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Divorce Exposed “Divorce Attorney Alex Xanttopoulos On Working With A Lawyer”

I recently participated in a podcast with Debbie DeChambeau of Divorce Exposed where we talked about many topics related to divorce, working with a lawyer throughout the divorce process and much much more. It is a great read or listen for anyone contemplating or in the middle of the divorce process.

A full transcription taken from the podcast:

Introduction from Debbie DeChambeau

Most of us get married thinking it will last forever…. and then reality sets in…we change, we grow and so often, we stop doing it together. Some couples manage to work through the tough times and some couples throw in the towel – or at least one person does – and at some point, the big D word enters the picture. At divorce exposed, we want to provide insights for staying married and inspiration for surviving divorce.

Most of us get married thinking it will last forever…. and then reality sets in…we change, we grow and so often, we stop doing it together. Some couples manage to work through the tough times and some couples throw in the towel – or at least one person does – and at some point, the big D word enters the picture. At divorce exposed, we want to provide insights for staying married and inspiration for surviving divorce.

We are talking with a family law attorney, Alex Xanttopoulos. He’s providing our listeners with great tips on how to work with a divorce attorney and ideas on what you need to gather, how to prioritize and the most important part of the process, BREATHING

Important: I am not an attorney although today’s guest is, I’m not an accountant or a therapist. If you are going through difficult times and feel you need help, please reach out to someone, either a friend, family member or a professional and get support. I’ve listed some resources on the resources page of the website and encourage you to check there or reach out to your friends and family for referrals. Your life matters and getting help is the best thing you can do for yourself.

 

Debbie DeChambeau – Welcome to the podcast

 

Alex -Thank you, Debbie. My name is Alex Xanttopoulos. I am a principal with the law firm of Roop Xanttopoulos Babounakis, and we are a boutique family law firm and domestic litigation firm servicing northern Virginia and Washington D.C, and I am happy to be here.

 

Debbie – How did you get into law?

 

Alex – I came from a family of lawyers. Both my parents are attorneys. My father did general practice and then some environmental work and my mom is still a corporate attorney for Bank of America. I also have an uncle who practices down in South Florida in the Miami-Dade area. I come from a bunch of lawyers and I guess that’s where you fall.

 

Debbie – What made you decide to get into family law?

 

Alex – I started my practice working a lot of criminal defense work. I worked for a very well-known law firm in the Northern Virginia area. I was practicing both criminal and a portion of family law and I saw that there was a real need for good family law attorneys and that you could really help people who are going through difficult times. A very well-respected judge who’s is now retired and does a lot of mediations and was a very important figure in my career once said, when doing criminal work, you see the best of people who are not so good, and when doing family law you see good people who are not necessarily at their best. I made a decision early on that, practicing and family law, I could help some people who are going through some really rough times.

 

Debbie – Let’s go through your ideas for things to do when working with a lawyer.

 

Alex – Sure. I think this goes without saying but when dealing with divorce it’s very important that you don’t try to do this on your own. You see lots of clients that come in and they think that they can just go on legal zoom or they can just use something that they saw from a friend or on the internet to resolve their marital issues. Especially given all of the pitfalls and all of the important things that need to be in these marital settlement documents, you really can’t do it on your own. You really need to think about your divorce as one of the most important aspects of what you’re going to be doing not only in the middle of your divorce but also how you’re going to be going through your future. The last thing you want is to sign something and then find out 5 to 10 years down the road that you signed something that wasn’t going to protect you in the way that you thought it would. People spend all kinds of money on their marriage and their marriages and with all the elaborate things that go into that. I would submit that when going through a divorce you have to spend even more because what you’re really doing is not just protecting you on that day when you sign or on that day when you get a divorce but down the road so you can have the assurances that you’re protected moving forward and you can move on the way you need to.

 

Debbie – Do you see a lot of people trying to do the legal zoom type of thing or trying to do it on their own?

