A year after I separated from my ex I came up with an acronym that represents areas of your life that you should be aware of as you go through the divorce process.
SELF stands for Social, Emotional, Legal and Financial and they are all areas where you will need support. I’ll talk about social and emotional support at another time because I didn’t handle those areas well. In this blog I’m going to talk about what legal and financial knowledge and support you will need, because in hindsight, I handled those areas really well.
If you are planning to get a divorce you should consider several areas of your personal and financial situation before you initiate the process. Assessing your financial situation is obvious as assets and debts will need to be divided
Finances: If you haven’t already done so, educate yourself on both your household income, expenses, investments and debt. I was very fortunate because I was in charge of all the household money so I knew the amount and location of investments, debt and income. I built an extensive spreadsheet using bank statements and credit card statements to understand how our money was spent.
Make sure you can get your hands on as many statements as possible. Make copies of them and store them away from your home. I stored my copies at work and then mailed an additional set to my sister who lives out of state. Make copies of prior years’ tax returns, especially W2s and 1099s so you have a good handle on household income, both from work and from investments.
Also make copies of credit card statements and any other debt statements such as a mortgage, student loans, auto loans, etc. Most debt usually gets divided, though that can be negotiated. In addition, credit card statements may reveal of your husband’s marital “indiscretions.”
Before we separated I took out a credit card in my own name and stopped using our joint credit card. I also moved cash out of a joint account into an account in my own name. Lawyers generally frown on moving money around that but I disclosed the money in our divorce proceedings so it wasn't an issue.
Probably the biggest mistake I made was continuing to share a joint checking account with my ex long after he moved out. Each of us could see what the other was spending—he was antiquing with his girlfriend and I was buying groceries. Being that involved in each other’s business created a lot of unnecessary friction. He demanded to know why the grocery bill to feed two teenagers was so high and insisted I account for every penny I spent. In hindsight, as soon as he moved out I should have opened a separate checking account in my name only so he could no longer see my income and expenses.
Also, make sure you are able to document any significant assets you held prior to the marriage and any inheritance you received while married. The laws vary by state but in my state an inheritance I received from my mother’s estate when she died is considered “separate property” and doesn’t get divided. I had enough of a paper trail to show that it was an inheritance and received about 75% of it.
The last thing you may want to do in bring in a third party “financial neutral.” This is usually a certified financial planner, hired jointly, who can consider the short and long term tax implications of spousal support, child support, retirement savings, pensions, etc.
Honestly assessing your personal strengths and weaknesses very important because knowing those will help you:
- Pick an attorney
- Know where your vulnerabilities are—because your ex certainly does—and make sure you develop ways to protect yourself.
- Decide if going to court or mediation will work better for you (in states that allow mediation)
Picking an attorney: Your attorney is not your friend and is not your therapist. His or her job is simple: represent you and help you negotiate the best settlement for you. He or she knows the laws of your state, though I believe anyone going through a divorce should educate themselves about their state laws governing divorce, spousal support and child custody. So don’t compare your divorce to anyone who lives out of state because there are HUGE differences in the states’ laws.
The second thing to consider when picking an attorney is to determine whether he or she is a good “fit” for you. You are going to be spending a lot of time and money on this person so it’s really important that you work well together.
The third thing to think about is whether or not you can have a “long-term” relationship with your attorney. Even after the papers are signed and the divorce is finalized—it’s not. Some ex spouses take their former spouses to court multiple times. Oftentimes child support or spousal support need to be renegotiated if your ex-spouse has a new job or is moving out of state. So a lawyer that is halfway to retirement might not be a good choice unless there is a successor lined up.
Know Yourself: If you’ve spent most of your married life giving in to your husband and backing down whenever you argue then you will to learn to advocate for yourself. If your approach is “take no prisoners” then it’s time to realize that not everything can or should be a fight to the death. Learn to “lose the battle and win the war.” A good lawyer, while not a therapist, can help with this.
Litigation, Mediation or Collaborative Divorce; Litigation is the tried and true and very expensive and time consuming way of suing your ex, hiring a lawyer, and battling it out in court. This is not always wise because you could spend $1000 or more in attorney fees battling over a $10 piece of china.
Mediation is faster and cheaper than litigation. In my state, the divorcing parties meet with a mediator who is “neutral.” They each present their concerns and issues and in a day or two they have an agreement. In some cases they have an attorney to help understand the legal issues, but it is not required. Not all states recognize mediation as a viable alternative.
Collaborative Divorce is based on series of meetings where each spouse has their own attorney, and, as appropriate, access to a team of professionals to advise them. The attorneys work to help the divorcing spouses make decisions that are in the best interests of the entire family. The collaborative attorneys commit to resolving all matters outside the courtroom, and the spouses commit to full voluntary disclosure of all relevant information.
In cases of domestic violence, uncontrolled mental illness or a severe power imbalance, mediated or collaborative divorce may not be suitable.
Last thoughts: Get a good therapist. If you can't afford one, then clergy can often fill that role. Finally, take the high road and don't badmouth your lying, cheating, narcissistic ex to your children. They'll figure it out one day.