There comes a point when you must bite the bullet and admit that your marriage is at an end. You've tried living together and duking it out; you've tried couples therapy; and you've tried living apart. The truth of the matter is, unless you sever the ties and go your separate ways, you'll never have a shot at the happiness you both deserve.
But before you take the plunge, the savviest attorneys advise, you would do well to make some preparations. It may seem heartless, but if you plan to ask your spouse for a divorce, or if you think your spouse may want one from you, there are some matters you should take care of first. Attend to these issues before your partner even realizes you're ready to call it quits, and you'll be ahead of the game during legal negotiations up the road.
We know that the notion of a pending divorce, even one not yet broached with your spouse, can send you into a tailspin. The mere thought of divorce may induce in you a range of emotions, including relief, fear, disappointment, excitement, and dread. After years of frustration, you are finally ready to divest yourself of some old and uncomfortable life choices for a world of new possibilities and, you hope, lower levels of conflict and pain. But no matter what you feel, you must push these emotions aside and take some practical and highly strategic steps before anyone gets the ball rolling:
- Hire a lawyer. Unless you have been married for only a short time, or you have no property or children, hire a lawyer. Even if you and your spouse have "worked everything out," or have chosen a mediator, your personal lawyer may tell you about rights you didn't even know you had. Find someone who has handled divorces before, someone you can afford, and someone with whom you feel comfortable. Word of mouth is usually a good way to locate attorneys, but don't go by recommendations alone. Meet a few lawyers before making up your mind. You may have to pay for these consultations, but at least you'll learn a little about the differences in legal style and home in on the qualities you prefer.
- Learn your spouse's annual income. If he or she has a salaried position, or is paid by the hour, the information should be on a recent pay stub. If you can't find one, last year's tax return should do. If your spouse is self-employed, a tax return may not tell you the full story. Do a little detective work. Does your spouse have a partner? Are you friendly with the partner's spouse? He or she may know about the business and be willing to share what he or she knows over a friendly lunch. Is someone else in the partnership divorced? Make an ally of that partner's former spouse, who will probably be full of information learned from his or her divorce and only too eager to share it. Finally, don't forget that the best source of financial information may be your spouse. If you haven't discussed your plans to divorce with your partner yet, be sure to put it off until after you have managed to obtain as much financial information as possible. One wife we know happened to be enrolled in a course on money management at the time she decided to move ahead with her divorce. But before she informed her husband, she asked him to help her fill out an income disclosure form—ostensibly her "homework." When she later began divorce proceedings, she had the information she needed, in her husband's handwriting, no less. Even if you're not enrolled in a class, requesting such information should be fairly straightforward. Why do you want the details? In this day and age, our financial status is something we must all be on top of. Just tell your partner you feel foolish without a handle on the economic underpinnings of your life. (And do remember: When looking for information about your spouse, do not explain, explicitly, why you need this information. Whoever you're asking may well figure out your motivation. Therefore, you must make it understood that discretion is essential. But do so subtly—the less said, the better. Remember, even a friend can be forced to testify against you under oath.)
- Realistically assess what you can earn. Have you been out of the job market for a while? Perhaps you need some time to get your skills up to speed before taking the plunge. Has business been off lately? Keep a record of that now, so no one later accuses you of deliberately reducing your income to negotiate a more favorable settlement.
- Learn everything there is to know about your family's financial holdings. Remember, as you wind your way through the divorce maze, you will only be able to share in assets you know about, so you must find out exactly what the two of you have. For most, that's probably easy. There's a house (owned by the bank), a car (still owned by the dealer), a pension (not yet vested), and a little bit of savings. But for some, property ownership is more complicated. In some states, a business created during the marriage is an asset to be valued, and a judge can distribute its value. The same may go for an educational degree, or even part of the value of a summer house—one you inherited during the marriage.
- Realistically assess your family's debt. Often, the allocation of debt is harder to prove or negotiate than the division of assets. What debts do you have? Credit card, personal loans, bank loans, car loans? How much does it cost to pay these debts each month? A good source for this information is your family's income tax return. Specifically, search under Schedule B for sources of interest income and jot the information down. If possible, locate the 1099 forms—the forms that banks use to report interest income each year. That form will have the name of the bank on it and the account number. If you don't have the tax return and are afraid of raising suspicions by asking for it, write the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS will provide you with a copy of the return (provided it was a joint return), but it takes several weeks to receive it. If you have a family accountant, you can also ask him or her to send you copies of returns and 1099 statements. You may also check the mail each month to see who is billing you and for what. Open the bills and photocopy them. If your spouse asks why the envelope is open, say you wanted to see what the bill was for. Hey, you're entitled!
