First Things First: The Top Five Things You Must Do When Divorce is on the Horizon
Whether you have made the decision to move forward with a divorce, or your spouse made the decision, there are certain housekeeping functions that need to be accomplished. Doing these things will empower you with the knowledge and information that you need so that you can make decisions about your future.
(1) Locate all important paperwork relating to the family finances. Whether you are the one who managed the finances, or your spouse did, you need to determine whether you have copies (or access to copies) of certain documents that give a snapshot of the family finances. These are (at least) your past three years’ income tax returns. If you filed separately, you need yours and your spouse’s – with all schedules and attachments, such as the Schedule C profit and loss statement (if applicable), 1099s, W-2 forms, K-1 statements. Find them. If you had an accountant prepare them, go to your accountant and get a full copy of every tax filing. You don’t need to provide an explanation. If you filed joint tax returns, they are yours too even if you had nothing to do with getting them prepared – and even if you don’t work. Also obtain all monthly bank account statements for at least the past 3 years for all bank accounts, even if they aren’t in your name. If you cannot obtain statements for the accounts that are not in your name, your lawyer can obtain that in the divorce proceeding. This also applies to any retirement plans or investment accounts, such as brokerage accounts, stock accounts, etc. Also get copies of monthly statements for all credit card accounts, even if they are not in your name. You will also need documents relating to any other indebtedness, such as car loans, student loans, etc. Get copies of mortgage statements so that you know what your mortgage payments are and the outstanding mortgage amount on the house. This information will all be important relatively early when it comes time to talk about support and distribution of property and debts.
(2) Consult with a financial planner or adviser. Whether you will be receiving alimony or paying alimony, and even if you think yours is not an alimony case, you will need to plan your finances going forward without your spouse. This means you will need to know how much money you are earning, after taxes, and what your expenses will be when you figure out your new living situation. This analysis will also help you determine how much alimony you need to support yourself, or how much you can afford to pay your spouse if you are the breadwinner. If you have used a financial adviser with your spouse, use someone else. You want to make sure this information is confidential and as well as any strategy you develop with your adviser. You can find advisers who routinely do this in the context of divorce.
(3) Take steps to preserve any personal property of significant value. Property has a strange way of disappearing when people are getting divorced. If there are any items of significant monetary value or sentimental value, you should preserve evidence of their existence just in case they go missing. The other alternative is to immediately store the items, such as bonds, photos or jewelry, in a safe deposit box. Sometimes your attorney will agree to hold such items in escrow pending final agreement on the distribution of the items.
(4) Get a therapist or coach to help you through the divorce. The worst thing you can do is listen to your friends, relatives, neighbors, hairdresser, accountant, college roommate, favorite barista at Starbucks, etc. about what they think you should do or what happened to them when they got divorced. Keep in mind that these people are not able to be objective because they know you and likely know your spouse too. Their advice is also limited by their own biases, particularly if they had a bad experience in their own divorce. You need someone neutral to talk to, whether it is just to vent or whether it is to get guidance on your own life planning. Don’t use your attorney as a therapist. They are too expensive and they don’t want to nurse you through your divorce. Only use your lawyer for legal advice. And don’t use your friends for legal advice. They are not qualified! Now is the time to figure out your next steps based upon what YOU want for yourself. It’s a new beginning!
(5) Make sure you have access to money. If you have cash around, take half of it for safekeeping. If you have joint accounts with large sums of money and you don’t have access to funds anywhere else except in the joint accounts, consider moving half of the funds into an account in your sole name. This will ensure that if the divorce gets ugly, your spouse can’t take all of the funds and leave you with nothing. (Even if that did happen, it would take time for your lawyer to sort it out). Even if you think your divorce will be “amicable” (and maybe it will), be prepared for it not to be. Sometimes even the most amicable spouses have different ideas about what is fair. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. If you don’t have an account in your sole name, open one. Even if you don’t think you need it. If you do have access to the joint accounts, make sure you monitor them for any unusual spending or withdrawals. The same applies to credit cards.
These are just some initial steps to consider as soon as the “D” word starts to surface in your marriage. Always have a plan!
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