One mistake couples make when they divorce is starting it with a frame of mind full of resentment, fear, anger, hatred, and all the negative feelings people feel when they get divorced. However, divorce can create a tight-knit family as a result if you take the time to heal and clean up some of the past, so all parties involved could move forward. Sandra Napoli-D’Arco is joined by Beermann Divorce and Family Law Partner Morgan Stogsdill and divorced couple, Nikki DeBartolo and Benjamin Heldfond, to talk about co-parenting and how to tackle this challenging task to change the family for the better and not the worst.
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Co-Parenting And Step-Parenting With Morgan Stogsdill, Nikki DeBartolo And Benjamin Heldfond
I’m here with Divorce and Family Law Partner, Morgan Stogsdill, Nikki Debartolo, and Benjamin Heldfond from Our Happy Divorce. They are a divorced couple who not only have created a tight-knit enviable family as a result of their divorce but they also now work together. Nikki and Benjamin, when did you divorce and how did you go from divorce to working partners?
Nikki: We divorced several years ago and it evolved. It definitely didn’t start right from the beginning. We were like any divorced couple at the beginning that did the drop-offs without talking and not looking at each other, but we decided early on that’s not the way we want it to be.You may have different parenting styles, but you could always compromise, discuss, and find some balance. Click To Tweet
Benjamin: As Nikki said, it didn’t just happen. That’s the one takeaway from our story, which might sound absurd to anybody going through a divorce or anybody who’s been through a bad divorce or anybody who maybe even had a good divorce that we have such a good relationship now. It was several years in the making. It took time. We didn’t jump right into it. We didn’t jump into business together. We didn’t jump into hating each other.
Nikki: We have to get out of the businesses together first in order to be able to get into a new one together.
Benjamin: That’s a pretty good point. It came full circle because we had a lot of commingling and businesses and assets together that we had to unwind because of the divorce. Through the process, we decided at the beginning that we needed to take time. One mistake that we almost made was starting the divorce in a frame of mind of resentment, fear, anger, hatred, all those feelings people feel when they get divorced. People don’t leave their houses and decide to get divorced because everything is great. We took time, healed, and tried to clean up some of the past so we could move forward. Several years later, this thing has evolved. Nikki has moved on and remarried. I’ve remarried. I have two kids. We are best friends. The business was an idea that I had. I needed to twist Nikki’s arm a little bit to write a book with me because she’s not as open as I am. She’s more reserved when it comes to personal things. It was an idea because people kept on commenting on our life. We would go about our normal life and post on social media.
Nikki: People would ask, “How do you do it?”
Benjamin: We go on vacations together and people are like, “How did you guys do this?” We started getting phone calls, both positive and negative from friends. I had a friend in Canada whose wife left him and said, “Don’t think we’re going to be like those effing Heldfonds.” On the flip side, people started calling and saying, “I’m going through this divorce. Can you give me some advice on how to get through it?” It’s worked on both ways. Finally, I’m like, “We have to tell our story.” The book isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s just our story.
Was your divorce amicable or was it not amicable?
Nikki: It had always been amicable from my side. My parents are still married 52 years later. From day one of our divorces, I always wanted to have it be as amicable as possible for Asher.
Benjamin: You’re also a fixer.
Nikki: I am a fixer. My thing is to fix things and make things better, “Let’s get along. Let’s do this. Let’s try this and that.” For a minute, it was, “Let’s stay married,” but that was like, “Nope. That’s not going to work.” I from day one wanted to make sure that Asher grew up as close to the way I grew up as possible, but then I had this one.
Benjamin: I was in a bad spot personally in my life. It manifests itself in our marriage, but I was not in a good place emotionally. We moved to Florida from San Francisco. I hated Florida. I hated Nikki for bringing me to Florida, not realizing that I was the one who made the decision to move to Florida. I treated it like she had handcuffed me and put me in a straightjacket and dragged me to Florida unwillingly. It manifests itself in this relationship, I left the house and it was all Nikki’s fault. I was pointing the finger. I was blaming her. If only she had done this or if only she had done that. I left angry. I grew up with the opposite of Nikki. My parents got divorced.
