Is Family Law a Zero-Sum Game?

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Many people think that family law cases are a zero-sum game. When one party wins, the other party must necessarily lose, or so people think. Could it be that there can be two winners in a family law case?

What is a zero-sum game?

A zero-sum game occurs when one party must lose for the other party to win. The term “zero-sum” is used mostly in economic theory. However, the principle applies in other areas of our lives as well, or at least it seems to. At its root, zero-sum theory relies on the concept of scarcity. The idea is that if one person possesses an item, it is because another person cannot simultaneously possess the same item.

Does this same zero-sum concept work in family law cases? For example, there are only 168 hours in a week. Thus, if Parent A possesses a child 104 hours per week, Parent B can only possess the child 64 hours in the same week. But is possession of the child really that simple?

Zero-sum game theory is flawed.

Zero-sum theory relies on scarcity, as noted above. That is, the idea of scarcity requires the belief that there are limited resources available. But this theory fails to consider quality. If a resource is truly limited, is it possible that two people could take different percentages and still be satisfied with the part they took?

Time is truly limited. No one, no matter how rich, can buy more time. There are 168 hours per week for everyone on the planet. For parents who split custody with their children, there are still only 168 hours per week. But are all those hours of the same quality? For example, say a custodial parent technically has possession of the children during the week. How many of those hours are the children at school? How many of those hours is the parent and work? So the parent may possess the child 104 hours per week, but many of those hours are not spent with the child at all. What is the quality of those hours to the parent?

Multiple winners in family law

Because of differences in perceived quality, more than one party can win in a family law case. Whether the issue is child custody, or property division, two people can both get what they want without the other party having to lose.

Defying zero-sum game theory with child possession

A party who wants maximum time with the children can have it. Meanwhile, the noncustodial parent, who may only have the children on the weekends, can spend time with the kids having fun without having to worry about getting ready for school, homework, school night bedtimes, etc. This could be a huge win for the non-custodial parent. The custodial parent sees the children more times per week–almost every day– which is desirable for that parent. However, some of that time is spent doing homework, packing lunches, working on “surprise” or last-minute school projects, studying for tests etc. The point is 168 hours per week with the children can be divided many different ways, but not all hours are created equally. Some are more fun than others.

Defying zero-sum game theory with property division

Property division in a divorce can also defy zero-sum theory. For example, many times in a divorce, one party earns significantly more income than the other. At the time of divorce, the high earner is not nearly as concerned about basic life necessities as the lower earner. The lower earner frequently prioritizes immediate cash flow. Meanwhile, the higher earner generally values the longer-term benefit of preserving retirement accounts. We find determining what the divorcing spouses actually want allows us to divide the property in a way that benefits both parties.

Again, even though the marital estate only possesses a certain amount of assets, a savvy lawyer can help clients keep the portion of the estate they value most. For example, if one spouse needs more liquid cash, providing that spouse with a greater share of the equity in the home can help that spouse with their immediate financial goals. Meanwhile, the other spouse may keep more retirement assets, which that spouse values more than the immediate cash from the sale of house.


Quantity is only one factor in family law cases. The Texas Family Code structures the division of custody of children, rights and duties of the parents, and marital property division. Too many people think when one spouse wins, it is because the other spouse loses.

Fortunately, family law is not a zero-sum game. Win-win situations happen all the time. However, win-win situations rely on thoughtful and strategic legal work. Unfortunately, many family lawyers subscribe to zero-sum theory. We recommend seeking a family law firm that understands the value of win-win resolutions. At Youngblood Law P LLC, we reject zero-sum theory. We plan for win-win situations for our clients. Luckily, in family law cases many opportunities for win-wins exist. The question is whether your family law firm is up to the challenge of seeking out and pursuing win-wins, or if the firm merely settles for a zero-sum game.

Our Firm

Youngblood Law, PLLC is a Fort Worth, Texas law firm dedicated to family law. We help working people through divorce so they can start their new happily ever after. We also proudly offer the collaborative divorce process for our clients. This essay is intended for educational use only and is not a replacement for competent legal counsel. If you are facing a family law matter, we recommend obtaining competent legal counsel like Youngblood Law, PLLC. For more information, contact us at (817) 601-5345, find us on the web at

Paul Youngblood #beforeyournext #lawfw #youngbloodlaw #collaborativedivorce #beingdivorceddoesntsuck

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