In this episode, Jaime sits down with board-certified family law specialist Lynn McNally, a partner at the Smith Debnam Law Firm in Raleigh to discuss practical ways to support your loved ones navigating divorce. Lynn and Jaime discuss the vital role that support persons can play during the process of divorce, including considerations for legal consultations, attorney-client privilege, and the delicate balance of emotional assistance. For friends and family, find out how to offer meaningful help, encourage mental health resources, and provide the right kind of support without overstepping boundaries. Jaime and Lynn also call out what not to do as a support person and caution against social media blunders.
Need help from Lynn? Contact her by visiting www.smithdebnamlaw.com.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime: Welcome to A Year and a Day. I’m Jamie Davis, board certified family law attorney at Gailor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate divorce without destruction. In this episode, I’m speaking with my good friend and fellow family law attorney, Lynn McNally. Lynn is a board certified family law specialist and partner with the Smith Debnam law firm in Raleigh. Lynn and I will be discussing ways you can support your friend or family member who is going through a divorce. Thanks for joining me, Lynn.
Lynn: Thanks for having me.
Jaime: As you know, most people have had a friend or family member who has experienced a divorce, and knowing how to best support that person can sometimes be challenging. In your experience, what are some ways that a person can provide support to a friend or family member who’s going through a divorce?
Lynn: Yeah, you know, the first time that we as lawyers come across a support person is generally at the initial consultation. Somebody who’s going through a divorce or separation or contemplating it will come in with a million questions and they’ll bring a family member or a friend with them. And it’s nice to see those folks have some support. It’s an awful time in life and having somebody who’s there to support you is a good thing. But there are a lot of things that that support person is going to want to keep in mind.
Jaime: So tell me about that. What are some things that the support person needs to keep in mind if they are present for a client’s meeting with their lawyer?
Lynn: Yeah, well, as an attorney, when I see a client or potential client come in with a support person, I always have to start that conversation by helping my potential client understand the attorney-client privilege. And that privilege is essentially that communications that a client or potential client has with a lawyer are confidential. Nobody can compel them to discuss what we communicated nor can they compel me to. But the exception to that is if there’s a third party present and their support person is a third party. So I have that conversation with a potential client so that they can make an informed decision about whether their support person stays in the room or not. And generally at the initial consultation stage, we’re just talking about facts. And so it’s probably okay for that person to be there. I see good support people taking notes for their friend or family member during the consultation. I see good support people just, you know, literally offering a hand, giving a hug, being an actual emotional support to that person, which are all good things.
Jaime: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s really important for folks to remember that when someone is going through a separation, it’s probably one of the most difficult things they’ve ever had to deal with, and they’re going to be experiencing some situational anxiety, maybe some situational depression, and their brain is not going to be processing information the way that it normally does. And during that initial consultation, we as lawyers are throwing a lot of information at the potential client about claims that they might have or just trying to get the facts out of them, right? Like they may be having trouble remembering the timeline of their story, so to speak. And I think the support person can be super helpful at, like you said, taking the notes to help them remember what’s being talked about. And also, if they’re a good friend or family member, they can probably help fill in some of those holes of the story if the person can’t remember all of the detail.
Lynn: Yeah, I find that that happens a lot and that’s a great thing to do, but sometimes it can be a little bit much. Right. And what I mean by that is when the support person ends up talking for their friend or family member.
Jaime: Yeah, not helpful.
Lynn: No, it’s not helpful. But yeah, it’s an incredibly stressful time. And as the support person, you’re going to see your friend or family member being in that situational anxiety. And one helpful thing that you can do is to remind them what their resources are. Most people that are going through this process, separation and divorce process, could benefit from a therapist. And as a support person to be able to help find a resource, whether it’s a therapist or support group for your friend or family member, that can be helpful to encourage them to do that and to take care of their mental health. That can be helpful. Any kind of resource you might be able to provide for your friend or family member who’s going through that could be beneficial to them.
Jaime: Yeah, absolutely. And just reminding them to stay healthy, right? Like reminding them, hey, did they eat? I mean, a lot of folks who are going through a separation are so stressed out and worried about their future that they might forget to eat lunch. So be a good friend and be like, hey, did you eat lunch today? Do you want to go grab some lunch with me? Or making sure that the person is not self-medicating, right? Like, are they turning to drugs or alcohol instead of going to a therapist and potentially getting some medication? There’s no shame in that. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. But I think the support person can be helpful in steering the person in the right direction.
