If you have started to think about divorce, you should be starting the groundwork early. Even if you decide to not pursue a divorce now, these are steps that can help you gain clarity about your own financial and personal life.
- Gather information: Knowledge is power. Many times, one spouse is in charge of the financial matters of the family, and the other spouse is either not as in involved or even completely in the dark. Educate yourself about all aspects of your finances; if you don’t know information, take this time to learn as much as possible. Learn passwords to online bank accounts. Familiarize yourself with the monthly expenses and how they are paid (autopay, checks, etc). Gather tax returns, pay records, copies of bank statements, investment account records, mortgage applications, trusts, and all other financial issues. Make sure you know social security numbers for both parties and the children involved.
- Prepare a detailed summary of assets and debts: The best way to get a clear picture of the financial issues that may arise is to create a “balance sheet.” A balance sheet is a summary of assets and debts. If you don’t have all of the information to complete this, just do the best you can. This will be the “road map” to a property division.
- Organize your information: Regardless of whether you decide to hire an attorney or not, you should prepare as if you are meeting with an attorney. Prepare a “divorce binder” containing the important information. First, add a summary of data regarding the marriage: a one-page summary containing the date of marriage, date of separation, and the names and dates of birth for both parties and all children. Next, include any contracts between you and your spouse, such as premarital or postnuptial agreements, trusts, and the like. Include a copy of the balance sheet, and all of the financial information you have gathered. Be organized; if you do meet with an attorney, your meeting will be more efficient if you are well organized in advance. You will likely feel better prepared and empowered if your information is readily available.
- Identify your goals: Prepare a list of the goals you want to result from this process. If you have kids, what is the parenting schedule you think is best for the long and short term? Is it more important for you to remain in the marital home, if that is possible, to receive (or avoid) spousal maintenance, or something else? Are there issues you may be willing to compromise in order to meet those goals? If you do meet with an attorney, come prepared with your list of goals and any questions you may have.
- Protect yourself: If the only bank or credit cards are either in joint names or the name of the other spouse, obtain a credit card in your name. Open a bank account in your own name. These are not to “hide” assets, as you will disclose the existence of these accounts, but merely to give you some autonomy. Next, change your email (or create a new email account) and cell phone passwords and don’t share them with your spouse. If you do pursue a divorce, you will want a secure way to communicate with your attorney without worrying if your spouse can review your emails and phone messages.
- Treat your spouse with respect: Trying to “punish” or “hurt” your spouse rarely gains any advantage in a divorce, and can often backfire. Don’t speak about your personal life on Facebook or other social media. Particularly if you have children, treat your spouse as you would like to be treated – even if he or she is not returning the favor. You can protect your own interests while remaining relatively friendly; treating another with respect is not the same as being a pushover. Divorces that are less acrimonious and more cooperative are generally less expensive and more efficient, saving both of you money and time. When you look back on this time in future years, you will appreciate remembering that you acted honorably and with dignity. Those are memories that will be priceless and worth more than any material gains in a bitter, adversarial divorce.