Clients regularly ask us what they can do to prepare for a divorce before it’s filed. Of course some of that varies by situation and we will be happy to give you advice tailored to your situation, but there are some basic steps most people should take and surprisingly these steps go a long way toward improving marriages.
Understand your Financial Situation
Often there are big disparities in basic understanding about a couple’s budget, debt, and assets. One spouse may be nearly clueless how much is being saved for retirement, how much debt exists, how much money it takes to run the household, and what regular bills actually cost. Ultimately your divorce will leave you managing a household on your own. You’re going to need to know all this information so you can do it yourself. Before you file for divorce you should gather your bank records and make sure you have access to all your bank accounts. Your bank will give you that access directly even if your spouse won’t help. Second, run a credit report on yourself and see how much debt is in your name and whether you’ll be able to do things like finance a house or car after the divorce. Get a hold of tax records for the last 3 years. Your CPA will give you this information and the IRS will provide free transcripts if you can’t get the records yourself. Talk to your payroll department and make sure you understand your own retirement and health insurance plans and what it takes to modify them if necessary. Use all this information to put together a monthly budget and analyze what you’ll be able to afford with only your income and what kind of assets and debts you have as a couple.
Get Involved with your Children
If you come to me and tell me you want primary custody of your children I’m going to ask you some surprisingly mundane questions about your life: Who gets the kids up and takes them to school? Who picks them up from school or sports or daycare? Who puts them to bed at night? Who takes them to the doctors? Who are the teachers and coaches and who talks to them? The Court is often interested in preserving the status quo, and that means the parent that administers the day-to-day lives of the kids is likely to be the one that gets primary custody of the children. If you want that to be you, you need to be able to tell me you are the answer to all those questions or at least you are half of the answer. That means getting involved in every aspect of your kids’ lives, not just knowing about it, but actually doing it every day.
Pull in your Support Network
Most all of us have friends and family we rely on when times are tough. If your marriage is ending, times are about to get tough and you’ll need a network of people to support you. Reach out to friends and family right now. Tell them you’re having problems and you may need somewhere to stay, some money, some help with the kids, or just a shoulder to cry on. Chances are if your marriage is failing you’ve neglected some of these relationships because of the stress you’re under, so now is a good time to let people know how much they mean to you and that you hope you’ll be able to rely on them going in the future.
Talk to your Spouse
This is where I want you to be cautious, especially if your spouse is violent or addicted to drugs or alcohol, but most people that are sober and non-violent can handle a conversation about the real state of their marriage. Have that conversation. Tell your spouse things aren’t working out, and why, and that you’re thinking about divorce. A major driver in the cost of a divorce will be your spouse’s emotional state. If they are extremely angry and confrontational you can expect to have lots of hearings and disputes with them where both of you will spend a fortune on lawyers. People move on from relationships at different times but it hurts most in the beginning. You are probably moving on right now, before your spouse even gets started. If you walk out now your spouse will be angry and hurt when you’re trying to do the important business of dividing your estate and planning to co-parent. If your spouse feels blindsided, like you walked out without giving them a chance to try to save the marriage or at least prepare emotionally, they are much more likely to be angry and uncooperative throughout your divorce.
Do you really want a divorce?
I give this advice quite regularly to husbands and wives considering divorce. I would guess that maybe 30% of the people that take this advice end up not getting a divorce at all, or dismissing it soon after it’s filed. Many divorces happen because people are stressed about money, they don’t feel like they’re sharing the load at home, they feel cut off from friends and family, and they don’t communicate about how they feel. I’ve just told you to learn the truth about your finances, get deeply involved in your kids’ lives, engage your network of friends and family, and communicate honestly with your spouse. If you really do all those things you’ll be easier to represent in court, but you might just save your marriage instead.