Stephanie Lehman is here to help you sever your most intimate business partnership — your marriage. The matrimonial and family lawyer, a partner at Phillips Nizer LLP, has guided New York’s elite through the messy divorce process for over 20 years, but you probably know her as the attorney representing Marilee Fiebig in her split from former Good Morning America host T.J. Holmes.
The Cut spoke with Lehman about seeing couples through to the end of their marriages and her advice for those who want to make relationships work — including the importance of having uncomfortable conversations about finances before mismatched expectations spiral out into irreconcilable differences. When it comes to divorce, Lehman says, it takes “two to tango,” and while one spouse might be quick to blame another, when you dig deeper, you generally find that “both of them contributed” to the demise of the relationship. “I’m not justifying affairs,” says Lehman, “but what was the root of the issue?”
You’ve been practicing family law for 20 years. After working with so many couples, what would you advise people to discuss before they get marry?
A lot of the time, couples are afraid to discuss taboo issues like finances and whether or not a spouse would stop working after a child is born, as well as expectations in general. Where do they see their marriage going, and where do they plan on living? Should they have a prenuptial agreement? Some of these questions sound obvious, but they often don’t come up in conversation. Say a spouse-to-be owns a piece of real estate the other spouse is moving into. They should discuss what would happen to that home and the equity in it if they happen to divorce while living there. Those conversations often don’t happen, causing a lot of resentment later on: Oh, you never said that. You never told me that. How was I supposed to know this is how you felt? I don’t feel the same way.
What are the most common reasons couples seek divorce?
In my experience, the root of what really drives people to end marriages typically has to do with financial mismanagement: overspending by one particular spouse; a spouse who was an earner who no longer is one; a spouse who is the earner and feels they have to support a lifestyle. It sounds silly, like, you created this, right? But it’s hard to get out of that lifestyle once it’s created, and you see it a lot. Why am I continuing to support them? I can’t sustain this lifestyle and I don’t want to. I also sometimes hear, My spouse doesn’t respect me or get me; the “grass is always greener” kind of story. And then you have super-successful women who didn’t marry as successful a partner and are resentful.
Walk me through the process of advising clients.
I’ll start off with a consultation to understand whether I’m the right attorney for them. Clients have to feel comfortable, because they’re going to be divulging lots of personal and financial information. They also have to be open and honest, because I can’t do the best job for them without all the facts. Assuming I’m retained, we start creating a road map. What are your assets? What are your budgetary needs? How many houses do you maintain? What are your goals and expectations? How generous — or not generous — do you want to be? We go through all of that, but the most important document guiding New York lawyers is the statement of net worth.
Tracing back where the relationship went wrong sounds like an emotional process. How do you manage it?
There are two types of clients. You have the ones who divulge way too much information and see you as their therapist. Then there are clients who are cryptic, who don’t want to admit there’s an affair and just want to cut to the chase of the money. New York is a no-fault state, so it doesn’t even matter why the marriage broke down, except in rare situations where it might affect custody, like abuse or alcoholism. Otherwise it’s not relevant.
I always have to guide clients accordingly and say, I’m not trying to be insensitive; I want you to feel comfortable. You can tell me your story, but if you think you’re going to get any more money because your husband cheated on you, likely not. When the process ends, I hope all my clients are able to move on, whether they want a healthy relationship with another person or to be single.
How often do you see couples seek divorce because of infidelity?
I do get calls like My husband’s gone to the local massage parlor way too many times and I found it on our credit-card bills, what’s going on here? But no judge is going to sit up on the bench and draw a negative inference against a cheater and award the spouse who was dedicated to the marriage any more money because of it.
When you’re dating, knowing a person’s dating history is important — how many relationships they’ve had, the length of those relationships, the reasons they ended. If there’s cheating in their past, my antenna would go up if I were in the dating scene. Could he do it to me? But marriage is for love and about taking chances. You’re at your best — Oh my God, I’m engaged, I’m getting married — you never think it’s going to end. No one goes in thinking their spouse will cheat on them.
As a divorce attorney, what leapt out to you as red flags back when you were dating?
I’m happily married and have three children, but I was so jaded by the process and being a matrimonial lawyer. I was careful and scrutinized everything, because you see so many bad things that can happen. The stuff I’ve seen is mind-boggling, and it took me a while to wrap my head around the fact that I could be happy in a marriage. I once dated a guy who was married, unbeknownst to me. I had just started my own practice, and he was only meeting me for coffee midday. I finally called him out on it, and he spilled his guts to me: I couldn’t string you along anymore. I know you’re a divorce lawyer. I’m in an unhappy marriage. So, ta-ta! When there are guys who won’t commit, you have to ask yourself why not? Some men thought I was too successful, and it wasn’t what they wanted.
How do you advise your clients to set emotion aside when tensions are running high and look at the bigger picture?
I usually talk dollars with them, because the more emotions they have, the more counsel fees they’ll end up having to pay, so I try to get them to understand that this is now a partnership that’s severed. It’s a business deal; there are two sides to the ledger, and we have to leave out the emotion. If there are children involved, I try dealing with custodial issues first, because they’re usually the most emotionally charged issues in the marriage. If we get a custodial arrangement in place, a lot of the time the financial components fall into place after.
Do you ever advise clients who still want the marriage to survive?
I tell those types of clients when they call me, Look, try to encourage your spouse to go to marriage counseling. If you’re not there yet, explain why you’re not there. But in the end, you can’t stop your spouse from filing for divorce. It only takes one party to make that happen, and it’s not a consensual thing. You hope that both parties are on the same page about the marriage being over, but many times it’s a surprise. That complaint is filed and served, and that spouse is caught completely off guard, but there’s nothing you can really do about it. It’s over. There’s no point, and it’s your dignity, too.
You represent a lot of high-net-worth individuals. What is it like divorcing in the public eye?
Filings are confidential, and I know sometimes they aren’t, but they’re supposed to be. It doesn’t help children or the parties move on when divorces are public, and most aren’t. That’s another reason prenups are valuable. Say one party is a partner in a law firm. You want to protect your partners and partnership, and in a divorce that partnership agreement and capital account and what the spouse has invested in their firm are all relevant. If I had a prenup and I put a bubble around my separate property, I’ve now protected my separate partners and I’m avoiding putting outsiders into my marriage.
What are the most surprising things you’ve learned about relationships?
I’ve been surprised how financially naïve partners can be about how their spouses make money. They’ll come to me and say, We live in this grand NYC apartment and my kids go to private school, but I have no idea where the money is or how bills get paid. He hands me money every week and I use it. Both parties should have full and open disclosure about assets and liabilities, what they want to preserve as individuals or contribute to a joint pot. Absolutely discuss your expectations for marriage, like if a spouse plans to stop working after a baby and whether there might be resentment over staying out of the workforce for a long time. No one has a crystal ball and there are many unknowns. But the more you discuss those big, broad topics that impact the little issues, the stronger and healthier marriage you will have.