HOW TO AVOID BEING BULLIED DURING DIVORCE
Carmen S. Campeas, Esq.
I have been practicing in the area of family law since 1992. I have noticed certain patterns in relationships that make the divorce process particularly difficult not only for my clients but for me when serving as the attorney or as the mediator. There is some part of me that want to protect my clients. While I believe that my clients retain me so that I can assist them in navigating un-chartered waters, I am convinced that sometimes my job is to protect my clients from themselves.
I remember as a child stepping in to protect another child who was the victim of a bully. I hate bullies. I am writing this article with a dim hope that my clients will not fall prey to certain bully tactics if they are prepared in advance on how to deal with the bully. I am also writing as an admission that no matter how much I want to protect my clients they are the only ones who will decide if the bully succeeds.
The victims of bullies I see tend to fall into a couple of categories. The category with the most people is the I just want out group. These folks are exhausted and defeated. They are usually in a long term marriage with a person who is extremely controlling. The control can come in many shapes and colors but the bottom line for this victim is that she or he is worn down to a point where she/he will agree to anything just to avoid having to deal with the bully. Whether dealing with the bully is done with the assistance of an attorney or a mediator, or even a therapist this victim just wants the dissolution (divorce) done as quickly as possible with as little interaction with the bully as possible. In this type of scenario the bully often has grabbed up all or most of the community assets, controls finances or is in a big hurry to get an agreement from the victim. Most often this agreement is a very unfair allocation of the community assets and generally does not provide adequate support of the victim or the children. The bully will often use the children as pawns in this situation.
The bully will often justify the big hurry to coerce an agreement by entering into a real estate deal or beginning a new relationship. The bully creates some urgency that makes the other party feel pressured, confused and overwhelmed. The bully will manipulate the other party and actually get an agreement, despite the fact that the other party has yet to really evaluate how the proposed terms of the agreement will affect her/him financially or worse, when clearly the agreement is to the detriment of the oppressed party.
To me the victim of a bully who has agreed to a terrible deal before a proper evaluation is like a patient who has a bad heart and walks into a doctor's office with a Big Mac in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The patient is there seeking medical attention but yet seems to be committed to killing himself. In my case the client has asked me to help negotiate or mediate a matter in a fair and equitable manner yet has already agreed to financial ruin.
Another group of victims falls under the, It's my fault category. These folks feel tremendous guilt. Perhaps there was an affair, a failed promise to be or do something, maybe she/he gave up on the marriage first, asked for the divorce or some other action which has made this victim into a doormat. The fact is that California is a no fault state and even if the victim was in fact having an affair with the entire U.C.L.A. football team or the cheerleading squad, the judge would not care nor does this have any bearing on the division of assets or support.
Another group is the She/He has all the money. It is not common in most marriages for one person to be more in control or responsible for paying bills and taking care of finances. Unfortunately while a couple is in the process of divorce, sometimes the money tends to stay in the control of one person. This gives the victim of the bully an incredible disadvantage. The bully will often use this control of the finances to extract a coerced agreement from the other party. Sometimes the party without the purse strings feels that she/he can't afford the help of a mediator or an attorney or a therapist.
The psychological dynamics of how the victim and the bully became the victim and the bully is beyond the scope of my work. A therapist may be able to help empower a party but often times the damage to the case has already been done. For example some assets have been divided and used up by the bully before an attorney even enters the picture. If the other party will allow me to try to renegotiate the deal, which some will do and some will not, the bully will at times become even more self righteous by attacking the other party for backing out of the deal. Of course the bully generally will not recognize his/her own unethical behavior.
Here are some useful techniques to avoid letting the bully get the best of you. One very simple way to avoid conceding to a bad deal is to wait until all the necessary information is available and to be tentative as to any specific terms. Parties in California have a fiduciary duty to provide all financial information to the other party, which includes all information about income, expenses, assets and debts. It would not be wise to agree to a proposal before this information has been shared. If a client can at least buy some time to analyze the information and use the services of a financial advisor, attorney or therapist to empower herself/himself before agreeing to anything, there is a higher probability that a real agreement can be reached that is fair to both parties.
Another way to avoid being coerced into a bad deal is by equalizing power. No one has a magic wand that is going to turn a bully into a reasonable person instantly, but there are other ways to equalize power. One technique is to use your attorney as the heavy. A client who has retained an attorney or mediator has made a financial commitment which should yield some benefit to the client. A client can employ the same technique that car salesmen use with their prospective customers, involving the finance manager or otherwise titled person who is unseen to the customer but seems to have ultimate power over the deal. As you may recall when purchasing a car, the salesman will negotiate with you but will often tell you that while he would love to sell you the car for a particular price, he has to have his marvelous offer approved by the finance manager or some other person who will not deal with you directly. This finance manager is usually in a back room or behind some glass cubicle where he/she will not be susceptible to your negotiation prowess and can advise the salesman.
A client can use the same technique to his/her advantage. Once the bully has presented his/her unreasonable proposal the client can respond with, I appreciate your offer to settle this matter and I will talk to my (attorney, CPA, therapist) about it and give you a response as soon as possible. This will help the bully recognize that there is someone else involved in the negotiations and that his/her offer will be evaluated by professionals who will not fall under the dizzying effects of his/her coercion. It will also give the client some time to really think about the offer and obtain whatever type of assistance is necessary to ascertain the benefit and risk of the offer. The unseen professional can be anyone the client will need to evaluate the offer, an attorney, a CPA, or therapist.
One way to avoid having one person having control of all the assets is to divide at least some community accounts right away making funds available to both parties. Depending on the level of trust sometimes parties agree to share certain accounts during the dissolution process. This may be negotiated by your attorney or mediator. Having control of at least some funds is always a good idea, but even more important in situations where a person is likely to be left with no access to funds by the other party. If you are married to a bully and plan to divorce formulating a plan in advance can help you to avoid being at the financial mercy of the other party.
In considering any offers of settlement please recognize that if you live in California you are entitled to one-half of all community assets and you may be entitled to child and/or spousal support. Prior to agreeing to any proposal, even one that sounds fair and reasonable have the proposal evaluated by a financial professional or an attorney that practices family law.