Winning a divorce or custody case, what does this really mean?
This is one of my most frequently asked questions by new clients. They’ll ask some variation of, “what is your success rate”. This is an impossible question to answer in divorces, so I usually joke a bit with clients when they ask it. Here’s why.
In many fields of law, there is a clear winner, and a clear loser. If you sue someone in a personal injury case for crashing into you while riding your bike, you either win your case, or you lose your case. Sure there is a gray area of how much money you won for them. But, you either come out victorious, or you lose. Same thing with criminal law. If you go to trial, you either end with a guilty verdict, or a not guilty verdict. It’s an all or nothing result.
Winning a divorce case means something different than many people think.
Family law and divorces don’t live by the same rules. They are what we call a field of equity. That means, parties coming in for a divorce are trying to divide their belongings, finances, and children in a way that is fair. There are no all or nothing parts of divorce cases, save for the legal question of custody.
For example, if a client comes in who has been a stay at home parent for 10 years, relying on their spouse’s income, one legal question needing resolution is spousal support or alimony. I can tell a client with absolutely certainty in most cases, 2 minutes into our conversation, whether they will get spousal support or not. So the question of whether we will “win” spousal support, in almost all cases is decided by the facts of the case, which can’t be changed. The question becomes how much support can they expect. That is more of a question of the range I can get a client, rather than whether we will “win” or not.
Conversely, with the issue of a parenting schedule for the children, success is different for every person.
The field of family law, and success in this field, is more a matter of working with clients to establish reasonable expectations and then help them accomplish their specific goals. Sometimes, the client’s goals are not attainable, so success is impossible from the start based on existing laws in Oregon. If a client who clearly will owe spousal support comes in and tells me they want to get out of it, they might be upset to learn they can’t win that issue. So success in such cases becomes about helping the client establish reasonable expectations, then working with them to obtain the best outcome we can within that framework.
Winning a divorce or custody case looks different for every client.
Put another way, success in family law cases is about helping the client walk away feeling like they can move forward with their life in a healthy manner. Sometimes, this includes ensuring that we don’t take action that will cause excess hostility between the two parents, that will bleed into their parenting for the next 18 years. Success is different for each case. My job is to work with clients to establish reasonable goals, and then do what we can to maximize what they get within the range we expect to see.