 

Alex – You do and I think what you find is people that come up with something and they bring it to you because they want you just to approve it, and then when you look at it and you tell them all the risks, they realize, oh gosh you’re right I can’t do this. I think some of the other frustrations are when you have clients that come in and you start to work with them through the process and you start to put together these important documents and then about half way through they just decide well I’m just going to take it from here. There’s nothing more frustrating than a client who was your client and then you sort of lose track of what’s going on and they come back to you two, three, six months later and say oh we signed this and then you have to tell them well that’s got a few problems that I should’ve told you about and I would’ve told you about if you had come to me. Or even worse ones that start with you and then they are no longer represented and then they come back to you about five years later and say, well here’s what we actually signed were divorced now and now there’s this spousal support issue that has come up or my spouse hasn’t sold the house yet, what can I do? And then you look at the document and say, well it’s really going to be difficult because what you signed has all these different issues.

 

Debbie – I wish people in general, not just going through a divorce, would understand that pulling a document off the internet is not a good idea, but so many people think it is so I’ll leave it at that. What else would you recommend?

 

Alex – I think another thing people need to be conscious of is who to listen to for advice and who not to listen to for advice. Where I’m going with this is, you should not be listening to the gossiping friends and acquaintances who think that know everything about somebody going through separation or divorce because nobody has lived in your shoes. Nobody knows what is going on in your individual case. Most of the advice I’m giving is specific to Virginia but I would say this I pretty important no matter where you’re going through this type of situation. Virginia in particular, there are many different factors that determine what’s going to happen with your property. There’s an equitable distribution statute and they list out ten factors as to how your property is going to be divided. There’s a different one for custody and visitation. There’s a different one for spousal support. There is a child support guideline, but it can also be rebutted. What that really means is, every case is different. Just because you think that your best friend or your neighbor got some sort of result does not mean that you are going to get the same result. I find that a lot of problems come when somebody is listening to what Genie from across the street got in her divorce and why didn’t I get that amount of money. Why didn’t I get support for that long? Why am I a good father who’s only getting this visitation schedule? You really need to trust the person that you’re hiring. While I think it’s important to have support of family and friends, because this is such an important time and because it is emotional, I still think that there are certain people when actually making the decisions about your life involving legal determinations in your divorce that you should be listening to and people that you absolutely not be listening to.

 

Debbie – Besides the attorney who else would you recommend people be listening to?

 

Alex – I think it’s important that you listen to the trusted close friends that have always been apart of your life and not the people who are just coming in and are more surface line friends—neighbors, acquaintances. I think it’s really important to listen to, if you’re apart of a church that you’re listening to your pastor or your important spiritual person—listening to your therapist, listening to your psychologist. Because these are people that know you very well, and to some extent, these people can communicate with your attorney just so they can get a better sense of what’s going on in your life. There are obviously the people that would not listen to, and those are the gossipy people that aren’t really looking out for you. They’re more just looking out for themselves or are not really exactly sure what’s going on in your life.

 

Debbie – What about a financial advisor or somebody in the financial world. Is that someone that you encourage people to talk to as part as the divorce process?

 

Alex – Than can be. I think that it depends on your situation. I think financial advisors are great and we recommend and work with certain ones that can help guide you through budgets and analysis of what to do with your funds when going through a divorce. Can I afford to stay in my house? I’m coming into a sum of retirement money where should I invest that? I’ve got kids that are about to go to college, how should I work that into my financial picture? I think it’s very important in some situations. I think it can also be risky in some cases especially when you’re meeting with a financial advisor that maybe doesn’t work with people going through divorce who are setting unreasonable expectations. It could be a very good tool and it can be a very dangerous tool because if a financial advisor is sitting down saying you need this sum of money a month to or this sum of money a year to be able to survive your current lifestyle, and that is the expectation that you are bringing into a divorce, that can be risky because ultimately the attorney may say that’s a five percent chance of that happening. I think that what’s important for attorneys to show their clients are an expectation right from the beginning. When they meet with them, they need to be setting the tone for what to expect and what not to expect. Think of it as a bell curve: you can get this five percent of the time, but I would tell you that at about sixty to seventy percent of the time it’s going to fall within this bell curve. Where you run into problems with financial advisors are when they’re setting an expectation that’s maybe that five or ten percent chance because chances are that’s not going to happen. That can make the process a lot more difficult.

 

Debbie – I think what you said is really an important factor there. It’s financial advisors that are used to dealing with people that are going through divorce. I believe there’s some sort of designation that they have if somebody was seeking that out, but that’s definitely an important factor.

 

Alex – There are people that are certified to go through certified divorce financial planners and there are people that maybe don’t have certain certifications but you trust because they’ve seen people go through this or they are able to talk to the attorney about what the expectation is, so that they can work with that client in setting their budgets. I think that there’s a value of listening to your financial planner, and I think there’s also a value of going to someone who’s working hand in glove with the attorney. If that’s happening then, yes, I think that’s someone that you should absolutely be listening to when going through this.

 

Debbie – What else?

 

Alex – I think that the third point that is important when trying to figure out how to navigate through these complicated times is to not avoid your attorney. That may seem like an obvious thing, you’ve hired this person and you’re paying them money so why would you avoid them. Well, these divorce processes can take anywhere from a couple months to a couple years. Obviously, we try everything we can to try to make the process smooth and as easy as possible. Things come up. You deal with difficult opposing parties, you deal with mental health issues, you deal with substance abuse, you deal with difficult opposing counsels, and you deal with difficult issues. Even when you have two very capable attorneys on both sides, it still takes time. I think the problem is that when going through this process some people they start, and they’re engaged with their attorney and they’re really responsive and then six months or so go on and they stop responding when it’s really important. There are upcoming hearings, there are deadlines, there are discoveries and depositions and certain things that may come up in your case. It’s very import that you’re working with your attorney because these deadlines are set by the court and there are very real consequences if you’re not complying with those timetables. It’s very difficult for your attorney to do a good job and to be prepared if you’re not going to communicate. So, if you have a discovery deadline that’s coming up in 30 days, and your attorney is trying to get you in for a meeting you can’t avoid it because chances are that’s a very important hearing or a very important deadline. When going through this process, if you have the attorney that is not only setting up a framework and a strategy and timelines for you, then you need to do your part which is working hand in glove with your attorney. I do think that it’s important that when you start the process that you’re continuing. It may be difficult, we may be nine months down the road and you’re like I’m tired of dealing with this, we will get you through it but you have to work with the attorney otherwise they’re not going to be able to properly represent you.

 

Debbie – Why do you think people kind of avoid you? Is it because they’re done with it or why do they not cooperate?

 

Alex – I don’t think it’s a lack of cooperation as much as I think it’s a lack of prioritizing. People are busy, people have kids, people have jobs, people have families. They get busy and they sort of lose track of it, especially if your divorce has been going on for a long period of time. There’s also an emotional component going on. People don’t want to sit down and talk about the things that cause the dissolution of their marriage or they don’t want to talk about potentially having to share assets, and they don’t want to talk about potentially having to share custodial time of their children. The idea that they have to work with an attorney to do something that they’re maybe not entirely happy about I think also is part of that.

 

Debbie – That makes perfect sense.

 

Alex – I think the next area where it’s important to, on sort of a to-do, is to really focus on getting an attorney who is not just specializing in one area of divorce work or doesn’t really have a one size fits all mentality in going through divorce

 

Debbie – Can you elaborate on that?

 

Alex – Sure. A lot of attorneys they meet you and they have an, ‘ok well it sounds like this case is going to be difficult. You should go to mediation.’ Or they come and they meet you and they say, ‘okay nice to meet you. We’re going to file for a divorce, we’re going to sue them, and we’re going to take everything.’ They don’t really have an un understanding of all the different tools and all the different options that a party has available to them. I think that the idea is to hire an attorney who has knowledge not just of how to go to court and how to get good results in front of the judges and who knows them, but also finding somebody who is able to resolve things out of court, who knows different alternative dispute resolutions processes like collaborative divorce, or like mediation, or has the ability to sit down with other opposing counsels and get results outside of court. If you hire somebody that’s just a litigator, then guess what? You’re going to be in litigation. If you hire someone that just does collaborative work, then you’re going to be in collaborative. One thing, if we’re doing the do nots, is do not hire somebody that has the one size fits all mentality in dealing with going through this process.