For the sake of argument, it wasn’t a happy divorce. The only people that ended up getting hurt were my brothers, my sister and I. I left the house, but I also only knew that way. I equal divorce with my parents. All my parents’ friends and in the ‘80s and everything else that it was warfare. Divorce was daggers. It took a while for me to get to a place where I could see my part. I talked about taking that time to heal. I needed to heal and see my part in the ending of our marriage and do some work on myself before I could even go down the route of even talking about divorce or hiring a lawyer, doing anything. I knew that all of these decisions were going to be made from the wrong point of ego and anger and everything else.
Sharing your story like the two of you are doing helps so many people. Morgan, you see this every day. I know from working with you personally, you see the worst of the worst and sometimes it turns out positive. How unique is Nikki and Benjamin’s situation?
Morgan: That’s why Nikki, Ben and I connected. It is unique where they’ve been and how they’ve come along. Most people’s goal coming out of a divorce is that they want to be able at the end of the day to attend their children’s graduation together or their weddings together. That’s the way in the future on a lot of people’s cases. Nikki and Ben coming full circle where they were anger-wise, but now they’re running a business together, living down the street from one another, raising essentially their child together and commingling two different families or blending families, that’s unique. It’s very impressive what they’re doing and that’s why I was interested in their book and talking to them more.
Benjamin: At the time, several years ago, after we were at a coffee shop and I made amends to Nikki for my part because I’d done some work on myself. I realized, “I wouldn’t want to be married to me either. I was not a good person.” She in turn apologized to me. We joked but it’s the truth that it’s the first and only time in the twenty-plus years we’ve known each other that we’ve authentically apologized to each other. After that moment, our goal was exactly that, Morgan. It was to be able to be in the same room.
Nikki: A birthday party or some school event, that was it.
Benjamin: To not have everybody around us most importantly feel that palpable tension in the air that you feel when you’re around divorced parents.
Nikki and Benjamin, you have one son. How was Asher throughout all this? Was he unfazed by it from the very beginning or at some point when the two of you made a mends, did things change for him?
Nikki: He definitely went through a little period where I knew something was different within him. We went to a parent-teacher conference very early on to check in and see how he was doing because we were going through a divorce. We asked his teacher, “How is he doing? We’re going through a divorce. I want to know how he’s doing.” She said, “I would not have known one bit that there was something going on at home with the way he is,” which was a blessing for us. I also think there were certain things he noticed on the mornings that my bed wasn’t messed up the way it should be if two people were sleeping in it. He walked in one day and he said to me, “Mommy, where did daddy sleep?” At this point, Ben was coming in the morning to hide it. He’d leave at night and come home in the morning. He was probably 3 or 4 and he realized that things weren’t the way they were supposed to be in my room.
Benjamin: We’re not professionals, but I have been through a divorce with my parents and experienced that. I’ve also experienced my son’s openness. We don’t give our kids enough credit for being smart. We also try to buy our own BS by saying that kids are resilient and they’ll get over it.
Nikki: A couple of years ago, Ben and Asher were on a trip together. Asher looked at him and said, “Dad, you know this divorce is hard on me.” Ben’s first thought was, “Are you kidding me? What your mom and I have accomplished is pretty amazing.” I had to sit back and understand that no matter how easy you make it on a child, it’s still hard. It’s still the back and forth. It’s like a tennis ball, “Who’s packing his stuff to go here? You’ve got to come here and then you forget a book here.”
