January is traditionally the busiest month for filing for divorce. If you are thinking about filing, or preparing to file, for divorce, here are some steps you should take.
1. Gather all the financial records you can. Make copies and download all the financial records you can for at least the last year, or even better, for the last three years. These include pay stubs from work, investment account records, credit card statements, phone and utility bills, bank statements, mortgage records, insurance information and tax returns. There may be other relevant financial records as well. When in doubt, keep a copy. Put the copies in a safe location where your spouse cannot get them.
2. Plan ahead so you don't just react to your spouse or the situation. Plan when to start (file). It's usually a good idea to be the first one to file, and you need to carefully consider whether you should file and then notify your spouse or if you should discuss divorce and then file later. The first approach is a little more aggressive than the other one. Sometimes it's appropriate and sometimes it can lead to bad feelings. You have to try to anticipate your spouse's reactions.
3. Put yourself in your spouse's position and try to understand his/her point of view. You need to think about what s/he wants, how s/he will react, what s/he will say and how to motivate him/her. If you only consider what you want or need, you will have a harder time getting the divorce resolved on favorable terms. Unfortunately, perhaps, the system takes into account both parties to the divorce. You can do better in proposing a settlement or in court if you know what matters to your spouse.
4. Find a good, experienced attorney you are comfortable with.
a. Where? Referrals from other attorneys, other related professionals or the Internet. It's a good idea to get information from several different sources and then compare the suggestions. You should not hire someone sight unseen.
b. Interview the attorney and ask questions that you have thought about in advance. It's a good idea to write down the questions so you don't forget them. Feel free to disagree or question the attorney. Ask lots of questions. The attorneys don't mind. In fact, the interaction can help the attorney decide whether or not s/he thinks the client would be appropriate.
c. Find out the attorney's suggested approach and decide if that is the way you would want to proceed. Some attorneys take basically the same approach to every case. Sometimes it is very aggressive and some may be very conciliatory. Other attorneys will explain a wide range of options and help you evaluate which benefits you in your unique situation. Some attorneys try to make all the decisions and tell their clients how things will be handled. That may be great for certain clients. Other attorneys will let their clients make informed decisions after the options and ramifications have been explained. You must decide which approach you like.
5. Have access to some money to get started. You will need money for an attorney, but you will also need money to pay your bills. You may need funds to pay for new housing. You might need the money right away, or it could be in the future. Many people going through divorces end up charging expense, including attorney's fees, on credit cards, and many also end up borrowing from parents, other family members or friends. Be creative and think about as many sources as you can so that you are prepared for difficult times.
6. Be certain and be comfortable with the decision. Getting counseling for yourself before you file could be very helpful. That would allow you the opportunity to explore your options and make sure the decision and the timing are right. But, you should expect second thoughts and doubts about your decision. Divorces rarely start out with both parties fully and irrevocably committed to divorce. Work with any professionals necessary until you reach your comfort point, whether it is an emotional decision or one made after you learn how the legal process works. If your spouse if committed to getting a divorce, your lawyer will probably tell you that the divorce is inevitable unless the spouse changes his/her mind. In that case, you may need to take steps to protect yourself even if your heart isn't in it.
7. Figure out how to tell:
a. Your kids. Coordinate with your spouse. You may want to talk to a counselor about this before you have the discussion with your children. Make it age appropriate. Don't give more information than the kids need. Reassure the kids that they will be loved and cared for. Make it clear that the divorce is not the kids' fault.
b. Your spouse. Here's a good post I wrote a while back (12-15-07) about this topic. It's specifically about Collaborative Law, but the approaches apply to divorces in general as well.
c. Your family and friends. Decide on the timing and the message. Usually, the less information that is passed around, the better. You can clue in the especially important people with more information, but don't assume that you can “win” the divorce by convincing your friends by giving them one-sided information. On the other hand, you may be pleasantly surprised by the support you receive from people who didn't previously express their opinions to you.
There may be some other things you need to do to get ready for a divorce, but this checklist will give you a head start. Good luck.