Divorce planning. It sounds so cold, so hard, so... unromantic! But, the truth is, nothing about divorce is romantic. And, as cold and callous as it sounds, planning for your divorce before you jump in with both feet can make the difference between slogging through the process like a half drunk boxer with one hand tied behind your back, or gliding through a painful dance with at least a little bit of grace.
What to Plan:
What do you have to plan? Everything! Think of it this way: you are about to change pretty much everything in your life all at once. You will be changing your family, your finances, your living arrangements, and your relationship with the person you once married. Your divorce will touch virtually every area of your life. The more you plan, the better it is likely to go.
How to Plan:
Once you get past the idea that planning for your divorce is something that no honorable person would do (which is totally untrue, but at the same time, totally understandable) the first thing that hits you is just how overwhelming the divorce process is. With so much changing at once, where do you start?
While you may be tempted to start your divorce planning with a visit to a lawyer, that is actually not the best place to start. That may sound like strange advice coming from a divorce lawyer, but the truth is that divorce is about 80% emotional, 10% financial, and 10% legal. As important as the legal stuff is, until you get your emotions handled, you are going to spin in circles.
Get a Handle on Your Emotions:
Once you realize that you are going to be divorcing (regardless of whether the divorce was your choice, your spouse’s choice, or a joint decision) the first thing you need to do is to find a way to deal with your emotions. For some, that means finding a good therapist. For others, it means calling your best friend and having a good cry (or 10). Still others may want to join a support group, get a divorce coach, or bury themselves in self-help books or a tub full of Chunky Monkey ice cream.
Whatever your preferred method for dealing with your emotions, the bottom line is this: to get through your divorce and plan for your future, you have to be able to think. You can’t think clearly when you are chock full of emotions. If you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, and all you want to do is cry all of the time, you are not in a position to be able to plan anything, let alone something as life-changing as divorce. So, whatever you need to do to get your emotions handled (or at least manageable) is what you should do first.
Of course, if your spouse has already filed for divorce and you need to react quickly, you may not have the luxury of being able to deal with your emotions before you go see a lawyer. If you have to get a lawyer immediately and start dealing with the court system, then, by all means, do what you have to do, and do it fast. But, as soon as you have time (or can make time) you need to find a way to start processing, and dealing with, your emotions.
Get Your Documents in Order:
Step two is to start the information gathering phase of your divorce. The best way to do that is to make a checklist of all of the documents you are going to need. You can get a checklist from your lawyer, or from a multitude of different sources on the web. Here is also a short list of some of the most important documents you need to put together:
• Your personal federal and state income tax returns for the past three years;
• Current pay stubs for yourself and your spouse showing year-to-date earnings;
• Bank statements for every account you or your spouse has, jointly or individually (go back three years);
• Retirement account statements for every retirement account you or your spouse has;
• Copies of life insurance policies;
• Mortgage statements for any real estate you or your spouse owns;
• Any reasonably current real estate appraisals of property you or your spouse owns;
• Credit card statements for every credit card account you or your spouse has;
• Records of any other outstanding debt in your name or your spouse’s name;
• Copies of all of the monthly bills you pay and expenses you incur.
Once you have copies of all of those documents, you will be able to easily make a list of the current values of all of your assets and debts. That will give you a snapshot of your net worth and current financial situation.
On a separate page you need to put together a monthly income and expense report for your family. Knowing how much money you and your spouse have historically have had coming in and going out will enable you to see clearly whether you were living within your means. It will also provide you with the information you need to create a post-divorce budget that you and your children can live with.
After you know the state of your finances, your next step is to educate yourself about divorce. Talk to a lawyer. Find out what your legal rights and responsibilities are. Learn how the divorce process works. Figure out what your options are.
You might want to use collaborative law or mediation to resolve your case. You may want to stick with traditional litigation, but still try to resolve your divorce amicably. Or, you may have to fight with your spouse in court. No matter which divorce process you choose (or find that you have to use), you owe it to yourself and your family to find out what your options are and make an informed decision about how you want your divorce to proceed before you file for divorce and dive head first into the black hole.
The Best Laid Plans:
While planning for your divorce may sound like a good idea, admittedly, sometimes it is just not possible. Either you don’t have access to your financial documents, or when you look for them you find that they have suddenly disappeared. If that’s the case, copy whatever financial documents you can find. (If you don’t know whether it is important, copy it! ) That will at least provide you with a starting point.
If you have been able to plan for your divorce ahead of time, are you guaranteed that everything will then go according to your plan? Of course not! Life never goes completely according to plan. But, all things being equal, you have a much better chance of your divorce going according to plan if you have a plan to start with.