Benjamin: At the end of the day, it would never be a kid’s decision for their parents to be divorced. Maybe older ones who are in their late teens and early twenties would understand, but a young kid can’t comprehend why their mom and dad aren’t together. He was older. He was fourteen years old, but it hit me even with all the other stuff I had to deal with growing up. The logistics of living in two houses and moving back and forth. It’s important for people to realize that. What we accepted was we were not going to hand our son an emotional bill for him to pay for something he had no choice in. It wasn’t his choice for Nikki and I to meet, for us to start dating, for us to get married, for us to have him. It certainly wasn’t his choice for us to get divorced. Why should he suffer the consequences and have to be burdened with that emotional bill to pay?
Morgan, what’s your perspective seeing so many cases on how cases either resolve or drag on based on the relationship between the two parties? Not only when they are divorced, but I know you see a lot of clients once they are divorced, you follow them along through their journey. Even after they’re divorced, they need your guidance and navigation to get through things.
Morgan: When I see clients that are not amicable whatsoever and they’re going the litigation route, which is sometimes inevitable, they’re more likely to continue the court process throughout the children’s minority. That’s more detrimental to a child. That’s what the research has shown, that the children are very affected negatively by court litigation. If you start in that process, a lot of times, that’s the only process they know to get things done and it will continue. That’s why I’m a proponent of mediation because you can be creative. Even if you’re not the most amicable couple, we can work together with the other side to help the children, put them first and also help tone everything down.
One of the things that Ben was talking about was Asher and not putting him into a situation that he didn’t create. That’s the biggest thing for parents to recognize. If we can get into a mediation setting, set goals about your children, what you want in the future, you remind yourself of what’s important. Also, the children come out ahead because one of the things that I like to do that’s creative is work as a group to tell the children what’s going on. As Ben and Nikki said, they’re smart. It doesn’t matter if they’re 3 or 4, they know something is going on no matter how amicable you are. Things are different. They’re knowing a lot more than we think they’re knowing. If there’s a united front and everyone agrees on what they’re going to say and how they’re going to do things, the children come out a lot better and we can get them divorced a little quicker. That’s my recommendation always. That’s what Ben and Nikki have done.It's easy to forget what matters most when you're going to war, and everyone gets their artillery ready. Click To Tweet
Ben and Nikki, You couldn’t stay together married, but now you have this business together. Do things ever escalate to the point that they were? How do you manage this?
Nikki: Yes, they do. We got in a fight.
Benjamin: The book is Our Happy Divorce.
Nikki: We fight like brothers and sisters. We say mean things to each other.
Benjamin: I’ve known her for many years and her bark is a lot worse than her bite. I know when Nikki goes off on the handle and says mean things.
Nikki: There’s underlying truth when I say it, but sometimes it’s covered in a lot of means.
Benjamin: The thing about what we’ve found through this whole process is that we love each other. We are not in love with each other and we were never in love with each other. We genuinely love each other. Whether it’s a dating relationship or a marriage, at some point, you guys liked each other. At some point, we liked each other. Unfortunately for Nikki and I, we got being in love and love each other mixed up. We got married when we shouldn’t have. We went through every red light, every stop sign, every railroad track. We went right by them. We tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Nikki: I wouldn’t take it back for anything.
Benjamin: We have our son. My personality, although I think I’ve evolved as a person somewhat, I still have character defects and Nikki still has character defects. Those are still there. Some of the things that drove us each other crazy in our marriage are still there.
Nikki: You’re like a child that you borrow from somebody that we can give back. I love your children. I spent so much time with them, but I can still give them back and they don’t live with me.
Benjamin: Even from parenting styles, Nikki and I have different parenting styles. We have different personalities, but we would have those whether we were married or not. My wife and I have different parenting styles, but we compromise, discuss, and find some balance. That’s when Nikki and I have done the past several years. The business is no different. The book took four years to write. Not because it took us four years to write 180 pages, but it’s four years of trying to figure out the right way, getting in fights, Nikki saying, “I’m not doing your half of the book. You could stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.” We wouldn’t talk for a couple of weeks about the book.