Lynn: Yeah, being able to care for your basic needs during that time is more difficult than you would think. And even just getting that person out of their head, go for a walk.
Lynn: You know, if they have children and they’re going to be times where they’re without their children for a weekend, you know, that, I imagine, can be incredibly stressful. And so just being there and being able to take them out of the situation, get them moving, get them active, do healthy and good things, that can be helpful. When that person who’s going through this separation and divorce, can think clearly, then the best decisions are made.
Jaime: Right. I mean, I think for folks who haven’t experienced a separation and divorce, they don’t really understand that it truly is like grieving the loss of a loved one. You know, there are studies that have shown that it’s like the second most stressful life event after the death of a close relative. And so, you know, if you can kind of think about it that way, that that’s the type of support that you’re going to need to provide to your friend, the same type of support that you would provide to them if a parent had passed away or something like that.
Lynn: Yeah, you’re exactly right. The one thing that comes to mind as a potential difference there is the person that your friend is no longer married to or is separated from is still around. Right. And there’s probably a lot of anger.
Jaime: Yeah, absolutely.
Lynn: And I have seen support people take on the anger and the emotion of the separation of their friend who’s going through it. And I haven’t seen that from my perspective to be particularly helpful. You know, it’s good for there to be a lawyer involved because the lawyer can be objective when the client cannot. I mean, you can’t be objective as a support person. That’s your friend, but If you can moderate that so that you’re not increasing acrimony or stirring the pot, that’s good. The other is really negative and can be hurtful to your friend who’s going through this process.
Jaime: Yeah, and I think something else that can be hurtful, it just popped in my head, was you can’t compare your own divorce to theirs. There is no one size fits all when it comes to a divorce. And there are so many different facts that come into play in determining how much child support a person gets, or what property they receive, or do they get alimony or not. And so as the support person, if you yourself have gone through a divorce, I think it’s really important that you be mindful that you’re not saying things to your friend like, well, in my divorce, this is what happened. I don’t understand why your lawyer can’t get you X, Y, and Z, when there’s probably a really good reason that you just don’t know because you don’t have all of the details.
Lynn: Yeah. And beyond that, it is your friend’s life. And they’re going to have to make decisions that impact their lives forever, not your life. And so you may wish that your friend would stick it to their spouse for what he or she did. You may wish that they would ask for some amount of support or file a lawsuit instead of negotiate a settlement. But it’s not your place to do that. And it’s probably not your money that’s being spent on lawyers. So being able to sort of push what you might do or what you think your friend should do aside and support their reasoned decisions, that’s the right thing to do, even if you might do something different yourself.
Jaime: So you mentioned something really important. You mentioned that the ex-spouse is still around and folks are still going to have to deal with the ex-spouse. Any advice for how the support person should deal with the ex-spouse if they are still in communication with that person?
Lynn: I think people who are in communication with both spouses try at times to mediate the situation? I’m not sure if that’s helpful all the time. I’m sure that there are times where there’s a good enough relationship that it’s probably okay, but most of the time it’s not. And what you sometimes see is that support person kind of playing both sides. And that’s not going to remain a secret. Right. You know, it’s, it’s just, it’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to lead probably to further mistrust in any of, of the people that they might be supporting, any spouse. So I’m not suggesting that you have to, or should pick sides, but I think that, that support people who have a relationship with both spouses just need to be careful. And maybe if they do have a relationship with both spouses, they need to limit their involvement. They can support, but they may not be as active in the support role.
Jaime: I was going to say, it’s like there need to be some boundaries, right? Like even if you’re friends with both spouses, odds are good you probably have a closer relationship with one or the other of the spouses. And so if your role is going to be to support your good friend, you cannot also actively support good friend’s spouse because like you said, that’s going to lead to some trust issues. But what you can do is you can still have communication with the other spouse. Maybe you just don’t talk about anything related to the party separation. Maybe you just talk about things that you do as friends or, you know, go out to dinner or whatever it is that you do. But you have that boundary where you’re not talking about your other friend’s business to their ex-spouse.
Lynn: Yeah, exactly. It can’t hurt to be kind to your friends and to make sure that they are taking care of their mental and physical health. And you don’t have to be involved in the details of their separation to do that.
Jaime: Right. So you mentioned earlier that you normally meet the support person during the initial consultation and that often that person will accompany their friend or family member to help out. What if the client needs an interpreter? Do you feel like the support person is a good person to be that interpreter for them if there is a language barrier?
