So You’re Getting a Divorce: Three Steps for a Smooth Start

By Alison Patton

“Dear Alison, What would you do if you were starting a divorce?”

As a divorce lawyer, this is one of the most frequent questions I get. I’ve seen the good, the bad and everything in between. How you start your divorce will definitely influence the tone and outcome of your entire case. The biggest mistake you can make is turning everything over to an attorney without first figuring out what you really want – and not just what you want financially, but also what you want personally and emotionally for you and your children.

Step 1 – Educating Yourself about Divorce

Divorce is like moving to a foreign country. Prepare yourself by learning the language and understanding how the divorce system works. This knowledge will put you in the driver’s seat and allow you to make better choices.

To get started:

  • Speak with friends and family members who have been through divorce to get practical information. Ask them what they did right and what they wish they had done differently. (Be discerning, however, of those who had nasty divorces and are still angry. Their advice might be tainted from their own experience.)
  • Use the internet to get information. First, go to the website for your county Superior Court and read everything listed under Family Law. You can learn a lot from this site. Secondly, google “divorce” and the name of your state, and you’ll find most of the larger divorce sites on the internet. These sites contain articles and often have information about each state’s divorce laws. I wouldn’t recommend buying anything from these sites unless you’ve fully checked it out or had a friend refer you, but it can be useful to read the free information and articles. (Also, be sure to verify any legal information with a family lawyer before acting on it—as with any topic online, there is wrong information out there too.)
  • Go to a bookstore or go on and browse through the divorce section.
    • Choose a few other books about divorce that speak to you.
    • At least one book should be about the emotional and personal challenges of divorce.
    • If you have children, choose at least one book that covers custody, parenting and the effects of divorce on children.
  • During all your reading and research, take notes and make a list of what you want to do and not do during your own divorce.

Step 2 – Setting your Goals and Making a Plan

After you have done your research, set aside two hours to write out your goals and a proposed division of assets and debts (and a custody plan, if you have children).  It is essential that you do this exercise on a day and time when you feel the most rational and clear-headed. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Your task is to map out your goals, your vision of the future, and a fair division of property, debt, custody and parenting.

This can be tricky – if you need help, I provide one-on-one consultations.

Step 3 – Consulting with a Family Lawyer

Now that you have your ideas down on paper, your next step is to get the opinion of a professional. I strongly recommend that anyone with children or assets consult with a reputable family lawyer for at least two hours before making any decisions, or begin mediation with a reputable mediator who knows family law quite well and can educate you about the law and how it would apply to your case.

When you make an appointment for a consultation or for mediation, you pay by the hour and there is no obligation to continue with the attorney or the mediator unless you choose to. Hourly rates of family lawyers are expensive, ranging from $200-$600, with the average being about $300/hour in California. Mediators are usually in the $300/hr range.  But as the old expression goes, don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. In my experience, an investment of a few hours saves people money and mistakes in the long run.

Need help with this process?

I offer divorce mediation and also can provide one-on-one assistance through private consultations.  Contact me to get more information, at (858) 551-2608 or email me at  I am happy to talk with you for 20 minutes at no charge to help you decide if I am the right fit for your situation.

As part of every private consultation or mediation, you will receive:

  • For Step 2:  Assistance setting goals and mapping out your vision of the future.
  • For Step 2:  Information and guidance to identify and resolve property, debt, custody and parenting issues.
  • Settlement options for each issue and a discussion of what tends to work/not work.

You can also visit my website at for a complete overview of my services, how I work, and client testimonials.