It’s like being in business with your sister. It’s like being in your business with your best friends. Sometimes businesses are even more complicated than marriages, especially when it comes to unwinding. It’s not to make money. We want to tell our story. We self-published it through a publisher. We wanted to let people understand that there’s hope, that it can be different. Especially if Nikki and I can do it, we are convinced that anybody can do it. There are certain things, as Morgan knows, the beginning of a divorce, and then sometimes when you bring new partners, there are landmines everywhere. One wrong step, it could blow. We did step on the landmines but we kept our head down to a simple equation. That was two plus two had to equal four for Asher with the decisions we made.
Sometimes those answers to Nikki and I might have felt so far away from four. It was ridiculous, but they equaled four for Asher so we went for it. We had to keep it simple because it wasn’t easy. When it came to custody, financial settlement, custody to things. During this COVID thing, Asher is at my house. The custody doesn’t change, but when he’s at my house during the day, he goes over to Nikki’s to go to school and to study because she doesn’t have any kids. I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old who think their big brother is a superhero. I would never leave them alone. Two plus two equals four that he goes over to Nikki’s house to study. For me, I could be like, “That’s my time,” but what’s important is that he’d go to a place to study. It equals four for him, but it might not equal four for me. We always go with the answer is four for Asher.
Morgan, from your perspective, what’s the takeaway from all of this, from Nikki and Ben’s story?
Morgan: The takeaway is it’s easy to forget what matters most when you’re going to war. Everyone gets their artillery ready when they think they’re going to a divorce situation. It takes a long time to unwind that, to bring everybody back down. Like Ben said, you step in landmines. It’s inevitable with parenting. It’s inevitable going through a divorce. It’s how you get out of those landmines and bring it back to what matters most such as your children or what your goals are that gets you out of the divorce in a healthy manner, in a quick manner, that’s what’s important.
Benjamin: Morgan, you echo these comments that Nikki and I did in the beginning after we had taken the time and taking it slowly. Instead of going in and we did collaborative, but it was new at the time. I talked to Nikki and said, “Let’s sit down for coffee and see where we agree.” This wasn’t me putting a piece of paper in front of Nikki and telling her to sign it or her doing it to me. We wanted to see, “Let’s see where we agree at first.” What ended up happening was over a few meetings, we came up with our whole settlement. It’s not that anybody was coerced or we would go back and we talk to our counsel or we talked to our representatives. We built a team that included lawyers, but she was on my team and I was on hers. It wasn’t two separate teams. It was one team. We sat down as the business people, as the principals, and tried to figure out where we got along. There was no, “Her team, my team.” It ended up being that we figured out the whole thing by ourselves.
People want to put the children first. Everyone has the best interest of their children at heart but can’t put their differences aside because of the hatred that they have for each other. Nikki and Ben, you’ve provided great advice here. If there’s one thing you want people to take out of this show, what advice would you provide to them?
Nikki: Say you’re sorry and mean it. Stop looking in the past and keep looking forward. The past wrecks you.
Benjamin: No decisions can be made, at least for us, until that past was cleaned up. That one piece of advice that I would give people is we accepted that it takes two to make a relationship. It takes two to ruin a relationship. There cannot be a villain. There cannot be a bad guy. The blame cannot be laid at one person’s feet. What we did was we cleaned it up. We both said we’re sorry and that didn’t shut the door on the past, but it cleaned up the past so we can move forward. I couldn’t make any productive path to our happy divorce decisions in the mind frame that I was in until I got real with her and until we cleaned up the past.
I know Morgan’s on board with this and want to find a different way. When I was in that frame of mind, I went out and I did Google research. I found the biggest shark lawyer, bulldog lawyer I could find because I needed somebody that was going to say I was right and come up with a plan to destroy Nikki. That’s the frame of mind I was in and he was happy to do it. He was happy to feed me with what I could do and what my rights were and all this stuff because that’s the frame of mind that I was in. I was living in the past. Once I cleaned it up, all of a sudden, I was like, “I don’t want to work with that guy. I’m going to find somebody who’s on the same path as me.” Take it slow.