- Make photocopies of every family financial record you can find. Canceled checks, bank statements, tax returns, life insurance policies—if it's there, copy it. You may never need this information, but if you do, it's good to have it.
- Take stock of your family's valuables. Inventory your safety deposit box or family safe and take photographs of the contents. Do the same with jewelry or any furniture, paintings, or other items of value. You needn't list every worn out piece of furniture, but anything with a value of more than $300 should be included. Property insurance policies can be very helpful here, because many companies ask you to list the valuables you want insured. Some people keep a list of belongings in a safe, also for insurance purposes. If you've done that, start with that list. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. What stocks, checking accounts, savings accounts, and Christmas clubs do either of you belong to? Do you have a stockbroker? What about life insurance and health insurance? Get detailed information on every policy you jointly or individually own. And remember, get the name and phone number of your insurance broker now.
- Learn how much it costs to run your household now. Whether you plan to stay in the home or leave, unless you know what the monthly costs are, you won't know how much money you need. If you're the one who pays the monthly bills, your job is easy. If you haven't been the one to pay the bills, look through a checkbook to find the expenses. How much is the monthly rent or mortgage; utilities, including electricity, heat, and phone; and sundry costs from snow plowing in winter to gardening in spring. One woman we know, a well-educated social worker who had a full-time career, did not know the first thing about the family's monthly expenses because her husband's secretary made out the checks and paid the bills from the office. She was embarrassed to confess her "ignorance," but she is hardly alone. The point is, even if this woman had not been contemplating divorce, she would have been well-advised to learn these basic details of her everyday sustenance—such facts simply belong in every adult's arsenal of life knowledge.
- Determine where you will live following separation. If you're the spouse who plans to move out, decide where you are going to live and figure out how much it will cost you on a month-by-month basis beforehand. Maybe you plan to move in with your romantic interest? Although that may be tempting—it may be the reason you want to divorce—it may also be a case of going from the frying pan into the fire. How is your spouse going to react when you want to bring the children there? Will this make your case a thousand times more difficult to settle? Will your spouse now have an adultery claim against you that can hurt you later on? If you answered any of these questions with a "yes" or an "I don't know," move somewhere else. Look through the real estate advertisements to learn about rents. Consider what it will cost to move and calculate start-up expenses, including telephone installation and turning on electricity and cable.
- Save money, if at all possible. One unemployed wife of a physician wanted a divorce immediately. Her divorce lawyer, however, convinced her to change her mind. Instead, the attorney advised her, it would be best to wait a solid year before starting the divorce action. During that time, she was instructed to save money—enough, hopefully, to move out and go it alone. It wasn't easy, but the wife saved enough to move out a year later. After she was settled in her own apartment, her lawyer then went to court and got the judge to order the husband to pay her monthly rent until the divorce was final. If the wife had not moved out, the judge could not have directed the husband to pay her rent—she wouldn't have had any rent to pay. Instead, she would have been stuck in the house, with her husband, until the divorce was final; and that could have taken far more than a year. (While most jurisdictions will award a non-working spouse temporary support, one cannot count on it.)
- Build up your own credit. If you don't have credit cards in your own name, apply for them now. You may be able to get them now, based on your spouse's income, and you will probably need credit later. Use the cards instead of cash and pay the bill by the due date.
- Stay involved or increase your involvement with your children. First of all, this is important for your children, especially because they will need all the support and reassurance they can get during the turbulent times ahead. In addition, because courts consider the depth and quality of your relationship when making custody and visitation decisions, such involvement now could translate to continued involvement, at a higher level, after the divorce. Do a self-check: Have you been so busy earning a living that you've let your spouse bear the brunt of child rearing? If so, now is the time to reallocate your priorities. If you have school-age children, help them get off to school in the morning, help them with homework at night, and help get them to bed. Learn who their teachers are, who their pediatrician is, who their friends are. If your children are not yet in school, spend as much time with them as you can before and after work. Even if you don't have much likelihood of getting custody, you'll become a better parent.
- Withdraw your money from the bank. If you fear your request for divorce will send your spouse straight to the bank, withdraw half of the money in all your savings accounts first. Place the money in a new account, and keep it there until you and your spouse can work out the distribution of property. Do not spend the money if at all possible. If the money is in a checking account and you know the account is nearly emptied every month to pay bills, do not withdraw any part of that money. You will create financial havoc if checks bounce.
- Consider canceling charge cards. If you are the party responsible for paying credit card bills, consider canceling your accounts or at least reducing the spending limit. In one case, the husband's announcement that he wanted a divorce sent the wife on a $12,000 shopping spree. In the final analysis, he had to pay for the fur coat, the VCR, and the Jacuzzi (installed, incidentally, in a house he stood to lose). If you cancel or reduce lines of credit, of course, you must inform your spouse to save embarrassment, and later, anger.