Preparing for Divorce - A Survival Guide

Engaged couples will often take months to prepare for marriage. Hopefully, the union will be lasting, but experience shows at least 40% of marriages fail. Ideally, just as time was taken to prepare for marriage, time should also be taken to prepare for divorce. Preparation can save hours of work and thousands of dollars in legal fees. If a spouse has the luxury of time for preparing for a divorce, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Consult an attorney. Even if you think you can do this yourself using pattern forms available in many states, at the very least you should seek legal advice before filing divorce papers. Many attorneys offer free or low-cost initial consultations. A lawyer may be able to quickly spot potential problems that could arise. An attorney may also suggest alternative methods short of trial to achieve the divorce such as mediation or arbitration.
    If anything in the divorce is likely to be contested or if court orders may be needed to obtain temporary spousal support or use of certain property such as the family home, having legal representation is virtually a must. The paperwork and legal process can be overwhelming and challenging. An attorney will help ease the stress you will inevitably feel during this process and help guide you through it.
  2. Gather financial documents. Divorce cases are paper intensive. Even when the parties initially think the process will be amicable, when property and money are involved there is always a significant chance conflicts will develop. Originals or copies of the following documents should be assembled: three years of tax returns, 12 months of pay stubs, check registers, bank statements, bills and credit card statements for all open accounts. Also find current records for stocks and investments, records for any ownership interest in a business, pension, social security and retirement account statements, vehicle registrations, life insurance policies, deeds to real property, personal injury settlements and W2 or 1099 statements. Organize the documents. Your attorney will be grateful.
  3. Create current and future budgets. This is a two-step process. Make a list of all current assets, debts and monthly expenses. Include information for you and your spouse. Any debt acquired prior to marriage and still being paid should be listed. This will show you a picture of what your current life costs. Create both a monthly budget for expenses you expect to have once the divorce has been started and a second budget for your life after divorce. Include costs for housing, transportation, utilities, food, clothing, insurance, child care and entertainment. This will help determine your ability to bring in sufficient funds and whether you need to request spousal support if that is an option.
    This exercise can also guide your strategy for disposing of property. For example, fighting to keep the family home may make no sense if your budget shows you cannot afford the monthly costs. It may make more sense to sell the home, split the proceeds and find less costly housing.
  4. Open your own bank account and establish separate credit. Create an account in your name into which your paycheck is deposited. Apply for new credit cards in your name only. If possible, freeze or close current joint credit card accounts or have your name removed from the account.
  5. Set aside funds. Divorce typically leaves all parties in financially worse condition than while married. Plan for it. The divorce process can be costly particularly when issues will be contested. You'll need funds for legal fees and for housing, utilities and monthly expenses your spouse may refuse to cover. You may obtain temporary orders soon after the divorce is started which specify who pays what bills and whether spousal maintenance will be provided, but you should assume that, at least for a short time, you will have to cover your own monthly expenses.
    If you have time to prepare, begin saving money to at least cover initial legal fees and personal expenses. If you have joint bank accounts, consider transferring up to half the funds in those accounts to your separate account. Lawyers may disagree on this strategy, and it would be wise to consult an attorney before taking this step. Whether you should transfer half of the funds is very fact sensitive question. Again, speak to an attorney before doing the same. If you do transfer these funds, keep thorough records on how funds are spent from the date of transfer.
  6. Inventory property. In preparing for a divorce make a list of any property that was acquired prior to marriage, by inheritance or as a gift. These items are usually considered to be the separate property of the person who received them. While state laws vary in directing how property is to be distributed, this list can be important, particularly if you want to keep the property. If this property was sold and the proceeds used toward payment of bills or purchase of other property, document how proceeds from the property sale were later used.
    Prepare an inventory and take pictures of major items of personal property. Make a list of what property should be taken by you. Frustrations during the divorce can sometimes lead to the damage of property. Temporarily remove from the home any small valuable items that cannot be replaced.
  7. Limit Spending. Do not make any large or unnecessary purchases. If you have significant debts and know in advance a divorce is coming, make an effort to pay down the debt. This is not a time to be acquiring substantial new debt. You need to conserve funds to cover legal fees and pay bills once the divorce process starts.
  8. Protect your privacy. Change passwords on all your financial, e-mail and social media accounts. Create a new e-mail account with a password known only to you.
  9. Limit your social media presence. Technology provides many ways to communicate, but it also maintains a record of those communications for years. Statements made in anger about your spouse could be used against you. Refrain from making negative statements in e-mails and other postings. 
  10. Seek employment or education. If you have been a stay-at-home spouse, expect that to end unless you're financially independent. You will likely need to work to cover routine expenses, and this may require additional training or education. Update your resume. Enroll in necessary classes. It is generally easier to start a new job or class before the divorce is underway than facing that challenge once you are on your own.
  11. Prepare emotionally. Divorce is often an emotional roller coaster. Even the most amicable divorce is typically accompanied by sadness. At worst, battles over debts, property and children can trigger a cascade of strong, negative feelings including anger and frustration. Keeping your emotions under control will result in less distraction and drama. Surround yourself with a support group of trusted friends and relatives who can be your sounding board and help to rein in those feelings when emotions start to run wild.

These preparatory actions apply whether or not children are involved. When a divorce will also involve custody and child support issues, additional steps should be taken specifically focusing on the kids. Taking the time to prepare for a divorce whenever possible will ultimately help you feel stronger and more in control through the process. If you have any questions in regard to preparing for a divorce, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400 for a free in office consultation.

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Peter Van Aulen handled my case with great diligence and integrity. He is also a compassionate individual who realizes what a difficult time divorce can be emotionally. Peter works hard and doesn't take any shortcuts in preparing for a case… I highly recommend Mr. Van Aulen and his staff. Chuck Solomon
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