The other thing that we said earlier, which is so important, is although how ridiculous our story might sound now, we could never have imagined it several years ago. What we did at the beginning was aim big and miss small. We were trying to be in the same room together. It’s evolved. It’s going to take time but it’s possible. No matter what happens, you’ve got to put the kids first. That can’t be used as ammunition. The frame of mind I was in, I could have told you, or at least convince myself it was best for Asher to find out what a fraud his mom was or to find out what type of person I thought his mom was. Sometimes what’s best for the kids, if you’re not in the frame of mind, you can buy your own you know what. You have to get honest with yourself and what’s best for your kids.
You’ve provided so much information. I have to latch on to one last thing that you said is so important. Morgan, I want you to talk about this if you can. Ben, you mentioned when you were going through the divorce, you wanted to find that shark lawyer, the person who’s going to destroy her, bring her to hell. Morgan, I know a lot of lawyers will tell people exactly what they want to hear as Ben mentioned. Maybe talk a little bit about what people should look for when hiring a lawyer.It takes two to make a relationship, and it takes two to ruin a relationship. Click To Tweet
Morgan: That was going to be my takeaway was find the right professional. The sharks, that’s old school, in my opinion. My era is the new up-and-coming attorneys that are trying not to ruin families. Yes, we could be sharks if we need to be. That’s not a problem. You need to find a lawyer that’s versatile, that can do it all. The fact of the matter is you don’t lead with that. You don’t want to do that because it’s only going to ruin things and make it worse. At some point, maybe it’s inevitable that you need to go to court, but the bottom line is to find someone that’s going to tell you straight up what is going to happen in the case but also maintain amicability.
If the lawyer straight out of the gate is telling you, “We’re going to blow up everything and go to court,” I would not suggest that’s probably a good fit. You want someone who listens because every case is so different and anyone who wants to say, “My neighbor got this. My friend is doing this,” it doesn’t apply to everyone’s case. You need to listen to the couples and to the client and make sure that you’re doing things that they want to make their family intact. At the end of the day, I can’t sleep at night knowing that I’ve broken up a family or that a child is suffering and that I didn’t do my best to try to tone things down. That’s what everyone should be doing these days. Shark is an old school. The new school is, “Let’s get it done and keep the family intact.”
Benjamin: That’s our experience too, is that there are so many professionals out there like Morgan who is like, “Let’s take a step back from this.” The shark that I hired gladly took a very big retainer from me and wrote up a game plan, 40 pages long, about how we were going to destroy Nikki of what I told them I wanted to do. Nikki jokes that probably it’s the same one he used over and over again and changed the names on it. It was wasn’t until I opened up that war and peace game plan and got two pages into it that I had my moment of clarity. For the first time in a long time, I was like, “This is not going to end well.” I know how this is going to end because I went through with my parents and that’s when the shift happened. It was the best big, fat retainer I ever spent. I called him on Monday and said, “I want to find a different route. If you could send me back the retainer,” and I got to check back for $327 out of a very big check that I wrote, but it was the best money I ever spent.
Thank you so much, Nikki and Benjamin. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s truly admirable. You’re changing lives. I’m sure it’s a good feeling to do what you’re doing.
Benjamin: So are you and so is Morgan. We were lucky we found her. I know that we will do something together in the future in some capacity because we want to have more stories like us who have been in it 13, 15, 20 years. Like Morgan said, changing families for the better, not the worst.
