An interview with Ilyssa Panitz, first published at https://medium.com/authority-magazine/divorce-coach-maria-akopyan-5-things-you-need-to-know-to-survive-and-thrive-after-a-divorce-6f6982fc1f84
Divorce changes, even strengthens, you. It can feel like rock bottom for many. However, the beauty of these major life changes is that it has a potential to be the biggest catalyst for your growth. All challenges serve to make you better and stronger if you allow it to.
I compare divorce to boxing. Two sides on opposite sides of ring, putting on their gloves to do battle. If you watch the sport you know that in real life, the champion is declared after the match ends and there’s one person left standing. However, with divorce, the longer you keep fighting your opponent and take swings, the more you lose.
Rule #1 in divorce, there are no winners! This is a scene that has played out one too many times for Attorney and Divorce Coach Maria Akopyan. Her mantra is, “Rock bottom will teach you lessons that mountain tops never will.” Divorce is one of the major adjustments that will dramatically alter your life emotionally, mentally, financially and spiritually because everything you once knew will be shifted in a different direction. But just because your divorce will change the landscape does not mean your situation is hopeless. Divorce is also a great time to revamp, reshape and regroup.
Ilyssa Panitz: Can you please give me the 4–1–1 on you?
Maria Akopyan: My family and I emigrated from Armenia to the United States, Los Angeles specifically, when I was ten months old. Growing up, I witnessed my parents work tirelessly to provide for our family. They managed to create a lifestyle where we were comfortable overall. They made ends meet but lived paycheck to paycheck. Having seen their struggles in this new country, starting from zero essentially, I was determined to take the foundation that my parents provided and create a life that I could be proud of. I decided to pursue law during my senior year in high school with the goal of becoming an attorney, I attended and graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. Thereafter, I went to law school and become a licensed attorney in the State of California.
Ilyssa Panitz:What lead you on this specific career path?
Maria Akopyan: My original passion and career plan was to become a therapist. I absolutely love psychology, studying the human condition and understanding what makes people tick. However, somewhere along the way, I decided to pursue a career in law because I wanted to make a difference in society by advocating for justice, fairness, and equality. I had my biggest personal transformation during law school. During that time, my self-esteem was at an all- time low, particularly triggered by the relationship struggles I experienced. Wanting to better myself, I was heavily immersed into the personal development realm. I was actively working on improving myself through various healing modalities such as yoga, meditation, hypnotherapy, emotional freedom technique, neurolinguistic programming and studying the law of attraction. Quickly, I became unrecognizable. People who knew me previously were astonished by my newly found confidence, tenacity, and positivity. As a result of my transformation, doors opened-up for me personally and professionally. I met my now husband while in law school, I landed legal internships with major companies out of 600 applicants, earned awards and achieved highly regarded accolades. It was as though I had the Midas touch! I needed to teach others the ways they too could overcome their hardships and transform into their best selves.
Ilyssa Panitz: Why did you get interested in life coaching?
Maria Akopyan: I first heard about life coaching after I graduated law school. It was a newly budding industry that was starting to gain recognition at the time, although many were still unfamiliar with it. I was immediately intrigued because I viewed life coaching as the perfect opportunity to put my innate skills and emotional intelligence into practice by guiding and supporting others to create a life they only dreamed of. I therefore enrolled into a coach certification program through the Coach Training Alliance and became a certified life coach in 2015. As a life coach, I worked with private clients virtually on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Being my ambitious self, I also decided to go back to school to study marriage and family therapy. However, after developing a new business and completing one full year of the MFT program, I had to put everything on hold. During that time, I was also planning a wedding, buying a house with my now husband and settling down into our new lives. With all that I was doing, I decided to redirect my focus and solely invest my time into practicing law. The one area of law that appealed to me the most during law school was family law. Many shy away from this practice area because of the intense emotions and challenging personal and familial situations it involves. Not only are the individuals suffering, the process also directly affects their children. I, on the other hand, appreciate the challenges that the field presents, because it takes a certain type of person to be able to manage the emotional struggles that the clients are experiencing due to their worlds completely changing. My empathetic and compassionate nature, coupled with my legal knowledge and therapeutic background, allowed me to be a comforting confidant for my clients.
