Should I Tell My Divorce Attorney About My Affair?

Sad wife sitting on a couch at home with a broken pictureHow are divorce attorneys like bartenders and hairstylists? We often get to hear secrets our clients don’t share with most other people. But unlike bartenders and hairstylists, hearing secrets—or not hearing them—can affect our ability to do our jobs well.

You might share a secret with your bartender because you’ve been seeing him every week for years, and you know he won’t judge you. You may let information slip to your stylist because she’s a good listener and will probably never meet the people you’re talking about. In contrast, most people don’t have a long-standing relationship with their divorce attorney, and the divorce attorney will almost certainly meet the other main character in the drama at hand. Perhaps most of all, people need their divorce attorney to do a good job for them. They may worry that if their lawyer knows about the things they themselves have done wrong, it may weaken their case. But that logic is flawed.

Why You Should Tell Your Attorney About Your Affair

It’s human nature to want others to think well of you. It’s also natural to believe that someone will be willing to fight harder for you if they believe you are a good person. And you may think that if you have had an affair (or did something else that might not reflect well on you), you attorney won’t work as hard on your behalf. But that’s simply not true. Your attorney is ethically obligated to give you zealous representation whether you’re a saint, a sinner, or, like most people, a combination of both.

In order for that representation to be effective, however, your attorney needs to understand the true facts that he or she is working with. You are paying your attorney to do two things: advise you and advocate for you. Your attorney cannot give you good advice or effective advocacy based on false or incomplete information.

It’s as if you went to your doctor and didn’t tell the truth about smoking, drug use, or other habits. Your doctor might give you medical advice that was easier to hear, but that ultimately wouldn’t address your problems. Just as a medical condition can get worse if you don’t give your doctor the information needed to treat it, a potential legal problem can become more severe if it comes to your attorney’s attention later than it should—especially if the attorney is blindsided by the information in court. Your attorney can’t protect you from dangers he or she doesn’t know about.

How Telling Your Attorney Your Secret Helps You Both

It may not be ideal to have a secret like an affair to deal with in your divorce. But if your attorney knows what is going on, he or she can let you know how that fact is likely to affect your legal case, and what you can do to minimize negative consequences.

Once you tell your attorney the truth about what is going on, you will probably be surprised to learn that you feel a little better. For one thing, you will learn that your attorney isn’t going to reject you and throw you out of the office after your disclosure. More importantly, you won’t have to carry the burden of your “secret” alone anymore, worrying that it will come out and ruin everything. Instead, your attorney can help you strategize with the real facts of your case in mind.

You may not like everything you hear. For instance, in Michigan, even with no-fault divorce, fault in the breakdown of the marriage is a factor considered in spousal support calculations. It’s possible that if spousal support is awarded in your case, you might have to pay more, or receive less, because of an affair. But knowing that is a possibility can help your attorney develop other options, such as reaching a settlement on the issue of spousal support, so that it doesn’t need to come before a judge.

Remember, your attorney is on your side, no matter how imperfect your facts are. It may also help to remember that you are not the only person to ever walk into a divorce attorney’s office with a secret you are embarrassed by or ashamed of. People are imperfect. They make mistakes. It’s likely that whatever you have done, your attorney has heard worse. We can work with difficult fact patterns. It’s much harder to work with a client who doesn’t trust us enough to tell us the truth.

If you are worried about walking into a divorce attorney’s office and having to disclose an affair, the most important first step you can take is to choose an attorney you trust. Then tell him or her the truth (the whole truth), and let your attorney guide you from there.