 

 

Debbie – That’s interesting that you say that. That’s probably an area that I’ve never thought about from hiring an attorney perspective, but I can definitely see it in my two divorces. I had – one that’s all collaborative, that’s really the direction he was going. We were in collaborative and when we got kicked out he was like ‘well you should’ve never been in there’. In my mind I’m going “so why did you put me there”. I like the person don’t get me wrong I thought he was a great person, but if he knew from the beginning that we shouldn’t have been in collaborative then I think something should’ve been said at that point. My other attorney was a litigator no question about it so we had to do all the other stuff too. That’s very interesting – that’s a good point.

 

Alex – Thanks. The last thing that I would say in the do nots is don’t panic. Divorce is something that lots of people go through. I don’t have the statistics on me, but I would guess it’s over fifty percent of people that are married ultimately end in divorce. That can be early on in their marriage, that could be 10 years down the road, that could be later in life. You will get through your divorce. It may be something that takes time. It may take time even after the divorce for you to get adjusted, but the last thing you should do is panic. The last thing you should do is overreact or send terrible emails or have outburst in front of public people because that stuff could come back to hurt you in your divorce case. What you really need to be focused on is finding someone that comes up with a strategy that you can follow so that you have different points of reference and you can know – ‘ok well we are starting here, here’s where this is going to end’. You really shouldn’t panic because it will be over. That’s why that they set deadlines and they set hearings and they set final divorce trials – because at the end of the day you will get through it.

 

Debbie – I want to go back to choosing your attorney for one second – In the piece about mediation, also somebody who can negotiate. That’s huge I think, because the cost of a trial is extremely expensive. A lot people think, ‘well I’m just going to take you to court and we’ll see what the judge decides’, without looking at what that cost might be in the long run. They’re not thinking about the compromise of ‘well if my attorney could negotiate something before I get to court it’s going to save me a ton of money and in the end I’m actually going to come out ahead of time’. Finding an attorney that’s is a good negotiator and having conversations about that, can actually save the couple a ton of money in the long run.

 

Alex – That’s really an important point.  I think that understanding math and understanding the value of money is a very important part of being a family law attorney because you have people that come in that don’t have the means to litigate or don’t have the means to go through a long drawn out process. Even if it’s in collaborative or some other method. Somebody that is sitting down and understands what the likely outcome is going to be from the outset and figuring out, ‘what it’s going to cost to get that extra five or ten percent and trying to balance that in determining what is the right process for this couple or for my client is very important’. Negotiation definitely comes into it because if you can sit down and negotiate at mediation a result that gets you something that is in that top 10 or 15 percent for your client then that’s great because you can save ten, fifteen,  fifty, a  hundred thousand dollars in litigation costs but also understanding that ‘well maybe I didn’t get them a top 10 percent result. But I got them something in the top tier, the top 75 percent percentile and if I tried to get them that extra twenty percent it would cost them fifty percent of their estate’. There’s nothing worse seeing clients that go through the full litigation process, spend all this money and then get a result that could have been negotiated early on. I think there are certain cases that have to end up in litigation because of mental health issues or because there are just complications that can’t be resolved out of court, but I think a lot of these cases can be, and it’s very important to hire somebody who understands that and who understands the value of the money that they are arguing over – Because frankly I’d rather have clients that are saving that money for their families than spending it on their lawyers. A lot of times you just don’t for whatever reasons, whether its emotional issues or something that gone on at the end of their marriage, they can’t see past that. It’s important that you can at least break that down financially and show them what that’s going to cost and what’s that difference of that 5 percent is going to cost them to obtain. If they want to go through that process then their likely going to be in litigation and that’s fine, but at least then you’ve given them the option and you’ve show them that. I don’t think that a lot of attorneys do that.

 

Debbie – I was going to say, I’m guessing a lot don’t. And again, I’ve only had two but that’s two that more than lost people have. That was never brought up to me. It’s mostly in getting to meet so many attorneys for what I do personally that I’ve grasp that concept.  It really can be a game changer for people. It’s an important thing for people to be having a conversation about because it will definitely save them some of money.