Ilyssa Panitz: What made you made you start Dignified Divorce Coaching?
Maria Akopyan: I started Dignified Divorce Coaching because I wanted to fill a void that I noticed in the practice of law. Divorce is a complicated process, not only legally but also financially and especially emotionally. Often-times, clients need emotional support due to the emotionally triggering nature of their divorce and look to me to act as their therapist. However, my job as their attorney is to represent their legal issues and guide them as best as possible to the extent they are legally entitled. Through Dignified Divorce Coaching, I help women on many levels. Not only do I clarify the legal process and help them make empowered decisions on all family issues; I also coach them on becoming aligned with their core values, as well as developing healthy practices to heal during and after divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: As the creator of Dignified Divorce Coaching, how much can someone save by going this route?
Maria Akopyan: According to Martindale-Nolo Research, the average cost of legal fees for a divorce in California is around $17,500 for a divorcing spouse with no children and around $26,000 for a divorcing spouse with children. It’s hard to calculate or guarantee an exact amount that someone will save by coaching with me because each case is different. Some divorcing couples may have complicated issues that need to be paced through while other circumstances are simple and more straight forward. However, I have helped clients save $5,000 or more in legal fees by coaching with me. Through our work together, clients can do a lot of the preparation and strategizing before starting the divorce process or hiring an attorney. Instead of relying solely on their attorney who charges $300-$450 every hour, they already have the necessary documents ready, a clear plan of action with a win-win strategy, and approach the divorce process as a business transaction without letting their emotions dictate their decisions. By already having done the leg work in advance, clients mainly have their attorneys implement the plan or conduct little legal work thus significantly saving thousands of dollars in fees. Also, some clients choose to represent themselves in their divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz:What are the benefits of going Pro Se?
Maria Akopyan: The beauty of divorce coaching is that I can help those who may not afford to hire an attorney in the first place. These individuals do not have a significant marital estate but need guidance on their approach to the various legal issues. In these cases, I help them understand how things work legally, what they can expect at each stage, brainstorm a reasonable settlement strategy as well as help them prepare for any court hearings if necessary. In all, the work I do helps clients save thousands of dollars that they otherwise would have spent for an attorney to handle for them.
Ilyssa Panitz: Why do divorces send some people into debt and what can be done to avoid that?
Maria Akopyan: For one, divorcing couples can no longer enjoy the benefit of having two incomes to manage one household. Each party is forced to manage their own separate households during and after divorce. Often-times, one’s income is not enough to cover his or her monthly expenses including any preexisting debt. On top of trying to manage a separate household on one income source, people also incur thousands of dollars in legal fees as well. After the initial retainer amount is used up, lawyers bill monthly until the case is finalized. If clients cannot pay their monthly legal fees, lawyers can obtain a lien against the client’s property as security to ensure they are compensated for their legal services.
Ilyssa Panitz: How should one finally prepare to go through a divorce?
Maria Akopyan: If the individual already knows he or she is getting a divorce, what helps is to open a separate checking and savings account and put aside money for legal and professional fees prior to filing. Planning in advance helps to lessen the debt that divorce tends to cause because a divorcing spouse is not forced to sign an agreement that either places them at a financial disadvantage or leaves them with a mountain of legal bills to try to pay in the end.
Ilyssa Panitz: If a woman comes to you (an attorney) and wants a divorce, what should she be prepared to have with her other than her reasons for wanting out of the marriage?