Lynn: In an ideal scenario, no. I would want somebody that is relatively objective to do that. I don’t know what spin somebody might be putting on things, but I recognize that from a financial standpoint, maybe, that that might not be possible. And so in those situations where the support person is also the interpreter, a very straightforward conversation about interpreting as closely as possible the words that are being spoken without embellishment, without putting their own spin on it, that is what is most helpful to the lawyer. That’s what’s going to get you the best information to give the best legal advice. We could pay interpreters to come in and do it, but that’s another expense in an already expensive process.
Jaime: I mean, you can ask for an interpreter for court proceedings at no cost, and that will be provided to you through the state. But you don’t have that same luxury for meetings with your lawyer or mediations or things that are not happening in the courtroom. And so if you don’t have the funds to pay for your own private interpreter, you know, a friend or family member may be the only other option. That’s right.
Lynn: You know, you mentioned mediation. And that is whenever I think about a support person being involved, one of the times that I cringe the most is when I know that somebody has brought their support person to mediation.
Jaime: And you don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad.
Lynn: Right, yes. And most of the time when I represent a party in an action, my client will talk to me in advance about whether they should bring somebody or not and who it might be. And we talk about all the things that that might mean for their case and make a good decision about it. I don’t have control over who the other party brings in and there have been some really lovely times when the support person has been reasonable and calm and helped the situation and there have been the opposite times when but for the support person these two people could have reached a resolution. And I am a mediator in a number of cases too instead of representing the parties I’m the neutral and it’s very interesting as the mediator to see the dynamics in different rooms between parties and their support people sometimes really good and sometimes very counterproductive.
Jaime: Yeah, in my experience, I think the worst type of support person to bring to your mediation is your new romantic partner. Oh, yes. People like to do that for whatever reason, and nine times out of ten, it is going to blow up the mediation. New romantic partner probably doesn’t like your ex-spouse, right? And so they’ve already got an axe to grind from the beginning of the day. And, you know, they have their own agenda and their own motives in getting this case resolved that may not, you know, go well with what’s best for you. So just just keep that in mind.
Lynn: Yeah. And aside from their motives, what a barrier to being able to have productive settlement conversations. It feels inflammatory. Yeah. I can’t think of a situation where that has ever gone well.
Jaime: Well, and you know, especially if the other side knows that you’ve got your new boyfriend or girlfriend in the room and maybe they think, even if you weren’t, maybe they think you were unfaithful with that person. I mean, that’s going to cause the other side to not want to be very reasonable either.
Lynn: Yeah, and this brings up a good point, which is, as the support person, your relationship to your friend should be known. If it is a romantic relationship, that ought to be made clear, because then that will give the lawyer and their client the ability to talk about how that might impact things moving forward, if that relationship is hidden, that’s not helpful.
Jaime: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I think that a support person in mediation can be a good thing, but likewise, I think that it can be a very bad thing in the wrong case. Yeah. Do you think that there is any risk that a support person could inadvertently be making themselves a witness in the divorce case?
Lynn: Yeah, absolutely. I assume the support person has known their friend or family member for some period of time. And so by that virtue, they probably have insight into the facts of, or some of the facts of the marriage. So they might already be privy to information that could potentially be relevant and make them a witness, but even after separation, or as the spouses are moving through the separation process, the more interaction that that support person has with either or both spouses, the more time they spend with either or both spouse. I mean, they’re still in a situation where they’re learning information firsthand that could be relevant in the event that these spouses end up in court one day. So yeah, they may very well end up as a witness, voluntarily or involuntarily. Right, yeah, I know.
Jaime: I mean, you can’t prevent the other side from sending you a subpoena to show up and testify. I think something folks need to keep in mind is that usually in a divorce case, if it’s in litigation and we are serving discovery, which is where we get to ask the other side to produce documents and information, that one of our questions is typically, any and all correspondence that you have had with any third party about this case, about your children, about your ex-spouse. And so if you are somebody who is a prolific texter or emailer, you need to be mindful about what is going in those communications and who you’re sending them to, because odds are good you’re sending those communications to your support person. And then the lawyer is going to figure out, all right, well, she sends a whole lot of emails and texts to Susie Smith, right? And so then Susie is probably going to be asked to participate in the case in some capacity. Maybe the lawyer wants to take her deposition. Maybe the lawyer just calls her, because the lawyer figures out her phone number and is like, hey, what do you know about this case? And so I think it’s very important to, especially as a support person, because you’re the one thinking clearly, to be very mindful about what you’re putting in writing.
