Morghan Leia Richardson understands the emotional and financial challenges we face when a relationship ends. She has been through the process and thrived. Morghan is also a brilliant and compassionate divorce attorney and mediator. She was named by Super Lawyers as one of New York’s Rising Stars for 2013 (top lawyers under 40).
Morghan is a divorced single mom raising two young boys. She successfully juggles motherhood and working at her law practice where she helps help other women and men transition into a new life as a single person or parent. Richardson Legal PLLC is based in Queens. Morghan is licensed to practice law in New York and Maryland, D.C.
As an advocate for both women and men’s rights during a divorce, Morghan works with her clients through the mediation process to ensure that the outcome is positive for her client, but agreeable for everyone. Her focus is the welfare of the children. Morghan recommends the collaborative process of mediation, but not ever divorce is easy. She also has the spirit and drive to deal with those unfortunate, but common antagonistic divorces.
Before becoming a divorce attorney, Morghan was an award winning investigative newspaper reporter. She writes eloquently about relationships and divorce on her blog “The Divorce Artist”.
First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Morghan about preparing for and surviving divorce and choosing the right divorce attorney or mediator.
You wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “Every Woman Needs $5,000 in Her Own Account -- Even If It's a Secret” advising married women that they should have their own bank account with at least $5,000 stashed away. This is great advice, since so many women, especially stay-at-home mothers are reluctant to leave a relationship when they don’t have any funds to start their new life. You are also right that it is a red flag if a husband won’t allow a woman to have her own money. Do you find that most women are financially unprepared for divorce and what should a woman do if there is no way to build a nest egg?
Morghan: I agree that the majority of women are financially unprepared for divorce for a variety of reasons. Whether we work outside the home or not, women approach the marriage in terms of a family and a communal collective – especially the finances. We feel that all the earnings are "our money." But I almost never hear that from men. In fact, men are more likely to express shock that earnings are "marital," especially retirement and investment accounts. He's also more likely to tell me that he "never wanted her to stay home in the first place."
My advice to any woman trying to create a financial safety net is to get creative. I wrote another blog, “True Story: How to Squirrel Away $5,000 to Get Out of a Horrible Marriage” for the Huffington Post about a client who found amazing ways of saving up dollars and cents at every turn until she had enough to recruit a lawyer.
My top tips from that client's experience:
- Make small budget changes and save the change. Substitute generic items at the grocery store for brand name (you can even refill a brand-name box with generic items --particularly cereal).
- Look for items that can be returned or exchanged for lower prices. For example, your child was given a Gap T-shirt, exchange it for one on clearance. Pocket the difference.
- Get creative. Anne found ways to save by inflating the cost of items. If the school is asking for $12 for teacher gifts, tell your husband that the gift request was for $15 or $20.
Would a secret bank account be considered hiding assets and can the other spouse claim some of that money if it comes out during a divorce?
Morghan: Yes. Here in New York that secret account would most likely be considered marital and subject to "reallocation" at the end of the case. That means that if you have $10,000.00 in the account, you might owe him $5,000.00 when the dust settles. But more often, that $5,000.00 is going to be washed out by the end of the case: he may owe you alimony, retirement money or counsel fees that will offset that money.
Of course, if the account is made up of inheritance, premarital savings or gifts, then the money may all be found to be separate property.
A separate account doesn't mean it must be a secret account. If the marriage is healthy, why should he worry if you want your own account? But if you are too scared to even have that conversation with him that is a red flag signaling that you should absolutely have your own account.
Regardless, having an account gives you options, which can be empowering. At the end of the day, if divorce is in your future then you are better off having the financial means going into a divorce than worrying about splitting that savings at the end of the case.
Many people who are searching for a divorce attorney have never been involved in any kind of legal process or hired a lawyer. It can be intimidating, especially when you are sharing intimate details. How should someone find and choose a lawyer if they don’t have a personal recommendation from friends? Do you find that in general, women are more comfortable with female attorneys?
Morghan: Many times women are too embarrassed to ask friends or relatives for a referral. We are supposed to be the gate-keepers of relationships and, frankly, many women understandably assume a sense of failure and guilt that can make it that much harder to ask for help. Here are a few tips on finding a lawyer:
The Internet is a great place to start. Sources like Avvo.com, Yelp.com and First Wives World, are great because they help identify reputable attorneys. It can be really helpful to read reviews from past clients.
