• Jennifer D. Larson

A Range of Divorce Cases in Michigan: High-Conflict and Low-Conflict with and without Minor Children

Few people go through more than one divorce, and so they have little frame of reference to understand how their divorce compares to others. They may be stressed and struggling, but is their situation relatively smooth compared to others, or is it a particularly bad one?

High-Conflict or Low-Conflict?

Divorces range from couples who are and remain best friends (yes, this really happens) to couples waging scorched-earth battles over everything from start to finish. The level of conflict in a divorce drives two main variables for the divorcing couple: the degree of stress they endure, and the amount of legal fees they incur. For the divorcing couple who can at least maintain communications and solve their issues with common sense, a divorce can be relatively quick, simple, and inexpensive. But if the divorcing couple cannot stop themselves from fighting over every little item down to a toaster, they are headed for a tremendously expensive and painful divorce process.

Some high-conflict cases cannot be avoided or mitigated. I sometimes tell my clients, it might take two to tango but it only takes one party to make a divorce high conflict. If one person is determined to fight everything, there is little that can be done except fight back while keeping open channels of communication in case someone sees reason.

Even the most vicious cases, however, can settle out of court and avoid a trial. Sometimes they settle when the parties tire of the battle; sometimes the parties realize that they have used up all the resources they want to use and it’s time to end it.

By contrast, a low-conflict divorce might be settled before it’s even filed. Some marriages end by amicable agreement, with each party agreeing on how to split assets and liabilities, and even agreeing on custody and parenting time arrangements. If anyone can “win” a divorce, it would be these couples.

High-Conflict with Minor Children

The absolute worst divorces, as any family law judge or divorce attorney will agree, are the high-conflict divorces with minor children. While judges and attorneys may urge the parties to put their children first, the sad reality is that sometimes the children become the first and most badly damaged victims of a dead marriage. Everyone loses in this situation.

Each high-conflict case has its own sources of conflict, and any divorce case can be or become high-conflict. One common type of high-conflict case, as an example is the parental alienation case, where one parent attempts to set the children against the other parent and ruin their relationship. Another type of high-conflict case is one where there are allegations of child abuse.

Everybody loses when parents use children as weapons against each other. Sometimes one parent will go to extremes to set the children against the other parent, even taking the children across state lines or international borders and withholding them from the other parent. In other instances the campaign of alienation can be more subtle, relying on long-term strategies to separate the children from a parent, or to poison their views of that parent. In yet other cases, one parent accuses the other of heinous acts and the courts must sort through mounds of evidence to determine who, if anyone, is telling the truth, all while the children are at real risk of physical or emotional abuse.

If you are in a situation where you believe your spouse is attempting to ruin your relationship with your children, you may need to take immediate action. You would likely benefit from good legal advice and also, potentially, from family therapy or other counseling. If you find yourself tempted to take your children away from their other parent, please seek professional advice as there can be serious legal, emotional, financial, and other repercussions to doing so, for both you and the children.

Low-Conflict with Minor Children

Rarer than most attorneys and judges would like: the low-conflict divorce with minor children. These are cases where the parents work together to find solutions that are best for the children, putting their own needs and desires behind those of their children.

The most difficult issue for most parents to resolve is the parenting time schedule: who will the children spend time with, and when will they switch? Even if the parents both want to split time evenly, it can be challenging to work out the right schedule for everyone. In low-conflict cases, though, the parents work through this question together and without involving their children in the discussion.

Another common issue to resolve, when parties own their own home, is who will keep the home. Often, in a low-conflict case, the parties are in agreement regarding who should stay in the home with the children, and who will move out. The parties consider how to minimize disruption for their children while making decisions that make financial sense for each of them.

Attorneys can assist in a low-conflict case with minor children by guiding the parties through aspects of child support, spousal support, and parenting time schedules. The law requires that child-support guidelines be run according to a specific formula, for instance. These guidelines can raise a lot of questions that an experienced attorney can answer quickly, saving the couple time and expense over time.

High-Conflict without Minor Children

Some couples seem to spend decades building reserves of animus and vitriol, and when they start the divorce process these feelings spill out into every decision they make. Rather than look for compromise, they look for where they can most hurt their spouse. Instead of applying rationality to their decision-making, they seek merely to thwart the other side and exact vengeance wherever they can.

While attorneys can make a great deal of money from these cases, the parties themselves never win. I have seen parties spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees with little or no purpose other than to fight over every single item, down to a broom and dustpan. These are not happy people.

Low-Conflict without Minor Children

Sometimes a couple merely wants to officially separate and needs little or no assistance to do so. With no minor children involved, the court does not need to conduct a best-interests analysis of custody or parenting time arrangements. If the couple does not have joint ownership of complicated assets, or retirement accounts to divide, property division is also quite straightforward.

While I still recommend investing in having an attorney review the judgment of divorce, little else is needed for a couple with minimal assets in a short-term marriage. Nevertheless, if the parties have substantial assets, have been married a long time, or have other concerns, even an amicable divorce can wind up in the hands of attorneys. The costs, however, are substantially lower for parties who work together toward a settlement rather than look for opportunities to fight.

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