News & Politics

Millennials Are Now Getting Their Parents to Handle Their Divorces

Illustration by Tomi Um

Lisa,* a mother of two in Montgomery County, initially didn’t want to involve her parents in her divorce. It’s easy to see why.

“My husband was seeing prostitutes, and not for run-of-the-mill stuff,” the 42-year-old explains. “It was stuff I had to Google.”

But ultimately, she needed them. Her parents loaned her $175,000 to cover legal costs and other expenses, such as renting a new place to live. They helped her build her case—including enlisting her dad to photocopy ads she’d discovered for 30 different prostitutes who had been with her husband. “That saved me like $2,000 in attorneys’ fees, doing the copies ourselves,” she says.

As Lisa logged her husband’s philandering—which she tracked for more than a year by keeping tabs on his internet use, phone records, and ATM withdrawals—she e-mailed the chronicles to her mother for safekeeping: “My mom knows everything.”

One other way her parents were involved: They both accompanied her to meet with her attorney.

Washington divorce lawyers say that’s not unusual—many report dealing with more moms and dads than ever before, seeing or speaking with clients’ parents as frequently as every week. Sheila Kadagathur, a partner at Hostetter Strent, recalls a recent client in her thirties talking in detail about her sex life with her mother present.

In some cases, parents have a financial stake and want to be kept apprised of the legal strategy. In others, they get involved purely to offer support and guidance. Among clients in their twenties, thirties, and even early forties, attorneys say they’re observing a changing dynamic, with adult children depending on, and confiding in, their parents more than prior generations did.

“Years ago, you would virtually never see a parent with a client,” says Sandy Ain, name partner at Ain & Bank, who has practiced family law for 40 years. “In the last ten years, it’s become considerably more prevalent.” In fact, Ain says he missed this reporter’s first call because he was on the phone with a concerned father.

Better technology plays a role. It’s simply easier for family members to stay in constant touch. But those who study parent/child relationships also offer other hypotheses about what has led to the shift.

Carol Sigelman, a developmental psychologist who chairs the psychology department at George Washington University, observes that as young adults take longer to achieve full independence—due to the economy, remaining in school longer to earn advanced degrees, and other factors—their parents are staying healthier and more active. The result? A turn away from the old model in which middle-aged kids were already caring for aging parents: “I think maybe there’s a shift right now toward more help going from the parents’ generation to the adult children.”

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult and former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, says with regard to children in their twenties and thirties—i.e., millennials—parental involvement in divorce is “a logical extension” of what she witnessed among college students. “The parents felt they had to be there at every turn—‘I have to talk to authority figures on your behalf; I have to edit your papers,’ ” she recalls of her time at Stanford from 1998 to 2012.

She traces the dynamic to trends that took root in the ’80s. This was the dawn of “stranger danger”—“We’ve taught them throughout childhood not to talk to strangers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t know how to advocate for themselves.” It was also the advent of “self-esteem culture,” the idea that kids should be constantly praised. Lythcott-Haims says some of her students consequently couldn’t cope even with minor setbacks, such as getting a B on a paper.

Of course, the failure of a marriage—unlike a failing test grade—is often a real crisis, and in many cases a close relationship with a parent is vital.

Last year, Jeannine Ellis found herself, at age 36, enduring a second divorce, with a young son and a newborn daughter. She chokes up when she talks about how grateful she is for her parents’ help. Despite their strict Catholic upbringing, Ellis says her mom and dad never judged her for ending either marriage: “They’re willing to bend their idea of what’s right to make sure I’m happy.”

When her first husband dodged child-support payments, Ellis recalls, her dad was her biggest cheerleader, encouraging her to go after her ex as aggressively as possible: “He thinks that I’m not assertive enough in that capacity, that I need to make sure I ask for the right things. He doesn’t want me to get screwed.”

Ultimately, it was her older sister, a lawyer in Richmond—not her parents—who called Ellis’s lawyer to demand he do a better job pursuing her ex. (Ellis, a web developer who works on government contracts, paid for both divorces herself.)

However, parental support can easily veer into parental control. Joseph Condo, a principal at Offit Kurman, recently represented a young woman splitting from a wealthy husband. He says things were going well for their side: “The husband was putting a lot of money on the table that wasn’t required, ostensibly because he felt bad about the breakup of the marriage.”

The woman could have walked away. But then, Condo says, her parents convinced her to demand substantially more. Condo, who no longer represents the client, predicts they’ll cost their daughter both emotionally and financially.

The other problem with inviting a parent—or any third party—to the table: Doing so breaks attorney/client privilege. That means the opposing attorney can subpoena anything discussed. Lawyers say they’re having to explain this risk more often, though many clients choose to ignore it.

A woman named Casey,* 41, says bringing her mom to her Bethesda lawyer’s office is both comforting and practical: “She’s not totally removed from it emotionally, but more so than I am. She’ll remember things that I’ll forget. She’s divorced herself, and an attorney, so she has that eye and attention to detail that I don’t have.”

Nonetheless, not every lawyer allows parents to tag along. Cheryl New, managing partner of New & Lowinger, says her first obligation is to protect her client, and she knows from experience how fraught breaking attorney/client privilege can be: “When I’m taking a deposition, it’s one of the first questions I ask—‘Was there anyone present at the meeting between you and your attorney?’ ”

If the answer is yes, she’ll likely want to depose that person—and she says she has deposed many parents.

*These names were changed because the subjects requested anonymity to discuss personal matters.

This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.