While you may have come to the conclusion that your marriage is over and you are eager to announce your decision, we recommend that you take the following steps before “crossing the rubicon” and telling your spouse that you want a divorce. Knowledge is power and it is important for you to be fully informed about your rights and obligations under the law before discussing the topic of divorce with your spouse:
1. Consult a Family Law Attorney: An attorney who is knowledgeable of the domestic relations/family laws in the state where you reside will be able to provide you with important information and guidance about what you can expect regarding child support, maintenance, and equitable distribution and about child custody and parental access. Don’t consult someone who dabbles in family law – consult a specialist in the field.
2. Know Your Financial Picture: Be knowledgeable about your and your spouse’s finances. Summarize income from all sources. Identify assets and liabilities (both in your name and in your spouse’s name), when and how they were acquired and list what insurance coverage (medical, dental, optical and life) there is for your family. Once armed with this critical information, you will be able to obtain a clearer understanding of your entitlement under the law.
3. Understand your Monthly Expenses: Be able to articulate how much you spend on a monthly basis both on basic needs and discretionary items. This fluency in your expenses will enable you to better understand what your needs are on a temporary and permanent basis.
4. Obtain Financial Records: Before you even utter the word “divorce” to your spouse, look for bank statements, cancelled checks, tax returns, life insurance policies, credit card statements, closing binders, loan documents, etc. and make copies of those records.
5. Open Up Your Own Bank Account: It is important to have monies in your own name in case of an emergency and in the event that your spouse attempts to reduce your access to funds and credit cards after your announcement. Having funds in your own account will also enable you to hire an attorney when you are ready.
6. Build your Credit: If you don’t have credit cards in your name, apply for them so that you build up credit. Use the cards and pay the entire balance each month. By doing this, not only will you establish your own credit, but it will enable you to document your expenses.
7. Consult a Child Therapist: To ensure that your children are protected from the stress and tension which has led you to making this decision, consult with a child therapist who can make suggestions as to the best way to advise your children about the divorce after you have discussed same with your spouse. A child therapist can also provide you with the tools and strategies to deal with many of the issues that will arise once your children have been told and how to deal with questions that they have.
8. Safeguard Important Personal Belongings: Hurt, anger and resentment often cause people to act out of spite. Before you discuss the issue of divorce with your spouse, make sure to safeguard important personal belongings which could go missing or be destroyed. Open a safe deposit box or place these items with a friend or family member.
9. Consider Your Legal Options for Resolution: There are many options, but not all options work for all parties. Negotiation and/or litigation between two parties represented by counsel; Mediation – in which a neutral third party attempts to help the parties reach a compromise; Collaborative Divorce – where each party has an attorney, but the adversarial milieu is replaced by a philosophy of harmony and the goal of getting along. If there is one party who is very controlling or there is an uneven balance of financial power, mediation may not be the best option. If there is a party who is acting unreasonably, you could find yourself having to go back to square one in collaborative divorces because you entered into a contract in which your collaborative attorney cannot represent you in litigation. Seriously consider the dynamic between you and your spouse when selecting your path to resolution.
10. Ensure That You Have a Support Network: Make sure that you have surrounded yourself with people whom you trust to not only provide you with the emotional comfort that will be essential but who will also tell you the truth, even when it is hard to hear. Whether that support network is made up of family, friends and/or mental health professionals, make sure that they are in place before you embark upon your journey.
Lois Liberman and Marilyn Chinitz are Partners and matrimonial attorneys at Blank Rome LLP in New York. Lois and Marilyn are litigators who handle complex divorce matters for opposite-sex and same-sex couples.