My next four posts will address what I feel are the 10 important steps a person should take before and during the divorce process. These articles are for those still in the thinking stage or those who have just started the process. I'm not encouraging anyone to follow through with divorce, but I do hope that if you come to that decision, you have the tools needed to protect yourself legally.
Step One: Find Wise Counsel
Interview at least three attorneys before you decide on one (Here are Five Tips on Finding the Right Attorney For You). Go with an attorney who has at least 5-10 years experience practicing family and divorce law. I lean towards a collaborative approach during divorce. It is easier and less expensive if you and your spouse are able to settle your issues without litigation. If that can't be done, make sure you have an attorney who is capable and willing to litigate your case before a judge. You are basically looking for two things — an attorney who knows the value of settling quickly, but is also willing to fight for you should the need arise.
Step Two: Gather Financial Information
You need a clear picture of where you and your spouse stand financially. One of the primary goals of the divorce process is the make an equitable distribution of marital assets and debts. In order to get your fair share, it's imperative that you know what is owned and what is owed. This is a three-step process:
- Determine what you own. Some marital assets are obvious. It is clear that the marital home and any financial accounts and vehicles are assets that should be split equitably. Other not-so-obvious assets may include artwork, pension plans, inheritances, or belongings brought into the marriage. You should make a list of all possible assets. Gather all documentation regarding each asset, including the present value, when and where the asset was purchased, and whether it was purchased with joint or separate funds. You will especially want a copy of any recent real estate appraisals. Turn all documentation over to your attorney. Be sure to keep a copy for yourself.
- Determine what you owe. When determining what you owe, it doesn't matter whose name any debts are in. Marital debt will be split based on who is more financially able to pay the debt, not by whose name the debt is in. The easiest way to determine marital debt is to get a copy of your credit report. Any debt you have will be listed on your report. Once you determine what debt exists, you need to obtain statements on all open accounts with the balance due showing. When you turn this information over to your attorney, don't forget to keep copies for your files.
- Determine Income. You need documentation showing your income and the income of your spouse. If you and your spouse are salaried employees, you will need a copy of the most recent pay stubs plus your most recent Income Tax Return. Determining income becomes more difficult if your spouse is self-employed. In such a case, copies of bank account statements and financial business statements will give a clear picture of income. It's always a good idea to make copies of such statements before separating and filing for divorce. You may be able to get an idea of how much your spouse actually makes, but it can be almost impossible to determine true income when a spouse is self-employed. Gather what information you can and then your attorney can help get the rest through the discovery process.
Additionally, here are some further tips on protecting your finances and credit through divorce.
Click here for Divorce Prep: Steps 3 to 5