- Morgan Stogsdill
- Our Happy Divorce
- Our Happy Divorce on Amazon
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About Morgan L. Stogsdill
Morgan L. Stogsdill focuses her practice primarily in the areas of Matrimonial Law and Family Law and counsels clients on the various aspects of dissolution of marriage and paternity proceedings, including child custody, support, visitation, property division, financial issues related to divorce, post-dissolution matters, prenuptial agreements and civil litigation related to orders of protection. Ms. Stogsdill focuses her practice on complex matters and counsels high profile clients that require the utmost attention and confidentiality.
- Client Testimonials
- 2019 Best Lawyers in America
- 2017 Most Influential Women Lawyers in Chicago
- “Secrets that only a divorce attorney knows” on Windy City Live
- 40 Under Forty Attorneys to Watch
- Click here to view the 40 Under Forty announcement video.
- “Let’s Talk Divorce” podcast featured on Impact Makers Radio
Ms. Stogsdill has litigated over 45 jury trials and has settled hundreds of cases. While Ms. Stogsdill’s trial record speaks for itself, when costly litigation can be avoided, her approach to matters includes mediation to settle cases efficiently and expeditiously. Ms. Stogsdill tailors a specific strategy for each of her clients, on a case by case basis.
Ms. Stogsdill was named one of the “Most Influential Women Lawyers in Chicago” by Crains Chicago Business in 2017. In 2016, Ms. Stogsdill was selected for the prestigious award of one of the 40 Under Forty Attorneys to Watch in Illinois by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.” Click here to view the official announcement video. Additionally, she has been named a Rising Star in the area of Family Law by Super Lawyers Magazine, a designation reserved for the top 2.5% of all Illinois attorneys under 40 and named an Emerging Lawyer by Leading Lawyers, a designation given to fewer than 2% of the attorneys in Illinois. She has also been featured in Chicago Lawyer, “Lawyers with Style.” In 2006-2007, the Jury Verdict Reporter listed and published Morgan L. Stogsdill as an individual attorney who had the third most jury verdicts or jury trials in all of Cook County, including, Chicago, IL.
Ms. Stogsdill has been a guest lecturer on many issues related to Family Law and she has written articles on the topic of family law that have been featured in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. In 2018, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin featured an article written by Ms. Stogsdill titled “Has Domestic Relations Gone to the Dogs?” and in 2015, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin featured an article written by Ms. Stogsdill titled “Parental Alienation- the new elephant in the courtroom during child custody cases.”
Ms. Stogsdill has served on the Auxiliary Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Illinois Eye Bank, and was a mentor for the program, Metro for Girls. Currently, Ms. Stogsdill is donating her time giving back to at-risk children by serving as a board member of the Lawyers Lend a Hand to Youth organization. In 2018 & 2017, Ms. Stogsdill co-chaired the awards dinner for the entire organization at the Four Seasons Hotel. The event brought in thousands of dollars to the charity, which directly benefits at-risk children.
About Nikki DeBartolo
Nikki knows firsthand how being supported by a strong, loving family can influence the way a person navigates life, love, marriage, and motherhood. Having grown up as a member of the iconic San Francisco 49ers football family, she was thrown into the limelight at a young age. The values her family instilled in her have helped shape who she is today, and she continues to live by them. As Vice President of the DeBartolo Family Foundation, Nikki has made it her mission to give back to her community in every way possible, from supporting local grassroots movements to national charities, all while being a strong, supportive wife and mother. Nikki resides in Tampa Bay, Florida, with her son Asher and her husband Chad Chronister, who also serves the Tampa community as Sheriff of Hillsborough County.
About Benjamin Heldfond
Ben graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science degree in African American History and Business Administration. He is the owner of Heldfond Holdings, LLC, a holding company that invests in a wide variety of companies, including private equities, restaurants, and a record label.
He is also a member of the board for SwigCompany, LLC. Ben is involved with many organizations supporting those who struggle with addiction and substance abuse. An avid golfer and sports enthusiast, he currently resides in South Tampa with his wife, Nadia; fifteen-year-old son, Asher; six-year-old daughter, Isabella; and three-year-old son, Jackson.
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