Maria Akopyan: It depends on what stage she comes to see me. If a potential client is ready to start their divorce, it helps for me to see certain financial documents and paperwork. Given that divorce deals with finances, whether dividing assets and debts and/or determining support, the divorcing couple’s financial records are very important. There is a stage during the divorce proceeding where both sides are obliged to exchange financial documents as part of their required financial disclosure process. For the purposes of the initial consultation, some documents I review include the parties’ tax returns for the past three-years, paycheck stubs, and W-2 forms, among others. In the event the potential client meets with me to discuss representation after her husband has already filed, I need to see the paperwork she was served with so that I can prepare a response to the Petition for Dissolution. Additionally, if there is any history of domestic violence or other court proceedings, I tend to review those documents as well since it helps to understand the spousal dynamics and history of the case. What I also tell clients is that they need to have the right mindset and attitude. If they plan on using their divorce to make life miserable for their soon-to-be-ex spouse, that will only make the process more complicated, not to mention expensive and time-consuming. Having an attitude and mindset that seeks to do what is fair and reasonable makes for a much better divorce experience.
Ilyssa Panitz: When a woman is going through a divorce, what areas does she tend to spend and waste the most time and money?
Maria Akopyan: From my experience, what causes both men and women to spend time and money unnecessarily is due to their lack of understanding of the legal process, failure to actively participate in the divorce process and/or unwillingness to reach a reasonable settlement. Often-times, people jump into divorce without having done any pre-planning or research. They rely heavily on their attorneys to guide them through every step and decision-making process. What tends to happen is that attorneys such as myself chase our clients for them to provide necessary documents and information. Everything we do is billed by the minute which quickly adds up when we must continuously ask clients to give us what we need. Another example is when a client vents to her attorney about the emotional difficulties she is experiencing. Divorce is an emotional process. However, an attorney can only advocate for the client’s legal rights and work towards getting them what they are legally entitled to or as best of an outcome as possible. Attorneys are not usually trained to handle emotional aspects. Many are empathetic and compassionate, but rather than having their attorney bill them by the hour for simply lending an ear, the better use of that time and money is to work with a therapist or coach, someone who is trained in helping them cope emotionally. A related issue is also when emotions override the decision-making process. I often see clients let their emotions dictate the terms of their divorce. When emotions are not processed and handled properly before or during the divorce, it can lead to constant fighting or inability to reach a reasonable settlement that both parties can live with. The more the divorcing couple fights, the more attorneys collect in fees. When people take the emotions out of the equation, they make more rational decisions that lead to a better outcome.
Ilyssa Panitz: At some point a couple in the middle of a divorce will have to divide their money, finances, and assets. Why should women get the idea out of their head, “I am going to take him for everything” and men should get the idea out of their head, “She ain’t getting squat?”
Maria Akopyan: Well for one, this creates a high-conflict divorce which will ultimately become very expensive and lengthy. Often-times, I have seen parties go in and out of court to fight over every detail. Not only do they fail to reach a reasonable settlement, but they are also likely to continue going to court even after the final divorce decree is entered. Contrary to what people may believe, divorce is not always final. People can go back to court if there has been a change of circumstances. Sadly, I have had legal clients that hit a breaking point, feeling beyond exhausted from fighting, that they were willing to give up everything simply to be done. In addition to spending tens of thousands of dollars in fees and possibly fighting for years, if the couple has children, it is this type of attitude that hurts their children and damages the family. Children are the ones ultimately affected the most from divorce their lives are completely transformed without having any control over the matter. When mom and dad are constantly at each other’s throats, children are likely to experience adverse effects on their mental health, difficulty adjusting during the transition, struggles in school and future relationships as well as low self-esteem. This is true whether it happens before, during or after divorce, I tell clients that rather than using their divorce in an attempt to compensate for any perceived wrongs perpetuated by their spouses, it’s better to focus their energy inward and work on healing themselves instead. This includes shifting their perspective from one of scarcity triggered by fear to an abundance mindset that believes a win-win solution is possible. Ultimately, how one approaches their divorce determines how the process will unfold for them.
Ilyssa Panitz: How has your background in therapy and as, a life coach helped you work with your clients who are going through a divorce?
