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What Is the Biggest Mistake You See Clients Making in Divorce?

Dawn Ryan Budner, of The Budner Firm, shines a light on some of the common pitfalls couples may run into when parting ways.

What advice do you have for readers who are thinking about divorce?

In my observation, how we divorce matters. From the first communication between spouses about divorce, there is an opportunity for intentionality around decisions. One of my clients demonstrated this perfectly. She had wanted a divorce for years but feared the reaction of her husband, who had some unusual personality characteristics. He was almost a recluse and had total control of the marital property estate. She came to me early and we planned a strategy for minimizing the emotional pain for her husband at every step. We moved more slowly than she would have preferred because our focus was on him and his ability to process what was happening. They have remained close friends and have dinner together at least weekly. Had she served him with papers, I have no doubt the divorce would have blown up.

What is the biggest mistake you see clients making in divorce?

Most people view divorce as a legal matter, so the divorce attorney and legal case are the drivers for decisions. In reality, divorce is a traumatic life event second only to the death of a spouse in the emotional upheaval it brings. Even a spouse who wants the divorce will not escape without some reckoning for the ending of the marriage. It may be temporary and relatively mild, or it may be severe trauma that negatively impacts one or both spouses and their children, as with perpetual custody litigation. The mistake here is failing to acknowledge divorce as a mental health event that requires attention and support. Our court system wholly fails to do this, and the results can be devastating.

What advice do you give divorcing spouses in light of this?

My advice is to choose your divorce lawyer with care. Most clients—even C-suite executives and successful business owners—lack personal knowledge about the intricacies of divorce. Every client is worried about protecting property and financial rights and if there are minor children, nothing matters more than those relationships. When feeling vulnerable, it may seem like a good idea to hire an aggressive lawyer who talks tough.

My advice is to choose your divorce lawyer with care.

But you want a lawyer with knowledge and experience and the ability to maintain composure when you need support. You want a lawyer with strategic insights and the long view when charting the course of your legal matter. Additionally, I advise my clients to see a good therapist to process emotions during the divorce and to have the children see a counselor at least once to determine how they are handling the divorce and to continue for as long as recommended. You don’t want to carry the emotional baggage forward and you sure don’t want your children to do so.

What is the biggest mistake you see couples making in terms of their property?

As a woman and mother of three children, I have on occasion accosted a young woman with a stroller on a workday to ask if she has a trust fund. Despite the prevalence of divorce (almost half of all marriages), nobody thinks it will happen to them. I understand it is not romantic to plan for divorce. Unfortunately, Texas is a haven for the wealthy party in a divorce. Nearly always in traditional marriage, that’s the man. While norms are evolving, women are still far more likely to step back or away from their careers upon marriage or having a child. Unless they are independently wealthy, I honestly don’t believe Texas women can afford to do this. I have seen too many female divorce clients in marriages where the largest asset is the husband’s future earning capacity. Note: he will be taking that in the divorce.

I’ve generalized in this response, as dads are increasingly taking on more parenting responsibilities in two-income households. And most of my male clients over the years want to provide for their wives’ financial wellbeing after divorce. But be warned: Texas was the last state to adopt any form of alimony (“spousal maintenance”) and it is only for spouses who prove they cannot earn enough to cover “minimum reasonable needs” (an objective measure) in the least amount and for the shortest time possible. 

What’s the answer?

There is no perfect answer. The point is that women need to take charge of planning for their own financial futures instead of relying entirely on their husbands. Some ideas to consider are establishing a retirement fund for the stay-at-home parent and/or instead of completely leaving the workforce, a parent can make the decision to keep a toe in the water. I will give a shout-out to the millennials, who appear far more willing to talk about the financial partnership component of the marriage. They are entering premarital agreements so there is no surprise in terms of finances if the marriage ends. I cannot stress enough, however, the importance of both parties having experienced legal counsel because these agreements are very hard to challenge.

Dawn Ryan Budner leads The Budner Firm, a family law and collaborative divorce practice with a mission to elevate the experience of clients in family law matters. Budner is an experienced civil trial lawyer with a track record of achievement, but she finds her family law clients are more satisfied when restructuring their families and estates through collaborative divorce or settlement track, avoiding unnecessary courtroom battles that only serve to deplete assets and further damage relationships. 

Budner is committed to Dallas families and children. In 2019, she founded the Dallas Bar Association’s Relaunch program to help women lawyers return to law practice after raising a family. Budner currently serves on the board of Vogel Alcove Daycare Center for Homeless Children, founded by her late mother-in-law Doris Budner. She and her husband Craig founded the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance in 2008 to provide competitive debate programming and tournaments for under-served Dallas public high school and middle school students.

Budner has earned the “AV Preeminent” Rating by Martindale-Hubbell for 30 consecutive years. In addition to recognition in Best Lawyers in Dallas, D Magazine (2019-2022), and Best Lawyers in America (2019-2021), Budner received the Top 1% Lawyers of Distinction, American Registry for 2021 and 2022. You can contact her by phone at (214) 764-9101 or by visiting her website.