Let’s face it - a separation and eventual divorce is extraordinarily difficult for anyone to handle. It is often said that no two divorces are the same, just like no two marriages are the same. The divorce process will take different twists and turns and ups and downs, and there will varying levels of all types of emotions. In many ways divorce is like going through death of a loved one, involving loss and sorrow. It changes the structure of the family forever, and causes the loss of hopes and dreams of what a marriage and a family are supposed to be.
Despite the grim reality of facing this new normal, there are certain actions you can take to lessen the impact. By gathering information and taking care of your well-being, you can protect yourself from future surprises, avoid a great deal of stress, and make the process somewhat less overwhelming overall. The following are ten steps you should consider taking before starting down the path of separation and divorce:
Depending on the facts of your particular situation, different counselors can play a large role in your divorce case. Before deciding to get a divorce, you should see a marriage counselor in an effort to try to save the marriage. Divorce can be financially and emotionally devastating, and will forever change your life, and determining whether you are able to salvage your marriage could help you save all of that heartache.
If marriage counseling can’t save your marriage, then having a good relationship with an individual therapist who you can speak candidly with about your ride on the emotional roller coaster will be useful while going through the divorce process. Your therapist can help you navigate the various feelings you have during and after your divorce.
Lastly, when children are involved, a good mental health professional will also provide you with insight and understanding into the impact of divorce on your children, particularly with respect to your actions and that of your spouse.
Consult with an experienced divorce attorney.
There are a lot of very good divorce attorneys out there, and not every lawyer with great credentials is a good fit for every person going through a divorce.
Do your homework by researching attorneys online and if possible, try to speak with anyone in your network of family, friends and acquaintances to get a good referral. Lawyers, accountants, psychotherapists, members of the clergy and other professionals are often good sources for a referral. If you can’t get a referral from someone you know, there are various lawyer referral services and local bar associations that can help you out.
Compatibility is crucial to having a good lawyer and client relationship. You must feel comfortable with your family law attorney if you are to work effectively together. You will be telling this lawyer intimate facts of your life and your relationship so that he or she can adequately represent you. Additionally, there will be times when your attorney may have to give you advice or news that you don’t want to hear. For these reasons, you need to be able to talk and listen to your divorce attorney.
Choosing an attorney can be intimidating, especially because going through a divorce is not necessarily something you envisioned when you were starting your relationship with your spouse. It is important to consult with as many attorneys as is necessary for you to feel comfortable with the personality and strategy of the lawyer that you ultimately choose to represent you. Ideally, you should speak with at least two divorce attorneys before making a decision on who you want to hire.
Put your kids at the top of your priority list.
Your divorce case is between you and your spouse, not your kids. People often lose sight of the fact that divorce, property, support and money are temporary, while having children is forever. It is crucial to shield your children from the divorce as much as you possibly can, and to keep their routine stable.
If you have always been involved in their care and upbringing, going to doctors’ appointments, attending extracurricular activities, helping with school and homework, and doing fun stuff with your children, then continue to do so. If you have historically left these things to your spouse, then now is the time to get involved. Remember this will be a new normal, where both parents need to make a huge effort to remain active in their kids’ lives.
In other words, put your children first. This tip is before the financial steps for a reason.
Review Your Credit Reports and Credit Card Statements.
Under federal law, you are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion). If you do not regularly monitor your credit reports, or it has been a few years since you received your free credit reports, then you should request a copy from each of the three bureaus. Your credit report will give you a look into your financial liabilities, and will also give you insight into any accounts your spouse may have opened in your name without your knowledge or consent. There is a lot of good information to be gained from your credit report.
Following up on your credit report, you should also review all of your monthly credit card statements for accounts previously known and for accounts that you discovered through your credit report. Your credit card statements can give you a better idea of some of your individual and household monthly expenses.
It is probably also a good idea to close or freeze all credit card accounts you hold jointly with your spouse, so that he or she can’t start racking up a huge credit card bill that you may be liable to pay at a later date or through a division of debt in your divorce case.
Gather Important Financial and Other Documents.
