Before you move forward with divorce, the savviest attorneys would advise you to make some preparations. It might seem heartless, but if you plan to ask your spouse for a divorce, or if you think your spouse might want one from you, there are some matters you should take care of first. From hiring an attorney to dealing with the mutual credit cards, in this guide we will cover all of the issues you need to consider.
Large numbers of middle-income Americans hire attorneys for just part of the process and increasingly handle paperwork and logistics themselves. Many others opt for low-conflict resolutions. This includes not just mediation, in which a neutral third party—the mediator—helps the parties reach a compromise, but also the newer method of “collaborative divorce.” In collaborative divorce, each party has an attorney, but the adversarial milieu is replaced by a philosophy of harmony and the goal of getting along. In collaborative divorce, the two attorneys work together as a team, with the goal of problem-solving.
As soon as you think you will be seeking a divorce, you must speak with an attorney. Even if you have been married for only a short time, even if you have no property or children, and even if you plan to mediate your divorce or handle it all yourself, you still need to take this step. An initial consultation with a divorce lawyer can be free, but even if it costs you a couple of hundred dollars, it’s better not to be penny wise and pound foolish.
A qualified divorce attorney will help you avoid traps you could never know about on your own. During the meeting, the lawyer will ask you questions that will allow him or her to evaluate your case. Building on this knowledge and knowing the law and the court system, the lawyer will be able to answer your questions and offer appropriate strategies. Whether you end up hiring this lawyer or not, you will gain a better strategic sense of what’s ahead.
Whether for spousal support or child support, you will have to know your spouse’s earnings and assets to calculate a reasonable figure. If it doesn’t make sense to ask your spouse, you might have to do some digging before that information becomes unavailable.
Ultimately, you might have to rely on your spouse to furnish this information, but it’s prudent to know as much financial information as possible before taking it up with him or her. Requesting such information should be fairly straightforward. Just tell your partner you feel foolish without a handle on the economic underpinnings of your life.
Depending on the circumstances of your matter, you might have to go to work after the divorce. Have you been out of the job market for a while? Perhaps you need some time to get your skills up to speed before taking the plunge. Or, better yet, get a plan to make yourself more marketable and ask your spouse to support you while you go to school or get that extra training. Has business been off lately? Keep a record of that now so no one later accuses you of deliberately reducing your income to negotiate a more favorable settlement.
Remember, you will only be able to share in assets you know about, so you must find out exactly what the two of you have. There’s a house (with a mortgage), a car (maybe leased or encumbered by a loan), a pension or retirement plan (not yet vested), and a little bit of savings. But for some, property ownership is more complicated. For instance, businesses created during the marriage are assets to be valued, and a judge can distribute their value upon divorce. The same may go for an academic degree or even part of the value of a summer house.
Canceled checks, bank statements, tax returns, life insurance policies—if it’s there, copy it.
Often, the allocation of debt is harder to prove or negotiate than the division of assets. What debts do you have? Credit card, personal loans, bank loans, car loans? How much does it cost to pay these debts each month?
Inventory your safety deposit box or family safe, and take photographs of the contents. Do the same with jewelry or any furniture, paintings, or other items of value. You needn’t list every worn-out piece of furniture, but anything with a value of more than $300 should be included.
What stocks, checking accounts, and savings accounts do either of you have? Do you have a stockbroker? What about life insurance and health insurance? Get detailed information on every policy you own, jointly or individually. Get the name and phone number of your insurance broker now.
Whether you plan to stay in the house or leave, you won’t know how much money you need unless you know the monthly costs of running your household. If you pay the monthly bills, your job is easy. If you don’t, see how much you pay in monthly rent or on your mortgage; check utilities, including electricity, heat, and phone; and look at sundry costs from snow plowing in winter to lawn care and gardening in spring.
If you’re the spouse who plans to move out, decide where you’re going to live and figure out how much it will cost, month by month, beforehand. Look through the real estate advertisements to learn about rents. Consider what it will cost to move, and calculate start-up expenses, including telephone installation and turning on electricity and cable.
Try to save enough money to be able to pay the rent for a place of your own for a year. It might require holding off on starting the divorce proceedings for a while, but it will be worth the extra time and effort to be able to move out once the process begins. It’s possible the judge will order your rent paid by your spouse (if you have been unemployed) but it’s not a guarantee.
If you don’t have credit cards in your own name, apply for them now. You might be able to get them based on your spouse’s income, and you will probably need credit later. Use the cards instead of cash and pay the entire balance by the due date every month. Don’t charge more than you can pay; you’ll be creating even more problems for yourself!
First of all, this is important for your children—especially because they will need all the support and reassurance they can get during the turbulent times ahead. In addition, because courts consider the depth and quality of your relationship when making custody and parenting time decisions, such involvement now could translate to more time with your children and the likelihood of shared custody after the divorce.
If you fear your request for divorce will send your spouse straight to the bank, withdraw half of the money in all your savings accounts first. Place the money in a new account, and keep it there until you and your spouse can work out the distribution of property. Do not spend the money if at all possible. If the money is in a checking account and you know the account is nearly emptied every month to pay bills, do not withdraw any of that money; you’ll create financial havoc if checks bounce.
If you pay the credit card bills, consider canceling your accounts—or at least reducing the spending limit. If you cancel or reduce lines of credit, of course, you must inform your spouse to save embarrassment and, later, anger. You can say the family needs to cut back, which is probably going to be true.
High school yearbooks, jewelry, computer disks, your collection of CDs, your grandmother’s family heirlooms—if it indisputably belongs to you and you fear your spouse might take it for spite or leverage, move it out of the house.
When there are suddenly two households to maintain, you might find your financial freedom drastically curtailed. The number of people who buy brand new cars while they’re starting divorce proceedings is staggering. The payments could financially devastate you, and your spouse can use the existence of your new car as proof of your ability to pay for all sorts of other expenses.
Depending on your circumstances and the laws of your state, you could weaken your position on custody and possibly your personal or marital property if you move out. You should discuss any plans to move from the marital residence with your lawyer before making a decision. As always, take immediate action if abuse is at issue.
The idea of doing all of this might turn your stomach in knots. It may seem aggressive and sometimes even adversarial, but you must protect yourself, and doing so will put you ahead of the game during legal negotiations. Getting divorced is one of the great stressors in life, but you can get through this. It may seem impossible right now, but time will heal this wound, and being prepared now will make the divorce go that much easier.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Surviving Divorce, Third Edition, by Pamela Weintraub and Terry Hillman