Find a lawyer that you are comfortable with – whether that lawyer is a man or a woman – because you are going to be disclosing your life to that person. Look for attorneys who also offer mediation or collaborative services because those lawyers tend to better understand and appreciate the art of effective fighting: when to fight hard and when to settle.
Call around to find out the general prices in your area. Then set up a few appointments. Ask which lawyer will handle your case. Is it the same attorney who will appear with you in court? Firms often swap out associates. That may be OK with you, but be sure to know up front.
Remember that many factors will come into play in your divorce that impact the result. Court is a gamble. The outcome of your case could be influenced by arbitrary things like if you happen to resemble the judge’s dead-beat cousin or his best friend. That is why it is important to avoid lawyers with inflated promises.
Some questions to ask:
- Have you seen facts like mine before and how did you approach them?
- What is the best and worst outcome I can expect?
- The state law says XYZ about my facts, but how have the judges in my county/city been handling that issue?
I know that many attorneys, like you, are working to make the process less adversarial and using mediation to help the divorcing couple come to an agreement that is the best solution for all parties, especially the children. How does mediation work compared to a regular divorce?
Morghan: Every divorcing couple must resolve their property, financial, and child-related issues before a divorce can become final. Traditionally, people turn to lawyers – one for each person. With Divorce Mediation, you only need one mediator, an impartial party who is trained at facilitating your discussions and helping you resolve all issues so the divorce can take place.
The mediator's goal is to help resolve family disputes, promote communication and focus the participants on their individual and common interests. While the process is "low-conflict" that doesn't mean that you and your spouse have no conflicts. But studies find that couples who end their marriages with the help of a divorce mediator fare better in negotiating property and custody issues than those who go the traditional route of hiring respective attorneys. This saves time, lots of money and generally minimizes animosity between the divorcing spouses.
That said, there are many cases that call for lawyers. If the other person across the table isn't willing to be reasonable, you must be prepared to go to court.
You are also involved with the Good Men Project and father’s rights. I think women who have been burnt by a bad situation forget that there are a lot of good men out there and most men want to be involved in their children’s lives. Co-parenting can be difficult when people aren’t getting along. Do you recommend that couples who are divorcing see a therapist or divorce coach to help them through this process and what other tips do you have for sharing custody?
Morghan: In our modern world, Dad is just as active with the kids as Mom. Many times Dads begin to appreciate their time with the kids once there is a split, especially if they have less access. He even may work very hard to be the parent you wish he had been during the marriage. Sometimes Dad doesn't know how or where to start, or Mom doesn't want to support his efforts to parent, and certainly a therapist or parenting coordinator could help the couple develop positive ways to adjust.
The tragedy of divorce is that many times the couple is so wrapped up in their emotional pain that they are unable to look at the situation through the eyes of their children. The divorce rate is high and it is much more common today than ever before. This means parents need to step up their skills, even if that means learning to put aside their own hurts and think about how their children see the situation.
As a divorced mom of two young boys what is the most valuable lesson you have learned that other could benefit from?
Morghan: While it might be difficult to address the changing dynamic of Mom and Dad's marriage, I believe acknowledging that things are changing and why (in an age appropriate way) is far better for the kids in the long run. I learned this the hard way. When my marriage first split up, I wasn't sure how to talk to the boys about it because they were so little. To explain his absence, I would tell them that Dad was at work (because as a police officer, he's had a very tumultuous schedule). At first, the excuse was fine, but as they get older, I see how this approach has back-fired. I thought I was shielding them from a painful reality, but now, my five-year-old thinks Dad works all the time! "Mom dates. Dad doesn't date. He only works!" This is something that I now have to bring into his reality, particularly as new relationships are brought into focus on both sides of the equation.
My kids are such a large part of my world and I realize they are my ex-husband's world too. For the most part, I strive to be flexible and put aside minor grievances so that my kids have continued support from both of us.
Thank you, Morghan, for all of your wonderful insight and advice.
How was your divorce experience? Did you plan your exit strategy before the break-up? Share your stories in the comment box below.