 

Alex – Those were the five things not to do. Just quickly go through the five things that I think are important to do or five things I would be focusing on and I would be thinking about if you’re going through this process. The first is to hire an attorney early on in the divorce process. A lot of the early stages of your separation can, not always, but they can set the tone for what’s going to happen. That can be something as basic as how your handling your assets and payment of daily expenses like the mortgage and your utilities. It can be something as important like who’s covering health insurance not just during the divorce process but after. It can be something as significant as the custodial schedule. If you end up starting a custodial schedule and doing it for six months before you hire an attorney. That attorney is going to have to really work with you if you’re not happy with the arrangement as to how to change that. Because you’re setting up a status quo that may be something you will have to follow for a long period of time. The earlier you hire an attorney, the earlier they can discuss with you the consequences or the focus of what you should be doing and what make sense, given whatever your goals are.

 

Debbie – Do you find that people come to you and it’s probably going to be the one who wants the divorce verses the one who doesn’t, to sort of get advice before they even approach the other party on, I want this marriage to come to an end. Do you see that a lot?

 

Alex – We do. I think that more people are trying to understand what their rights are. Something could have happened in their marriage where the word divorce is maybe just spoken in an argument. Nothing else has happened and everybody is otherwise fine, but they just want to understand well if I do go through divorce, what is that going to look like. What’s going to happen with my kids. What am I going to have to give up in terms of my assets? How am I going to make it on a month to month basis? We do see a lot of that. We also see people that have already separated, and they come in and their trying to figure out, do I want to keep go through with this process or do I want to reconcile. You can give them some advice as to what this would look like if they ultimately go through with that process. Yes, we do see that frequently. I would also encourage when going through the process. to come up with a strategy early on. Too many attorneys meet with their client on a very surface level and they talk to them about things that are more general, and they don’t really set a plan. The problem with that is that months can go by with no results. Or months go by and there are results, but you have no idea as to when this is going to end. Or what this is going to look like. I think that what’s critical at the early stages is at your initial consultation and your first few meetings with your attorney is to come up with a strategy – ‘How long is this going to take? Well if that doesn’t work what’s plan B? What’s plan C? ok, Plan C didn’t work – now what are we going to do? What is this going to cost to go from plan A to Plan B’ – because If you don’t do that if it’s just – ‘hi nice to meet you, your now on an 18-month wagon wheel with me’. Then the client is going to get frustrated somewhere along the line because they are going to be going through an expensive process and they can’t really measure it against anything else. While all strategies don’t work – I will tell clients right from the beginning. This may not work, this will get you the best results for the best for the best cost but if it doesn’t work then we got to plan B and that’s what this is going to look like. At least then they know well plan A didn’t work. So now we’ve got to move to these other options. I think If you do that early on then the client will respect you more and trust you more because then you’re actually following through with what you’re saying. If something goes off the rails, you can say well I didn’t expect this to happen so now we have to do this other thing. Usually when you’re giving them a straight process and you’re talking about cost and you’re talking about just exactly what it’s going to look like. Then they have something to measure it against. There are a couple other ones that are important too and this isn’t for every case – Gathering financial records, gathering information. If people are separating households, they don’t think about that. People are leaving in an emotional time. Maybe there is domestic violence going on, maybe there is adultery and confrontation, maybe it’s just parties that just can’t get along but they’re separating and they’re thinking about taking their kids clothing and they’re thinking about taking their own clothing and their personal items. they’re not really thinking about financial records. I think it’s important early on especially if you don’t typically have access to finances to get copies of as much as you can as early on in the process.  For those that aren’t having those dramatic or this quick exit or have access to all the financials, start to gather them and organize them early. Most settlement delay because of a lack of financial disclosure. Early on in the process if you can gather up the information that the other side would want to see so that their attorney can council their client – That would streamline things tremendously, because if somebody comes to me and says I just received this settlement agreement should I sign it, is this in my best interest. Most of the time my response is, I don’t know – because I haven’t seen the financial documentation to support it. Sometimes clients have the savvy and they know, that’s what’s in that account, I can see that account, it’s a joint account, this is my own retirement, I know what’s there. a lot of other times they are taking their spouses word for it. When a partnership dissolves trust typically dissolved. I think It’s important to gather up those records because let’s say you’re that person that is providing that settlement agreement you can say ‘here’s the supporting documentation for the last six months that shows what’s in this account or what’s in that account, or where I got this appraised value for this piece of real estate’. If you can start gathering that information early, chances are things are going to resolve faster. If they are not going to resolve faster and you’re going to end up in litigation, worst case you’ve prepared your discovery of financial documents that your attorneys going to need anyway.

