Every so often, the specter of divorce takes you by surprise. One man we know, a naturalist in California, lived high in the mountains of La Crescenta teaching school children and giving tours. He was thrilled to receive a free cabin near the forest for himself and his new wife and really felt life could not possibly be more grand. One day—in what to the naturalist seemed out of the blue—his wife announced she could not take another day of it and wanted a divorce. It turned out she missed the city life[md]the shops, the restaurants, the bars. She packed her suitcase, and the next morning she was gone.
Another man, this one from Malibu, had taken his wife out to dinner with a couple of friends in town for the weekend. Halfway through the meal, she stood up, stretched and yawned, and announced. "I'm just so sleepy, I'll have to meet you guys back at home." When the man arrived back at his beach house, guests in tow, his wife was nowhere to be found. Indeed, despite the embarrassment she caused her husband in front of his friends, she never returned home that night at all. In the morning, she called to say she was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce.
A third friend found herself in a similar situation. She thought she and her husband were, for the most part, getting along well, with only some small disagreements. They had a beautiful one-year-old son whom they both doted on. One night, her husband announced he wanted a divorce. At the same time, he refused to move out of the house for another year because he wanted to bond with his son. She had no recourse. She lived under those strained circumstances until they worked out a settlement. Only then did he move out.
No matter what your circumstances, if your spouse's desire for divorce takes you by surprise, you will probably feel as if the bottom has dropped out from under you. You're likely to need months to lick your emotional wounds, restore your self-esteem, and start to heal. Nonetheless, as raw and beaten as you may feel, you will need to follow a plan of action if you want to protect your legal rights, financial assets, and access to your children. We know you'll have plenty of time to think the details through, but for now, when the pain is so enormous you can hardly think at all, you must attend to the following items to shore up your strategic position for later on.
The second you're told you will be involved in divorce you must hire a lawyer. Be sure to tell your lawyer about any problems that may require relief from the court: the need for money for yourself or your children; the need to decide, at least on a temporary basis, who the children will live with and what the visitation arrangements will be; and, in some cases, the need for protection from the other spouse.
If you are a parent, the most important thing you will do is protect your relationship with your children. Consult your lawyer immediately to make sure that you are doing everything possible to protect your rights with regard to your children and avoid trampling on the rights of your spouse[md]no matter how you feel about him or her.
Remember, as always, stay involved with your children. With a major disruption imminent, your kids will need the reassurance of your extra attention. Fear of abandonment by one or both parents is the number one instant reaction of children faced with divorcing parents. On the legal front, the more involved you are with your kids now, the more chance you will have to stay involved—by court order, if necessary.
No matter how angry you are, don't lock out your spouse and don't abandon your marital residence with or without the children. If you do so, you stand to damage your position with regard to custody and assets. If you've locked out your spouse, he or she will get back in somehow, and living under one roof will be still more excruciating.
Never act out of revenge. Do not put the children in a loyalty bind. Resist any urge to do "revenge spending." It may be used against you later if your case goes to court.
It goes without saying, of course, that you will follow the "Fourteen-Point Strategic List" provided for all divorcing people, also in our legal area: Protect your financial position by learning all you can about your family's finances. Be sure to photocopy all relevant documents and photograph your valuables, including those in the safe deposit box.
You must also protect yourself against any preemptive moves your spouse may have taken without your knowledge. Directly ask your spouse for any papers that are suddenly missing. Make sure that the safe deposit box or family safe has not been raided. With your lawyer's help, you can get restraining orders against the use of specific bank accounts.
Now is the time for some financial strikes of your own. If it's not too late, collect any journals, calendars, or other items and remove them from the house. If your spouse hasn't yet raided the bank accounts, withdraw half of the savings accounts and open a new account. Do not spend that money, if at all possible. If the credit cards are in your name, or if you pay the credit card bills, cancel them. Tell your spouse you are doing that. Since he or she has announced plans to divorce, this should not come as a surprise. On the other hand, if you have not yet established credit in your own name, now is the time to do so; use your spouse's credit lines to build some credit of your own. Obtain and complete applications immediately.
If the two of you are going to live together until the divorce is final, decide where you'll sleep. Please note, because your spouse told you that he/she wants the divorce, you have the upper hand and can probably successfully demand use of the bedroom. If you and your spouse can still have a civil conversation, decide how and what the two of you will tell the children.