Lynn: Yeah, I tell clients to draft every correspondence as if it’s going to be Exhibit A. You know, a support person is not a client of mine. I’m not their lawyer. I’m not giving them legal advice. But making sure that you would be proud to see what you wrote in front of a judge one day, that’s a good measure of what you ought to write or what you should not write.
Jaime: Are you going to want to read this out loud in court?
Lynn: Exactly. And, you know, sometimes the person who is being supported, even after they’ve communicated with their lawyer in a confidential environment where the attorney-client privilege applies, if they turn around and then go and share that communication, share that email, share that spreadsheet or that proposal to their support person, it’s no longer privileged and it can be discovered. And again, the client is the person to whom I’m given legal advice, not the support person, but I make sure to talk to my clients about that. These confidential communications that you and I have are not confidential if you start sharing them with everybody else.
Jaime: Forward is not your friend in these situations.
Lynn: Yeah, and when I say those things, either the client or the support person gets offended. I can be trusted, and it’s not a matter of trust. It’s a matter of what can be discovered when my client gets your law firm’s discovery asking for all the information that they’ve shared with any third person. So you’ve got to be careful about that.
Jaime: Absolutely. Switching gears a little bit. How do you feel about the support person trying to set their newly separated friend up on dates?
Lynn: I don’t feel good about that at all.
Jaime: Why not?
Lynn: Well, gosh, I mean, there are legal reasons why strategically that might not be the best thing. But then there are also just human being reasons. You’ve just separated from a spouse. And no matter how well you’re handling that, you’re not at your tip top mental health, I mean, no matter how good you are. And it’s not it’s probably not time. It’s probably not best to bounce from your spouse to a rebound. But it’s also a time when two spouses are hopefully trying to negotiate resolutions to things. And it just, you know, just like bringing a significant other to a mediation or to court, you know, it can feel inflammatory and it can hinder the process of good communication between spouses and their lawyers to get some resolution to things.
Jaime: Yeah, and I think too, it can be harmful, especially to custody cases. If you’re fighting over where the children are going to live and with whom, if you are taking your friend out to bars and to meet other people frequently, you might be giving their ex-spouse an argument that can be used against them that they’re somehow unfit or that their priorities are not appropriate, that they’d rather go out and drink it up than take care of the children. And so you just need to be really careful about that.
Lynn: That’s right. And even if that’s not true, a spouse looking for a reason to make a problem, that just gives them a reason. Right. You can avoid that.
Jaime: Can you think of a time when having the support person involved in the case was particularly helpful?
Lynn: Yes, in situations where a client or potential client is particularly distraught. Maybe that person has been in an abusive relationship, emotionally or physically, that person may have a very difficult time, number one, taking steps to protect themselves, getting themselves to their resources, whether that resource is a lawyer or a therapist or a support group or whatever, they may be incredibly depressed. And so I have seen times when those support people are gently prodding the potential client to take care of the things that they need to address. It takes a special person to provide exactly that kind of support, because it really does have to be all about that friend, that person that’s going through the separation and no ego on the part of the support person. But that gentle encouragement to take the steps that they need to take to talk to a lawyer, to talk to a therapist, to start making good decisions and just encouraging them along the way. Those are the times that a support person has been the most helpful. You know, there have been plenty of times where support people have been neutral, right? They don’t make things better or worse and that’s also okay, but when the client really needs that extra help to move forward.
Jaime: No, I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, I think there is this tendency for folks who are getting separated, going through this process to sometimes get stuck and frozen. It’s like paralysis by analysis and they don’t know what to do and so they do nothing. And the support person can be really good at helping them get a little bit unstuck and to participate in the process. I’ve also found that support people can be helpful to the person going through the separation by helping them organize their financial documents. I mean, as lawyers, we ask folks for a lot of paperwork. A lot of it’s electronic now, but we’re still going to call it paperwork. And the support person can be useful at helping them find their information, organize their information and get it to us in a way that helps save them some legal fees, right? Cause we’re not going through a box of receipts that somebody shoved under their bed. We’ve got some nice organized documents that we just have to flip through and read to figure out what we need.