Maria Akopyan: As a life coach, I help clients clarify their goals and create a plan of action to get them from where they are to where they want to be. Similarly, my training in marriage and family therapy has provided me tools and techniques for working with individuals as it relates to their family systems and dynamics. The modalities I learned come in handy when working through challenging interpersonal and intrapersonal issues. Both through life coaching and training in therapy, I can create a safe and judgment-free space for clients as we work together to process emotions and shift perspectives. This allows them to feel supported during their difficult time. I believe everyone has their own inner wisdom and connecting with this knowing is often what will guide them towards making the best decisions for themselves and their families. During sessions, I ask important questions to try to elicit the client’s inner wisdom and offer ways to heighten their self-awareness. This background meshes very well with the divorce coaching I do because it provides a holistic approach to the process. Addressing legal issues are only one aspect of the totality of the divorce experience. While other attorneys focus only on legal issues and advocate for the client’s position, I help clients also deal with the emotional impact of divorce. By coaching together, clients are equipped with tools to reach an agreement with their ex-spouses amicably and with clarity. Through divorce coaching, clients have strategies and a clear plan that their attorney or mediator can implement. The work they do on themselves using my coaching techniques is invaluable for also creating a new identity and building a bright new future post-divorce.
Ilyssa Panitz: How do you assist and inspire women who are going through a divorce to get to the other side and still walk away smiling from the ordeal?
Maria Akopyan: It has been said that divorce is 20% legal and financial but 80% emotional. The work I do with my divorce coaching clients is to provide the legal assistance for them to move through the process with ease, but I also focus on the 80%. Clients walk away smiling from the ordeal when they can reach a reasonable settlement smoothly and quickly. However, part of doing that is to also work on one’s mindset and emotional regulation. My coaching program is structured in a way that helps clients develop a clear roadmap for their divorce, so they experience less confusion and frustration, while also learning to develop a resilient mindset. Part of this involves shifting their mindset from one of lack and scarcity, fear-based thinking, to one that is more abundant and optimistic. I empower clients with tools to overcome their fears and eliminate or reduce their negative thinking about their divorce, their future and about themselves. This positive shift in outlook helps people see their ordeal as a blessing in disguise and an opportunity to build a new life that is more aligned with their values. By focusing on the client’s strengths, possibilities, and ways of connecting with herself, the client walks away with a new identity after her divorce. I enjoy seeing clients unlock their potential by opening-up to new ways of showing up in the world.
Ilyssa Panitz: Why will women become a better version of themselves once the dust settles?
Maria Akopyan: Divorce changes, even strengthens, you. It can feel like rock bottom for many. However, the beauty of these major life changes is that it has a potential to be the biggest catalyst for your growth. All challenges serve to make you better and stronger if you allow it to.
Ilyssa Panitz: As the saying goes, the sun will shine again!
Maria Akopyan: When the dust settles, you can look back at your marriage and see from a new lens of what worked and what did not. This contrast helps you refine what you will and will not tolerate moving forward. Many often realize they had abandoned themselves, were living on autopilot and were not in alignment with their core values. Uncovering these insights and learning to set boundaries takes courage. It also builds character and confidence. Through self-awareness and reflection, you can take ownership of your life and start living it on your own terms. Similarly, I have seen many women become more confident from having gone through the divorce process. At first, they were filled with fear, doubt, worry and stress, believing that they would never get to the other side. However, when they do get to the other side and the dust settles, they gain a sense of confidence for having successfully completed that difficult phase of their lives.
Ilyssa Panitz: How is child support and alimony structured where you practice law?
