Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below:
My name is Diana Shepherd, and I’m the editorial director of Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine. Today’s topic is preparing for divorce and the Illinois divorce process, and joining me is family law attorney Dheanna Fikaris, the founder of Fikaris & Associates in Oakbrook Terrace. Dheanna has been practicing law in Illinois since 2006. Understanding that divorce is emotional for everyone concerned, she tries to make the process as pain-free as possible for her clients.
Diana Shepherd: If someone has decided to get a divorce, what’s the first step they should take?
Dheanna Fikaris: I think the best first step is to wait until — you never know when you’re ready — but wait until a lot of the emotion is out of the situation. Meaning if every time you think about it, you’re still crying a lot or you’re still very angry, sometimes that’s an indication that you’re not really ready to begin the process, which is difficult enough as it is. Now, it’s always going to be emotional. It’s always going to be difficult, but the more clear-headed you go into the divorce process, the better it is for you. Sometimes that means meeting with a divorce lawyer or different lawyers a few times just to understand how it’s going to work.
What are the first steps someone needs to take after being served with divorce papers?
The first step obviously is to find a lawyer, because in Illinois once you’re served with divorce papers, you have 30 days to file an appearance and hire a lawyer to answer or respond to the petition for dissolution. You can go pro se, which means you’re doing it on your own, but that’s not recommended. You’re required to act as if you were lawyer, and it’s very difficult to do. The first step is to find a lawyer. You can either do that through recommendations, referrals, people have even found lawyers in the Yellow Pages. The biggest thing is to find a lawyer that you’re comfortable with, and that might take interviewing a few lawyers. In Illinois, you will have only 30 days to make an appearance – or file an appearance – so there is a time constraint that you have to be aware of.
What qualities should someone look for in a divorce attorney, and how much should someone shop around before choosing one?
Sometimes [with] too much information, you can start making yourself crazy. It has to be a gut feeling and a good fit, because you’re going to have a relationship with your lawyer for at least a year, if not more in some cases, depending on the complexity of the divorce – and you have to feel comfortable with the person. You should go with your gut. Just because one lawyer might charge more than another doesn’t mean they’re better. Just because a lawyer might have a smaller office or a bigger office doesn’t mean they’re better or worse. It really comes down to you being comfortable with your lawyer because you’ll be talking about almost every aspect of your life, and there has to be a rapport. Sometimes it takes meeting with two lawyers, sometimes maybe even three. You’ll know where you’re at there. If you do start meeting with more than that, then, it’s kind of like too much information, and then you get all confused.
Is there a way to plan for the divorce process? What would you recommend before someone breaks the news to their spouse?
That’s a difficult one to answer for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people are getting divorced because they just have grown apart. It’s rather amicable, and they basically decided together or they came to the same conclusion together. Sometimes the situation is an emergent one where there’s abuse – physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse – and notifying or talking to the spouse might make things worse. That’s where your lawyer can help guide you in how to do that. Whether you serve your spouse when they’re away or when you’re away on a vacation, or you leave the house – sometimes that’s what’s required if it’s a dangerous kind of situation. Other times, it’s much easier, so there’s no one answer for that. It’s a hard thing to decide and a hard thing to pull that trigger, but a good lawyer will help you with that process. Each case is individual: it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation.
What are the grounds for divorce in Illinois? Does fault make a difference with the outcome in any way?
The grounds for divorce in Illinois now are irreconcilable differences. Illinois is a no-fault state, and some people confuse that with meaning we don’t have to have any grounds. You do have to have grounds – irreconcilable differences – meaning that there’s been a irreconcilable breakdown of the marriage, any chance at reconciliation is futile or impracticable, and there’s no other choice but to dissolve the marriage. There’s no fault, but there are grounds. No fault means you don’t have to prove that your spouse had an affair. You don’t have to prove that your spouse was abusive. It kind of cuts through a lot of that initial litigation that would happen with fault grounds. Irreconcilable differences means we just don’t get along, and that’s why we’re getting divorced. The only time that fault comes into play in an Illinois divorce if there is an issue of dissipation. Dissipation is the use of marital assets for non-marital purpose. For example, let’s say the wife was having an affair with somebody. As far as the court is concerned, the court doesn’t care that there was an affair, but it matters if funds were dissipated. If the wife bought a gift for the person she’s having an affair with – I’ve even had situations where there was a condo bought! – that’s dissipation of marital assets. That would require discovery on that, and whatever amount was spent on this other person, that amount would be a re-distribution back to the marital estate and credited to the husband. In that sense, having an affair outside of marriage does play into the division of property.
What happens if a divorce case goes to court? Is there such a thing as too much information when it comes to talking to your attorney?
It’s an attorney’s job to decide, then to guide the client. First of all, everything you say to your lawyer is confidential, and it’s best that your lawyer know everything about what’s going on in your life. I don’t think there’s anything anybody can say that would surprise or shock me anymore. There’s no judgment anyway when you see your lawyer. Because it’s such an emotional time in their life and it’s a difficult process and decision that affects every part of your life – financial and psychological, and emotional – sometimes people might get fixated on certain things. The lawyer will guide the client. For example, we don’t have to worry about things he did to you 15 years ago that kind of started the breakdown of the marriage. That’s too much information, but a lawyer will guide the client and say we don’t have to worry about that, we have all these other issues, let’s go forward. It is very important to be honest with your lawyer because you don’t want your lawyer to put something in writing or to be in court and be surprised by an important fact that they didn’t know about.
What are the pros and cons of using mediation, arbitration, or litigation to resolve divorce issues?
All those can be very helpful. Mediation can be helpful if the parents cannot decide on a parenting plan. No matter what the lawyers have tried, the parents are just stuck on an issue. They can’t decide. Instead of going to hearing on that issue, they go to mediation where they can both talk through it and maybe get their points across, get their anger out, or whatever could be helpful in reaching an agreement that the lawyers can bring to court. It can help resolve those issues. I think you have to be careful because sometimes mediation keeps couples stuck in a kind of rut of thinking that, “We agreed to mediation,” so now they’re not [making decisions] because mediation is not binding with the court. It can be helpful for parenting issues. Mediation is not really used for financial issues – although arbitration can be. These [dispute resolution processes] can increase the cost of your divorce because you have to pay for a mediator or an arbitrator [as well as] your lawyer. It can be helpful, but it has to be used judiciously. Make sure that you’re really making headway and not just repeating the same things over and over and not getting anywhere.
Diana Shepherd: My guest today has been Oakbrook Terrace family law attorney Dheanna Fikaris, founder of Fikaris & Associates in Illinois. Understanding that divorce can be emotional and confusing, Dheanna tries to make the process as smooth and simple as possible for her clients. If you’re considering divorce or just beginning the process, visit www.fikarislawoffices.com to learn how Fikaris & Associates can help to protect your best interests.