Getting a Divorce in South Florida

Why you should keep your fate in your own hands and not the court’s

For many South Florida divorce attorneys, that first face-to-face talk with a client is about establishing realistic expectations.

“Some people come in really hoping the legal system will change their spouse or right an injustice they’ve experienced,” says Odette Marie Bendeck, a family law attorney at Fisher & Bendeck in West Palm Beach, Florida.

“The emotional overload a party may be experiencing as a divorce begins and progresses can make it painful to hear the ‘reality check.’”

Jeffrey A. Weissman, a family law attorney with Boca Raton’s Gladstone & Weissman, agrees: “You have to give an accurate assessment, not just what they want to hear.”

It’s important, Bendeck adds, to find a lawyer who is not only capable but with whom you have a relationship fit and feel comfortable talking honestly.

“Hiring a smart lawyer is always wise, but if you have no rapport with the lawyer, the process will be far more damaging and upsetting than it needs to be,” Bendeck says.

Attorneys say it’s also important for clients to be prepared for the emotional impact of divorce—a stress some therapists say is second only to the death of a child.

“You have to be cognizant and attentive to the emotions you’ll be going through and how it might impact you,” says Weissman, who recommends therapy for his clients. “Therapy is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and self-improvement.”

In South Florida, judges tend to award shared custody of children in divorces, as long as it’s in the child’s best interests, says Juliette E. Lippman of Kirschbaum, Birnbaum, Lippman & Gregoire in Fort Lauderdale.

Thinking ahead

The best way to make things easier? Sign a prenuptial agreement before you get married, advises Miami family law attorney Robert F. Kohlman of Buckner, Shifrin, Etter, Dugan & Kohlman.

Otherwise, disagreements are likely on everything from property division to alimony. Right now, Florida courts can award permanent alimony to spouses, often in marriages of 17 years or more.

Miami is considered a favorable legal environment for those from nearby South and Central America seeking alimony to divorce because of Florida’s laws on both alimony and equitable property-distribution. After staying more than six months in the Sunshine State, someone visiting or owning a second home in Florida can try to establish venue in local courts, Kohlman says.

Under Florida law, there’s a presumption that assets will be divided equally between the spouses with some exceptions, including inheritances that have been kept separate.

Alimony: Endangered species?

However, changes in alimony law are on the horizon. The 2015 Legislature considered a bill, vetoed by Governor Rick Scott in April 2016, that would likely have ended lifetime alimony, allowing it to stop upon the retirement of the paying spouse or at a set time. It would also likely require judges to consider factors such as length of marriage and future earning potential before awarding any alimony. It probably would not apply to existing divorce settlements.

“Alimony. Alimony. Alimony. That’s going to be the mantra,” says Kohlman. If and when the expected changes come, “everything we knew before won’t apply.”

In Florida, mediation is required. Lippman estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of the divorces her firm handles are settled out of court. “You can’t make people settle, but it’s in almost everyone’s best interests if they do settle,” says Lippman. “If the attorneys are fighting, the parties are fighting, it can become very costly.”

Weissman agrees: “To let your fate be decided by a stranger in a black robe is a foolish thing to do.”

For more information on this area, see our overviews of family law, divorce, and mediation and collaborative law.

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