These Negotiation Tips Just May Keep Your Family Law Matter Out of Court

I’ve been doing this a long time.  I used to think people who fight the most would be the most unlikely to settle—but actually the opposite is true.

When you’re that emotional, you actually have a strong connection to the other person.

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

So usually conflict means there is a connection that allows us to reach an agreement.

More than 90% of our cases are resolved by agreement.

You want to reach an agreement.

It’s the most efficient and constructive method.


ONE.  Use your expertise.  You know your spouse.  Put it to work.  You’ve been negotiating with your spouse for years.  Use that understanding.  Think it through.  You know what buttons to push, so think through what works and what doesn’t work.


TWO.  Cut to the chase to get the deal done.  No take it or leave it offer.  You’ve got to build concessions into your plan. 

Think about your agreement and decide where you want it to end up.  With this in mind, think about a good place to start the negotiation. If you cut to the chase too early, the other person will push you beyond where you can go. You’ll spend a fortune if you negotiate the wrong way. Build concessions into the negotiation.


HW assignment.  Start thinking about the things you know that work and don’t work with your spouse.  IE, for me, if I present my wife with too many options, we’ll end up with indecision.  If I present two places, then, we’ll get somewhere, rather than if we have 6 options. 

By presenting fewer options, we’ll reach agreement faster.

Ultimately, remember that you are already an expert on your spouse. Use this knowledge to your advantage.



  1. Make Your First Offer Your Best Offer.
  2. Present 2 options, not 6.
  3. Leave room for negotiation, everyone has to feel like a winner.
  4. There is never “take it or leave it” in negotiations.
  5. Be prepared to walk away, but no one ever accepts a forced offer.
  6. Understand the psychological interplay—what their stated goals are, and what values and needs are underlying those expressed wishes.
  7. Make a 1-page sheet Asset/Debt list in order to know what you have and what you’re prepared to give on.
  8. Allow people time to ‘mull it over’. Still, know it is better to sign today than to let people endlessly go back and forth. Have a drafted agreement ready to sign,  or have one available online that can be tweaked immediately—capture the moment to get the deal done.
  9. Never hide assets--this will come back to bite you.
  10. Don’t try to sneak something into an agreement and hope they won’t notice.
  11. A negotiation is not the time to discuss the situation that brought about the end of the marriage, unless you think guilt is a useful leverage point.  Keep in mind that angry people rarely settle, so try to avoid provoking the other side.
  12. Let the other side ‘speak’ and tell their side, without your immediate retort. Negotation discussions are cheaper than court, and sometimes parties simply need to feel 'heard'. I’ve seen many agreements fall through because of a snide remark.
  13. The week prior to the negotiation or settlement conference should be a time of calm and reflection.  If you get in a fight in the parking lot two days before, this does not bode well for the settlement conference.
  14. Don’t be afraid to share your fears. For instance, feel free to say, “If I give you over 50% of my income, I really don’t know how I’m going to afford to live. There has to be another way to reach the goal you are after here.”  Acknowledge the fear—without getting angry.
  15. Take breaks.  If things get tense, take a lap around the office, get a cup of coffee, stretch the legs and get creative with the counteroffer.
  16. Each ‘mood’ of a negotiation is different, but when possible, reiterate the positives of the other person as a parent, or a provider, or for the life you shared up to this point.  Keep it sentimentally respectful where possible.  Other times, use humor.  You’ll probably have a combination of emotions at different points—that’s normal.
  17. When giving an offer, be logical, caring, but not overly emotional. Don’t seem desperate or too eager.  Remain calm. Offer suggestions—not final offers.
  18. Use a white board. As progress is made check items off to keep momentum.  If you get stuck say, “Let’s come back to it.”
  19. Get the deal done—remain focused on the real goal, not one-upmanship.
H. Van Smith
Trusted Virginia Family Law Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg