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How to Begin the Divorce Process

Woman taking wedding ring off her fingerHere are some actions you can take, and some records you can gather, to help prepare for a divorce. Planning and acting ahead may allow you to preserve information and prepare for court or negotiations. Always consult with your attorney, once you hire one, before you make any significant moves as you start.

Step 1: Consider Counseling

You don't need to be crazy to benefit from counseling. Consider working with a professional counselor to help you decide whether to work on saving the marriage or to just get a divorce. If you decide to divorce, a counselor can help you through the confusion and stress of the divorce process.

Step 2: Make Lists and Copy Documents

Make a list of all assets and liabilities and try to get as many supporting documents for each entry as possible. Make copies and put them in a safe place. Anything relating to finances should be included.

Step 3: Prepare Budgets

Make a budget for yourself and your family, based on current numbers. Since a divorce causes changes, try to make a future budget for your new situation. Spousal or child support is almost always an issue, so go ahead and prepare a budget showing your income and expenses to review with your attorney.

Step 4: Gather Pay Records

Collect your pay records and your spouse's pay records for the last three to six months, including pay stubs, if possible. That includes bonuses and any income other than paychecks, such as dividends.

Step 5: Collect Financial Records

Gather any of the following that you can find. They will be needed during the divorce:

  • tax returns (last 3 years);

  • profit and loss statements for any businesses owned by you and your spouse;

  • credit card statements (last 12 months, at least);

  • bank statements with canceled checks (last 1-3 years);

  • mortgage payment records;

  • statements on all financial accounts, including money market funds, IRAs and mutual funds, if any (last 1-3 years); and

  • the most recent quarterly and annual statements for any pension, 401K account, SEP account, stock and stock options.

Step 6: Hire a Family Law Attorney

Research family law attorneys until you find one you like. (See “Finding the Right Attorney”.)

Step 7: Even Better—Hire a Collaborative Lawyer

If you want to have a Collaborative divorce, you need to have a Collaborative Law-trained attorney. When you meet with an attorney for the first time, find out whether the attorney has completed at least a basic two-day Collaborative training and how many Collaborative cases the attorney has handled. If the attorney has not done the training or handled many cases, you should at least talk with another attorney who is trained, even if you like the first attorney you meet. This is a life-changing process, so you need to be sure you have carefully chosen your attorney.

If an attorney tries to talk you out of using Collaborative Law, you should get a second opinion from another real (experienced) Collaborative attorney.

Step 8: Look for Good Chemistry with an Attorney

Meet with a lawyer in person and decide whether or not to hire him or her, considering in part whether the chemistry between you and your attorney feels good. The attorney should have good experience and be qualified in family law. Once the attorney has experience and qualifies as a family law attorney, chemistry is key.

Step 9: Hiring a Lawyer

Sign a fee agreement and pay the retainer. To complete the deal, make sure you get a written contract spelling out your obligations in plain English. You should expect to pay a substantial retainer on a major case. The attorney should keep you informed about the balance on your retainer and attorney fees.

Step 10: Preparing a Timeline Is Helpful

It will really help your attorney if you will prepare a timeline of the major events of your marriage. Add a lot of details. Include major life events, financial high points and low points and any issues that upset you, your spouse or other family members. It helps to add good events as well.

The timeline helps your attorney understand your case faster and better. It is also helpful in preparing for negotiations or court. It will save you money by you doing the work and helping your attorney be better prepared.