So I Think I Want a Divorce...Maybe...What do I do Now? - Steps to Follow When Considering a Divorce
Many of the people who walk into our office are still unsure about whether or not they want to separate from their spouse. One of the most frequently asked questions is: "What do I need to do until I decide whether or not to go through with a separation?" There are a number of things to consider personally and legally in making a decision about whether separation is best for you. Here is a list of a few issues to consider while you decide:
1. Consult With an Attorney: Consulting with an attorney even before you have officially decided to separate is critical for a number of reasons. Most importantly, an attorney will be able to advise you of all of your legal rights and responsibilities based upon your individual situation. Some people turn to the internet in search of legal advice, and although helpful information can be found on the web, that information does not take your individual situation into account. Family law cases are intricate in that each person has a different set of circumstances that shape his or her divorce. By consulting with an attorney, you have someone in whom you can confide, and someone who can properly direct you based upon the specifics of your situation. Additionally, by consulting with an attorney early on, you are better able to quickly secure your legal representation in the event that you end up needing it. Some people attempt to navigate a divorce on their own without legal representation, which is a risky decision. Again, although you may be able to find some helpful information online, or from your friends who have been through a divorce, none of those sources alone will adequately prepare you regarding the relevant laws that will come into play in your case. Furthermore, family law often times involves high stress and intense emotions from both parties. By hiring an attorney, you allow yourself to take a step back and have someone who is not personally involved advocate for you from a position of knowledge versus a position of raw emotion.
2. Protect Your Communications: If you are sharing a phone account, a computer, an email account, etc. with your spouse, then your communications are not private from him/her. If you have consulted with an attorney or a counselor, and that person is emailing you or leaving you voicemails, your spouse could easily see that information. It is best to create yourself a private email account that you do not access on these shared devices and accounts in order to ensure true privacy. Your attorney may also need to mail you certain documents, so you may want to consider getting your own PO Box.
3. Protect Your Assets, Accounts, and Information: In an earlier blog, I explained some of the ins and outs of the equitable distribution process wherein your marital assets and debts are divided during divorce proceedings. If you are considering separation, you need to be taking steps to protect yourself financially. If you are considering separation, it is likely that your spouse is as well. Unfortunately, once emotions come into play, spouses may begin taking advantage of each other, so it is simply best to take the necessary steps to prevent the same. You should begin making a list of all of your property that is valuable and important to you. You want to account for items that were purchased during your marriage so that if your spouse moves out and takes or sells some of those items, you will have record of them. It may be wise to take photographs of certain items to document what condition they are in. You may want to consider opening a bank account that is in your name solely. Although any money deposited into the account prior to your date of separation will still be considered a marital asset, you will need your own account following your separation in order to maintain money that will be your separate property after separation. Having your own bank account will also keep your post-separation life more private from your spouse. If upon separation, your spouse begins spending funds that were marital in an irresponsible manner, or begins moving large sums of money into accounts that you cannot access, you should consult your attorney regarding a Temporary Restraining Order wherein the Court may put restrictions on some of your marital funds and accounts in order to protect both parties from marital waste. Finally, you may want to make copies of all of your important documents in case they become unaccessible later on (social security card, account statements, tax returns, medical records, children's important records, etc.).
4. Consider What Your Housing Situation Will be Post-Separation: Unless you are a victim of domestic violence, your attorney will often times advise you to stay put in your marital residence. The purpose of this advice is that often times, the party who has lived in the marital residence during separation will end up keeping the marital residence (usually in exchange for a payment of part of the equity to the opposing party). Additionally, by staying in the marital residence, you maintain control over a lot of the marital property, as most of those things remain in the house pending distribution of the marital assets during the equitable distribution process. If you do not wish to remain in the home, or you feel it would be better for your family as a whole that you do not remain in the home, then you need to begin looking into housing options. If you have children, you will want to consider proximity to their schools. You will also need to consider cost. If you are considered the supporting spouse (the main financial provider), you may be looking at future post-separation support payments, and mortgage payments on the marital residence while you also make payments on your new residence. If you are the dependent spouse (you have relied on your spouse's income primarily to live), then you may have issues getting adequate financial support from your spouse after separation, prior to the Court ordering your spouse to pay you a certain amount in support. In either situation, moving your home is stressful and it is wise to begin looking at options early on.
5. Seek Counsel From Someone Other Than Your Attorney: Clients often times rely on their attorneys for emotional support. Although most attorneys are happy to provide this type of support when they can, such support would be more meaningful to you coming from other sources. Although your attorney will tell you to keep quiet regarding your potential separation, it is certainly okay to confide in close family and friends for support. Those who love you most will support you through these tough decisions. They may give some welcome (sometimes unwelcome) advice, and they will be there to discuss your options and your feelings with you. Although your attorney will discuss your legal options with you, your attorney is not emotionally connected to the situation, and does not know the intricacies of your history with your spouse; your attorney simply knows the law and how to apply it to your situation. With that said, often times friends and family are attached to both you and your spouse, and may not be the best people to confide in. You may want to consider speaking with a counselor or religious leader regarding your situation and your thoughts. This person, like an attorney, is required to keep your conversation confidential; he or she may know you more personally than your attorney, and their sole job is to support you emotionally and give you personal guidance. Your attorney will be used to giving legal advice, and although he/she will sometimes offer personal advice, it is best to leave those types of conversations to those who know you best, or those who specialize in that area. A divorce can be complex and emotionally draining, so it will be helpful to have that extra support both before and throughout the process should you choose to separate.