necessarily a choice I made. It was a choice that my entire chemistry seemed to lean toward. I definitely know this is where I am supposed to be.
Lynda Hinkle

We impact people’s lives: How often they’re going to see their children, what alimony and child support they will receive. Will they be able to take a vacation with their child, or is somebody going to try to stop them? Can they move with their child to another state, or is somebody going to stop them? On most days, I drive home and think, “Ok, today I helped somebody.”
Nicole Donoian-Pody

I’ve been doing this for 20 years – and Archer is the only place I have worked in my legal career, and family law is the only type of law I’ve practiced. Family law is my focus. I like having the opportunity to do that: You put a lot into it, you help people, and by doing that, you get a lot out of it as well.
Drew Burach

 

What it takes to be a great family law attorney

You must know the law. And just as important, you should be open and accessible to your clients. My clients are good people going through a very, very difficult time. They should never have difficulty reaching their attorney.
Brian Budic

It’s very important to maintain your humanity. It’s easy to lose it when you see some of the horrible things that people do to one another But if you maintain both of those things, then you can continue to bring some lightness into a dark place for your clients.
Lynda Hinkle

You have to really care about your clients, day in and day out.
Amy Smith

Decisions we make during litigation will affect the entire family for the rest of their lives. So you need to be compassionate and have empathy for the fact that while they’re not going to be an intact family, they’re still a family.
Dawn Kaplan

Obviously, diligence and focus are important, but you need empathy. You always have to remember this is somebody going through something very traumatic and overwhelming, and they need my thoughtfulness and care.
D. Ryan Nussey

I can reassure my client that their spouse is not going to be able to treat me the way they treated my client. Once they see that in action, whether it’s in the courtroom, in a meeting or on a phone call, my client can start to feel confident that I will stand up to that spouse in a way that they couldn’t.
Sonya Zeigler  

 

See bonus videos from this year’s Family Law Roundtable

February 2024
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