Maria Akopyan: In California, child support is determined by a statewide guideline calculation. This formula considers several factors including income of the parents and the amount of time each parent has physical custody of the child(ren). Based on the outcome of the guideline calculation, the court sets the amount in an order for child support. The order typically lasts until the child turns 18 years old. There are a few exceptions to this rule. If the child is still a full-time high school student and lives with a parent, then the support terminates when the child turns 19 or graduates from high school, whichever occurs first. Other exceptions include child support terminating if a child marries, joins the military, is emancipated, or dies. As for alimony, also called spousal support, this process is a bit more complex. Spousal support is not guaranteed, and the court has tremendous amount of discretion whether to award spousal support or not. It is determined on a case-by-case basis, considering many different factors. It is gender neutral and either spouse can request it.
Ilyssa Panitz: Why?
Maria Akopyan: The premise is that one spouse needs the support, and the higher earning spouse can provide it. When requested, the court will look at both party’s income and calculate an amount based on several factors, such as the earning capacity of the parties in maintaining the marital standard of living; the supported party’s marketable skills; the length of the marriage; the supporting party’s ability to pay; tax consequences; hardships to both party, and other factors. If an award is granted, how long the payments last depend on the type of spousal support. The different types of support offered in California are temporary, rehabilitative, and permanent support. Temporary support is to cover the living expenses during the divorce process for the lower earning spouse and lasts from the date it is requested until the divorce is finalized. Rehabilitative support is awarded when there is a disparity in income with one spouse earning more than the other. This type of support lasts until the lower earning spouse becomes self-supporting. Permanent spousal support is typically reserved for spouses ending a long-term marriage of ten or more years where one spouse cannot enter the workforce due to advanced age or illness. This lasts until the supported spouse remarries or party dies. In addition, California has a unique rule that allows a spouse to request reimbursement for funds that he or she used during marriage to finance the other’s education or career advancement training. The above is a general framework for how child support and alimony work in California. Of course, the parties can negotiate around anything and set their own amounts of support so long as they both agree to the terms.
Ilyssa Panitz: What if the husband, who is the monied spouse does not meet his monthly obligations. Are there repercussions?
Maria Akopyan: Yes. When one spouse is ordered to pay child and/or spousal support but fails to meet his/her obligations, the other has options on what to do. If support payments are repeatedly not paid, the supported spouse can have a wage garnishment instated to include the monthly amount plus an additional amount to cover the arrearages. For spousal support, any arrearages automatically accrue interest at 10% each year.
Ilyssa Panitz: Anything else?
Maria Akopyan: Other repercussions for non-payment of support include: tax refunds being seized, liens placed on supporting spouse’s real estate and bank accounts and, in the most extreme case, a court can charge the individual with being in contempt of court thereby ordering jail time. If the spouse who is obligated is unable to meet the ordered support payments due to changes in income or circumstances, it is in his or her best interest to request that the court modify the support amount.
Ilyssa Panitz: What if there was abuse in her marriage does that change the playing field?
Maria Akopyan: It very likely can. California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that incidents of domestic violence will not affect the grounds for divorce; however, the abusive behavior of a spouse can impact the proceedings in other ways. For example, if there is a history of domestic violence or a restraining order in effect, it is more difficult for the spouses to try to negotiate a settlement on their own without lawyers acting as intermediaries. The restraining order requires the abuser to stay away from the abused spouse and/or the children. Although both spouses have the right to stay in the family home, which is typically considered community property, the restraining order also prevents the abusive spouse from living in the home with the abused spouse. Domestic violence also impacts the abusive spouse’s ability to receive spousal support. California has a rebuttable presumption that a person convicted of domestic violence within five years of the dissolution of the marriage will not be entitled to receive spousal support. In some cases, this can have a major financial impact for one or both spouses.
Ilyssa Panitz: A big complaint I hear over and over is the amount of time it takes to get a divorce. In Los Angeles where you practice, is there a range of how long/on average it takes to get a divorce?