 

Debbie – How far back should they have that information generally?

 

Alex – That’s really going to depend on the circumstances because there could be things that have happened towards the end of the marriage that may require you to go back further but I typically tell clients under a normal situation, about a year prior to your separation is a just good ballpark. Things could come up you could be worried about how your spouse has been spending money over several years before the end of your divorce. Were they doing things in anticipation, were they transferring money? Do they have businesses and subsidiaries and other entities where money is moving around? In that case we may need further records. If you’re in litigation, courts are more inclined to go back four or five years before the date of separation. In terms of what’s a good ballpark about year before you separate.

 

Debbie – Good advice

 

Alex – I think the fourth to do is to just to put your kids first. I think that people lose track of that for emotional reasons and for a lot of things that go on when going through a divorce, but it is important to put your kids first.

 

Debbie – I’m so onboard with you on that one. It’s not about the parents it’s about the kids.

 

Alex – That’s what most judges will tell the parties that even when they’re in the middle of the divorce trial – They will say this isn’t about what’s in the best interest of you dad or you mom. It’s what’s in the best interest of your kids. If you can think about that even when going through this emotional time, even when if your spouse had an affair or did something that you just cannot forgive them for, putting your kids first is going to be critical. I’m not talking about allowing somebody who has alcohol issues to be unsupervised with children or someone that has problems that should not permit them to have joint legal custody or shared physical custody. I’m talking about more how your communicating in front of the children. I’m talking about trying to make sure that your making decisions that is in their best interest. So that down the road they’re not blaming one parent or another for what’s happened, because chances are there is blame on both sides and even if there’s not you don’t want your kids growing up with some sort of fractured relationship because of something that one parent or the other said when going through the divorce.

 

Debbie – My philosophy is, again I’m not a lawyer I’m not any of the professionals, but I think that all kids should go through therapy. I feel like that should become a part of the conversation because otherwise they end up feeling a lot of guilt. It’s like it’s my fault that this ended, and it’s never the kids’ fault, but they bear that guilt with them for many many many years. Again, I’m just a friend here but I will always tell my friends who are going through a divorce. Please put you kids in therapy. Whatever you do please put your kids in therapy and they look at me kind of funny like- ‘well this isn’t about them’ – I’m like you have no idea how this is going to impact them. That’s one of the best things you can do for them in the long run. That’s not a legal thing but it’s an emotional thing.

 

Alex – Right. And I think the last thing of the to-do’s when going through this is to just breathe. this goes in line with the don’t panic. If you breathe and if you recognize that this is not something that is just happening to you, it happens to a lot of people and people get through this, and people live good, happy, healthy lives after this – you’ll do much better when going through this process. The last thing I would say is that you need to breathe.

 

Debbie – Get out of the house. Go exercise, go for a walk. Doesn’t cost anything for those who are on a budget, but that really does help in minimizing some of the stress – makes a big big difference.

 

Alex – It does.

 

Debbie Cool. Well Thanks for this. This was awesome. I appreciate it.

 

Closing (Debbie)

 

As we wrap up this episode. I hope that you are as inspired as I am about the content that Alex has shared. If you are new to Divorce Exposed check out our other episodes.  I’ll be talking to Alex and other attorneys in the future about the different issues that you need to consider as you go through this process. Did you know that we have a Facebook group? It’s a closed group. I’ve linked to it in the show notes or you can find it at Divorce Exposed. We have a Facebook group and we have a Facebook page. The Facebook group is where we have the conversations. The Facebook page is where I post articles on going through this process as well as the episodes for Divorce Exposed. I hope you’ll join us on both because I do want to keep the conversation going. One of the other things that I’m hoping to do is to put together a virtual support group that will focus on helping you move forward, help you put everything into perspective and that will help you get your life back. It won’t be a complaining session but an opportunity to create a plan and move forward with confidence. If this is something that you’re interested in send an email to divorceexpose@gmail.com – Also if you liked what you heard on this podcast could you go to iTunes and leave us a review? I’ll leave instructions in the show notes. Your reviews really make it easier for people to find us. Until next time, keep finding the positives in everything that you do.

 

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