There are steps you can take that will help empower you, save you money, and achieve better results as you are going through a divorce.
1. Obtain emotional support. Family crisis and the break-up of a marriage can be one of the most stressful and traumatic expriences a human-being suffers in life. It is normal to experience anger, hurt, sadness, fear, low self-esteem and/or guilt. With all the emotions that are occurring, you will probably also have to make major financial and practical decisions that will affect you for a long time. It is important to be aware of and express your feelings. It is also important to have a loving and caring emtional network. Find a good therapist and have a family member or friend you can talk to throughout the divorce process. Your lawyer should be sensitive and sympathetic, but do not use your lawyer as a therapist. She is not trained for that role and it will become expensive. Sometimes one’s emotions can afffect the legal divorce process in a way that is harmful to that person’s and the children’s best interest. One may refuse to accept a reasonable amount of maintenance (alimony) and child support because he/she is feeling undeserving at that time. One may urge his/her lawyer to do frivolous and expensive motions because that person is experiencng intense anger towards one’s spouse. Be aware of such behavior.
2. Keep good notes. Information is power. The more information you can provide your attorney, the better she or he can represent you. It is important for your attorney to understand your unique situation and needs. It will also save you legal fees. Instead of spending hours in conferences explaining your case at billable hours, you can hand your lawyer a package of information for her or him to review. Write about your marital history, contributions to the marriage, and the finances of the marriage. Marital history includes specific incidents and general patterns of physical, verbal and emotional abuse, adultery, leaving the marital residence, and refusing to have sex. If other problems exist, describe them as well. Be sure to provide dates, locations, witnesses, and police complaint numbers.
Contributions to the marriage include everything you have done as homemaker (i.e. cooking, cleaning, laundry, repairs, driving, holiday preparation) parent (i.e. taking care of diapers and personal hygiene, helping with the homework and teaching various skills, and arranging social, school, medical and religious activities) and administrator (i.e. paying the bills, balancing the checkbook, watching the investments, communication with creditors). If you have helped your spouse obtain an educational degree, license, employment, business, or permanent resident alien card, describe what assistance you have provided. Do not forget to write about your financial contributions to the marriage and the emotional support you have provided your spouse. Emotional support includes helping your spouse through a difficult period, overcome addictions or bad habits and with family relations.
In regard to finances of the marriage, list all of the assets, debts, income and expenses. Assets consist of real estate, businesses, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, pensions, other deferred income such as IRA’s, Keogh plans and annuities, personal property, automobiles, insurance policies, degrees and licenses, and other investments. Debts refer to credit card debt, mortgages, auto payments, promissory notes, taxes and other loans owed. Income includes salaries, business distributions, rental payments from real estate owned and interest and capital gains on investments. Expenses include, but are not limited to, the cost of housing, taxes, utilities, household repairs and maintenance, food and household products, clothing, laundry, doctors, medicine and hospitalization, insurance policies, transportation, education, recreation, vacations and miscellaneous items such as loan payments, child care, and the beauty salon.
CAUTION: Keep your notes in a safe place where your spouse will not find them, preferably out of the marital residence. Label your notes “Attorney-Client Work Product”. These notes are being kept for the purpose of preparing your divorce case and should be labeled as such. Such information is considered privileged and can not be obtained by your spouse’s attorney. Update your notes and describe incidents as they occur so that you and your attorney have accurate and current information.
3. Collect documents. Marriage is an economic partnership. You have a right to all records affecting the finances of you or your spouse. It does not matter whose name the papers and accounts are kept. It will be cheaper, easier and faster if you collect as much documentation as you can instead of your lawyer. The following is a list of documents you should try to obtain:
- bank statements
- credit card statements
- stocks and bonds
- mutual fund portfolios
- brokerage account statements
- business records and books
- mortgage applications
- tax returns (personal and business)
- pay stubs
- pensions and retirement plans
- life, health, disability, auto and other insurance policies
- power-of-attorney documents
- receipts and warranties for expensive items purchased
- loan applications
- business agreements
- promissory notes
- court and legal documents
- medical records
- employee benefit records
- safe deposit numbers and keys
- any other financial documents that involve you, your spouse or your children
These documents contain important information about the assets, debts, and income of the marriage. Pay stubs will not only disclose income but will also show if money is being taken out for pension, annuity, investment, health or other company or union benefits. Tax returns report rental income and interest income which can reveal if real estate or investment accounts are owned by your spouse. The tax returns may also contain schedules which list businesses that your spouse owns and obtains income from. Mortgage and loan applications are an excellent indicator of the assets of the marriage since one usually wants to portray oneself in the best financial position on such documents. Resumes can provide knowledge of such marital assets as educational degrees, professional licenses (i.e. doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc.) and special skills that were acquired during the marriage. Resumes will also describe former employers where your spouse may have acquired assets such as pensions or annuities. Credit card statements may show charges for expesive jewelry, hotels, restaurants and vacations that are out of the ordinary.
If your spouse has a cash business that he or she has illegally not listed on his or her tax returns, it is important to possess credit card statements and expense receipts to show the lifetyle that is afforded by the cash received.
Be resourceful in attempting to obtain documentation. These documents can be obtained from your spouse, the family accountant or lawyer, or your spouse’s financial planner. They may be located in the marital residence or in your spouse’s business office. The Internal Revenue Service will provide you with copies of any tax returns that you have signed. Deeds are located in the County Registrar or city hall offices where the property is located. Information and statements concerning bank accounts, mortgages, loans, investment accounts, credit cards, pension and other employer benefits may be obtained by contacting the specific institution or employer. If you cannot obtain certain documentation your divorce attorney will seek such information during the legal proceedings.
4. Put aside money and watch the joint accounts and credit lines. Funds may be needed to leave an abusive situation, establish a new home, pay bills if your spouse walks out or refuses to pay, and/or pay legal and expert fees. Even if a motion is made in the Court for financial support and fees, funds may be needed to tide one over pending the decision and enforcement of that decision. It is also important to possess your own money for emergencies, to pursue further education, employment, or a business and to improve the quality of one’s life.
Assets tend to dissappear during a family crisis and the break-up of a marriage. Find out the balances of all accounts and notify all institutions and brokers not to release funds without your approval. You can withdraw funds to use for reasonable expenses or to put in a separate account for safekeeping. Maintain careful records on any funds withdrawn from accounts because you will have to provide full disclosure. Credit lines from credit cards or other sources and home equity loans should either be utilized by yourself or closed; otherwise your spouse may utilize them and incur more debt. If you borrow money from such sources, be aware of the interest the loan will have to be paid back with. Establish credit in your own name before the divorce because it may be more difficult to do so after you are divorced.
5. Choose a good lawyer. Make sure you feel comfortable with the lawyer you choose and that the lawyer is sensitive to your needs. Your lawyer should respect you and understand that you are the final decision-maker in the case. Your lawyer should communicate with you in a clear and understandable manner, listen carefully, keep you informed on all dates, negotiations and court decisions and be available when you need information and a summary of the case. Favorable qualifications to look for in selecting a lawyer include being a specialist in matrimonial law, recommendations from reputable organizations or former clients, good negotiation and litigation skills, knowledgable of the judges and other lawyers in your location, possession of a support staff, and reasonable rates. You should receive a statement of your rights as a client. You should also receive a retainer agreement which spells out the hourly rates, how much money you have to provide the lawyer at the beginning of the case and other financial issues between you and the lawyer. Be aware of lawyers who make any sexual overtures to you, ask for a lien on your marital residence and/or make final decisions without you. Read all documents carefully before signing anything and do not use the same lawyer as your spouse.