Maria Akopyan: The length of time it takes to get divorce depends on the type of divorce proceeding and how contentious or complex the issues are in the case. At a very minimum, divorces take six months to finalize in California due to its six months waiting period. This is when both parties amicably work together, reach a settlement quickly, or the divorce is uncontested. This length of time is also likely for simple divorce cases with few assets and debts to divide and no child custody issues. In my experience, most divorces usually take one or two years, sometimes longer. Not only does it depend on the parties’ willingness to reach a settlement, but it also depends on the court’s calendar and when they have hearing and trial dates available. Nowadays with the Covid-19 pandemic, courts are very impacted, and divorces are moving forward at an even slower pace. To note, even when a divorce judgment is entered, parties do continue going to court to seek modifications to orders. Sometimes this fighting continues for years thereafter.
Ilyssa Panitz: Given your background as a life coach, therapist, and lawyer, what do you say to your clients who feel like the storm is never going to pass?
Maria Akopyan: When people are in the depths of their crisis, i.e. divorce, it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is so much uncertainty, pressure, fear, and confusion that it is hard to have a positive outlook. For clients struggling with the storm, I help them develop a resilient mindset. What I mean is that I guide clients towards shifting into a more positive perspective where they can trust that their challenges are temporary; that everything they experience is meant to help them grow. I reassure them that the storm of divorce is only one phase, one chapter, in the grand scheme of their life. It helps to trust the process even if they don’t know why it is happening or what will happen next.
Ilyssa Panitz: What are 5 things someone needs to know to survive and thrive after the divorce?
Maria Akopyan: One: Grieve the loss of the marriage. With any major loss comes a grieving period. The grieving is triggered by loss of a partner, loss of the hopes and dreams for the future or how things “should have been,” loss of security, stability, and life as you know it. By allowing yourself to grieve the end of the marriage and all that is lost, you can move through the emotions and towards recovery. I encourage people to understand that grieving is a normal part of the process. It is okay to have ups and downs. Rather than suppressing the range of emotions that surface, it helps to give yourself permission to express the emotions. All emotions are like waves that come and go. Two: Treat the process of divorce as a business transaction. All too often, I deal with clients who are emotionally invested in their divorce. They want to make their soon-to-be-ex miserable and avenge all misgivings from the marriage through the divorce. These individuals refuse to compromise, are constantly filing motions to drag the other to court and want more than what is fair to exact revenge. On the other hand, some are too distraught from the divorce that they lack any participation in the case, are frozen with indecision and are in denial altogether. By treating divorce like a business transaction, it is easier to stay focused on what is most important. If there are children, they must come first. It breaks my heart to see parents use their children as a pawn in the battle. The children are the ones who hurt the most in those cases. Three: Take responsibility. What I mean by this is to take ownership of your actions, behaviors and emotions during the marriage and divorce. It is a humbling experience to look at the ways in which you contributed to the breakdown of the marriage, without any judgment or finding fault. Doing this allows you to find emotional freedom, as you no longer give your power away by placing all the blame on your soon-to-be-ex or considering yourself to be a victim. These beliefs will only serve to keep you stuck in the past and feeling powerless. Instead, when you take full responsibility for your past, present and future, you move forward with strength and confidence. Four: Look for the lesson. With every challenge, there is a silver lining. Hardships tend to bring unexpected gifts if you are open to seeing them. These gifts are in the form of lessons and realizations. They may not be obvious or automatic but finding and embracing them can significantly help to recover from the adversity. I like to say that the people who hurt you the most are your greatest teachers. They reflect to you your imperfections, emotional wounds, and blocks. They reveal your patterns, beliefs, and actions that may have prevented you from being your best self. By being your mirrors, they push you to face these issues to become more fully you. This self-awareness is powerful, because you can make more empowered choices in the way you show up moving forward. Five: Reconnect with yourself. Divorce gives you an opportunity to focus on yourself, to soothe your body and soul. Although the loneliness may feel isolating initially, it is a good time to focus on your own needs and rediscover what makes you happy. You are in control of your time. I suggest doing the things you loved to do that maybe you have not done in years. Focus on the things that bring you joy and allow yourself to indulge. You may even find new hobbies or passions that light you up. This is the time to give yourself the undivided love and attention that you crave.