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Navigating an ‘Irretrievable Breakdown’

What to know when you’re considering a divorce

Dea Coka’s first advice for anyone looking to hire a family law attorney is to assess their goals. 

“Figure out where you are in your relationship. Do you want to get divorced, or do you want to move forward with some form of marital therapy or counseling?” says Coka, an attorney at Todd & Weld in Boston. “If the counseling has not worked out, that’s when I recommend a family lawyer be consulted to talk a little bit more deeply about what that client’s future goals are going to be.” 

“Massachusetts is generally a no-fault divorce state, so most often you’ll be getting a divorce under what’s called an irretrievable breakdown,” says Theresa Roeder, an associate at Rubin and Rudman in Boston. That means a divorce doesn’t require a showing of wrongdoing by either side.

“Massachusetts is also an equitable division state,” adds Roeder, referring to how assets are decided. Equitable doesn’t necessarily mean a 50-50 split. It’s based on a number of factors, including the length of the marriage and the contributions, financial and otherwise, of the parties.

“If you have one spouse who takes care of the children, that would be considered a nonfinancial contribution, because that contribution allowed the other spouse to work and earn,” Roeder says.

Coka says the biggest mistake she sees is when someone waits too long before consulting an attorney.

“Instead of trying to save the money upfront and waiting until closer to the end of the case to hire somebody,” she says, “it’s best to consult somebody very early on in the process and try to get a road map of how you want to move forward toward achieving your goals.” 

Achieving those goals can take a while. 

“A divorce from start to finish is usually between 10 and 14 months,” Coka says, “That’s the normal [time frame] for a contested divorce. Sometimes it can take longer if the parties are constantly litigating or letting their emotions get the best of them.”

Adds Roeder: “Divorce is always going to be an emotional, potentially traumatic experience. There are people who think they’re going to be amicable, and then as soon as they get wrapped up in divorce proceedings even the friendliest of soon-to-be ex-spouses can become difficult to deal with.”

Coka says that’s where a level-headed attorney can be valuable. “Clients need that attorney to be the unemotional person in the room to tell them how to think clearly and strategically,” she says, “to tell them how to move forward in the divorce process efficiently so they’re not wasting their money, they’re not wasting their time, and they’re not prolonging the process unnecessarily.”

She recommends interviewing multiple attorneys to find the best fit. “Figure out whose style matches with yours,” she says, “and who seems like they’re going to give you the most impartial information.” 

After all is said and done, neither side might be fully satisfied with where they stand—but that’s how it works, Coka says. 

“It’s called compromise. There is a certain level of calm and, I think, hope that comes forward from that event. I’ve seen people move forward from their divorces in really healthy, good ways for themselves and for their children and their families,” she says.

But that might not be the end of the story. In some cases, an attorney could be needed even after a divorce is finalized. “Not everyone is aware that after you’re divorced you can still have what we call ‘subsequent actions,’” says Roeder.

This can include contempt, in which one party is not abiding by a term of the agreement, or modifications, which are changes a party wants to make to the separation agreement. 

“Most often we see those when children [are involved]: parenting time, custody, child support, things like that. If your income changes your child support may change; if you get a new job or you move or something like that, your ability to have parenting time might change,” she says. “The court always wants to have those provisions remain modifiable.” 

For more on this area of law, see our overview on divorce law.

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