Whether you have historically maintained financial records for the family, you have limited or no access to financial documents, or you just don’t keep good records, starting to gather important financial documents before you start the divorce process is super important. Financial records can include tax returns, checking account statements, savings account statements, other bank account statements, investment account statements, 401k or other such statements, IRA or other retirement account statements, pay statements, W-2 statements, and any other documents that evidence income, assets, or liabilities. If possible, make sure that your records include stuff that both you and your spouse own, individually and jointly.
On the topic of assets, if you own any real or personal property of substantial value, then you need to gather all documents related to that property. For real property, such as a house, condo, or apartment, these documents include your settlement statement, HUD-1 statement, real estate contract, deed, mortgage statements, home equity line statements, property tax assessments, and all appraisals. For valuable personal property, documents can include insurance forms and riders, bills of sale, and all appraisals.
It isn’t uncommon for the court to review financial documents for the last 3 - 5 years, and real or personal property documents for even longer, so you should leave yourself plenty of time to undertake this important task.
Create a List of Assets and Debts.
Now that you have your financial documents and other information in order, it is important to make a listing of all assets and debts you hold in your sole name, your name jointly with your spouse, or that your spouse holds in his or her sole name. This listing will be useful when it comes time to start discussing how these items will be divided, and will be the starting point for your equitable distribution of marital property.
Your list should include a notation about whether the property is marital or separate property, and why any separate property item should be considered as such. For example, if you owned a 401k before you were married, or you receive an inheritance when your grandfather passed way, then this should be documented on your list.
Learn the household budget and expenses.
Reality in a divorce case is that, after everything is separated and the divorce is final, both spouses need to get used to a new normal. Knowing the household budget and expenses goes a long way in starting to plan for that new normal from a financial perspective. To accomplish this objective, you can take all the financial documents, credit reports, and credit card statements you have already gathered, and use them to write down each expense that comes up on a monthly basis. This is a time-consuming exercise, but can pay huge dividends in the long run.
Find out exactly what your spouse earns.
There is a pretty good chance that, if you did a thorough job of gathering financial documents, you have a good idea of what your spouse earns. If not, however, it is critical to have an idea at the outset of what your spouse makes on a monthly and annual basis. If your spouse is a regular W-2 employee, this is an easy task. If your spouse is self-employed, owns an interest in a business, or otherwise receives something other than a W-2, it becomes more complicated. Regardless, tax returns are usually a good start.
Inventory household and family possessions.
Despite what you see on television and in the movies, most courts have no interest in dividing household items, furnishings, and possessions. That being said, you should absolutely make an inventory of all items, since they tend to “disappear” throughout the divorce process when no one is looking at them. Since the majority of household items aren’t titled in anyone’s name, out of sight usually means out of mind and out of the divorce case. The best way to inventory household items, furnishings, and possessions is through the use of a camera, taking photos of everything in the house to document their existence.
Consider Changing Your Estate Planning Documents.
If you did some estate planning during your marriage, such as drafting a Will, creating a Trust Document, or preparing a Medical Directive, those documents probably made a lot of sense while things were still going well between you and your spouse. Now that you are getting ready for a divorce, they probably don’t reflect anymore what you want to have happen in the future.
If you no longer wish for your spouse to make medical decisions for you, or you don’t want your spouse to inherit any of your assets should you unexpectedly die before your divorce has been finalized (note: you can’t completely disinherit your spouse before your divorce is finalized), then you need to consider executing new estate planning documents. An estate planning attorney can help you draft new documents, or revise existing ones, to reflect your current wishes as you head into a divorce.
Contact a Wayside Legal Divorce Attorney
If you are facing a divorce, be sure to consult with an excellent family law attorney to discuss the process, and the potential impact of divorce on your financial situation. Also, be sure to review your current estate planning needs with an estate planning attorney.
Wayside Legal LLC is an award-winning law firm located in North Bethesda, Maryland, with years of experience handling divorce proceedings throughout Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. If you require legal assistance with your separation and divorce, contact a Wayside Legal attorney today for a consultation to discuss your specific situation.