Lynn: Yes, yes, that is incredibly helpful. I have recently had a client who had a friend that was a whiz at Excel, and I received information in the most organized way that I’ve ever received information before. And that’s going to save that client a significant amount of money. And when you’re organizing stuff, That doesn’t give me any concern about attorney-client privilege or documents that are privileged, particularly if it’s financial documents, because those things are just, they’re facts. They’re information that’s going to have to be discussed anyway. So yeah, organizing documents can be huge. And also sometimes people are contemplating separation before they separate. And they’re working on making sure they understand what their assets and debts are before they leave the house. So they might be making copies of things: their tax returns, their bank statements, and you may be called on to safeguard those things, not hide them or destroy them, but to safeguard that information. And that can be a really helpful thing to do when a person is contemplating separation but still living with their spouse. If someone calls on you to do that, my advice is don’t snoop. Act as the person who safeguards.
Jaime: I’ve seen folks also ask their support person to hang on to items with sentimental value. You know, they’re worried that if they tell their spouse they want a separation that certain things that are very important to them are going to be destroyed and they’re things that are irreplaceable, you know, heirlooms, pictures, things like that. And so a lot of times the support person might be called on to hang on to those types of things as well.
Lynn: Yep, yeah, I’ve seen that happen before. And as long as that support person knows that their job is to safeguard those things and not take some action with them, that’s helpful. As a support person, if you’re called on to do something like that, you can certainly help your friend out, but you may also consider that there might be different, better alternatives for the friend. Like maybe they need a safety deposit box, or maybe they need a storage space. You can help your friend think objectively about how to handle these things while they’re contemplating separation that doesn’t really involve you if that makes you uncomfortable.
Jaime: What do you think is the worst thing the support person can do?
Lynn: I think the worst thing that a support person can do is to take on the anger and personality of their client as if this was their case. And we talked a little bit about this already. Everybody has either been through a separation and divorce or knows people who have been through a separation and divorce, and you may have in your head how you think a case or an outcome should look for your support, for the person that you’re supporting. And it may not be remotely possible or relevant, and to take a position of advocacy for something that you don’t even know is possible, doesn’t help. It puts stress on your friend who is having to make decisions and now they’re fighting with you about the decisions that they’re making and fighting with their spouse. You can’t compare your situations, whether it’s yours or your cousin’s or whomever’s. You can’t compare that to the situation that your friend is going through. That dynamic causes legal problems because you just have problems moving forward, but it truly causes the person who’s going through the separation and divorce great emotional distress.
Jaime: Well, you’re increasing the conflict for the person, right? Like, this poor person is already involved in plenty of conflict and by you imposing your own views, you’re just serving to make that conflict even worse for them. If you could only give one piece of advice to someone trying to be supportive of their friend or family member through a divorce, what would it be?
Lynn: To be respectful of your friend’s decisions. It’s their life. If they’re going to settle their case, they’re going to have to make some pretty big decisions. And you may not agree with those decisions, but it’s their decision. And being respectful of that is the most important thing I think that a support person can do.
Jaime: I think that’s great advice. Before we wrap up today, is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you would like to add?
Lynn: Yes. Social media.
Jaime: Ah, yeah. Big one.
Lynn: Yeah, I don’t know why people think that you can say things on social media and nobody ever sees them.
Lynn: Because it’s the opposite of that, but as a support person. Do not go on social media, either at the request of your friend or on your own, and say things about your person’s, your friend’s situation. It’s not going to be helpful. I don’t care what it is. It’s not going to be helpful to the situation. So use discretion. If you’re going to be your friend’s support person, be your friend’s support person and don’t talk about their situation publicly on social media or privately to anybody else.
Jaime: So I think one way that the support person can be helpful on social media, if they happen to be friends with or connections with the other spouse is they can help gather some evidence because usually as soon as folks get separated, you know, one spouse is going to block the other, right? So they’re probably going to lose insight into the social media of their ex. But a lot of times folks forget the friends of their spouse. And so I think in that way they can be helpful with social media.
Lynn: Yeah, happens all the time and it is very helpful. But not posting, just reviewing.
Jaime: Take a screenshot here and there, you know, whatever you need to do. Lynn, if someone listening is interested in reaching out to you for help with their divorce, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
Jaime: Thanks, Lynn, for joining us and thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While this information is intended to provide you with general information to navigate divorce without destruction, this podcast is not legal advice. This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting divorceistough.com. I’m Jamie Davis and I’ll talk with you next time on A Year and a Day.