Considering Divorce? Proceed with caution and prepare!
I often have consultations with people who are unsure as to whether they want a divorce. These consultations are frequently scheduled on an impulse by individuals who are still fuming after a particularly heated fight or the discovery of some betrayal by their spouse.
While some decisions are well-suited to be made impulsively (e.g., buying a pack of gum, meeting a friend for lunch), most are not. Consider, for example, an impulse decision to get a large-scale tattoo (Elvis, perhaps?) on an always-visible part of one’s body. It’s a very rare instance where you encounter someone who has acted on such an impulse who says of their ink: “I got it on a whim years ago, and I am so happy with my choice!”
In the realm of categorical decision-making, it’s smart to approach divorce like the tattoo rather than the pack of gum. Like the tattoo, divorce is not cheap. And, just as the impulse tattoo often comes with unexpected consequences (e.g., morphing of the original image into a grotesque and misshapen blob as the result of weight gain or aging), divorce, too, gives rise to surprises. Regardless of the length of your marriage, splitting from your spouse means losing a substantial portion of your assets and worldly possessions, severing relationships with friends, and potentially giving up the opportunity to experience significant milestones in the lives of your children firsthand. Perhaps most importantly, the decision to divorce – like the decision to inject ink on arm, leg, or face – is permanent and impossible to reverse without suffering through a painstaking, lengthy, and expensive process that will never fully remove all the evidence.
Thus, it would behoove everyone who is considering divorce to proceed with extreme caution. Fortunately, the exercise of caution in this regard will result in unexpected consequences of the positive variety. Apart from the value to be gained from waiting to divorce until you’re emotionally and mentally certain that you’re making the right call, the time to seriously consider this major decision will afford you time to appropriately prepare for success in the event you do elect to proceed. No matter your circumstances, preparation is the most important key to obtaining a favorable result in your divorce case.
So, if you’re teetering on the verge of the decision to divorce, heed the advice I offer to everyone who comes to me in the same position: proceed with caution and prepare. Use the time to address the following matters while you weigh your options, and you will find yourself in a better position to obtain a favorable result once you decide to move forward:
Save up some extra cash. I cannot overstate the importance of this step. Regardless of your marital financial situation, it’s highly likely that you’ll need access to funds other than those in the joint bank account you share with your spouse during the early stages of your divorce. If your spouse has most of the marital assets in his or her name, you may need to get a court order before you can access those assets to pay bills. You’ll need an attorney to help you get the court order, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one who is willing to work for free until you come up with the funds you need to pay him. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to move out of the marital home as well, and that will cost a deposit, first month’s rent, and moving expenses. So, budget for your divorce and store the funds you save in a bank account in your individual name.
Get a credit card for yourself. This goes hand in hand with saving cash and establishing your own bank account – if you don’t already have one, obtain a credit card in your individual name that only you can access. This way, if you cannot save enough cash to cover all of your anticipated divorce-related expenses, your credit card will provide an extra financial cushion in case you need it.
Do some financial detective work and get your records in order. Locate and organize financial records and other important documents, and store them in a safe location to which your spouse has no access. Make copies of original documents like deeds, titles, and wills, leaving the originals where you found them and keeping the copies for your personal records. Obtain statements for all credit cards and other accounts in which you and/or your spouse have any interest. Ensure that you have a copy of your will and that of your spouse on hand, along with any trusts as to which you or your spouse is a grantor or beneficiary. Create an inventory listing all your valuables (e.g., jewelry, artwork, family heirlooms). If you have a safety deposit box, document what’s inside it and make sure you have the key. Photograph or copy all correspondence from financial institutions which is directed to you or your spouse. Do the same for bills that come to your household. It will be far easier for you to collect these items before a divorce is filed than after the commencement of litigation, so aim to complete the process of gathering and storing records before the case even gets started.
Find the right divorce lawyer. Don’t try to handle a divorce without legal representation and don’t assume that all divorce lawyers are created equal. Just as you would rely on a doctor to perform surgery or a contractor to build your house, you’ll have to rely on your divorce lawyer to guide you through one of the most stressful times in your life. During the process, it’s likely that you will need to share intimate and potentially embarrassing personal details with your attorney. So, shop around to find an attorney you can trust and respect.
Minimize or eliminate joint liabilities. If possible, cancel joint credit cards that you share with your spouse. If you cannot do that without drawing attention to yourself, then do your best to stop making purchases on joint credit cards. In your divorce, the judge will have to decide how to divide up marital assets and debts in a fair and equitable manner. While no amount of preparation will guarantee that your spouse will end up liable for 100% of joint credit card debt, you will have a much easier time convincing your judge that joint credit card debt should not be assigned to you if you can show that all post-separation joint credit card charges are the work of your spouse.
Keep a journal. I cannot stress the importance of this step enough. As soon as you start considering divorce, it is important that you keep a daily record of any events or conduct which might be relevant to your case. This is particularly important if you and your spouse have children, as the court will make its custody decision based on the best interests of your children. When keeping a journal, be sure to write with a focus on your children’s best interests. For example, if your spouse frequently works late and misses your children’s important milestones as a result, write about how your children are affected by your spouse’s absence, not how you are affected. Be sure to maintain your journal regularly and keep it in a safe place.
Do NOT change beneficiaries on your insurance policies or dispose of assets to which your spouse has a strong claim. Although I have advised establishing your own bank account and credit card prior to filing for divorce, don’t make drastic financial changes in anticipation of divorce. If you transfer assets away from joint accounts with the intention of depriving your spouse of access to those assets, you will likely find yourself in hot water with the court. All Georgia courts issue Temporary Restraining Orders upon the commencement of a divorce case which prevent both spouses from disposing of marital assets outside the ordinary course of business, and attempting to sidestep your TRO by disposing of joint assets before you file will not give you an advantage.
While taking the above steps as you contemplate filing for divorce will benefit you in the long run, you should also take the time to consult with an attorney as soon as you start to think seriously about the possibility of separation. An attorney can provide you with additional tips to better prepare you for the process after learning more about your unique situation, and the small price you pay for a consultation will certainly be worth it in the long run.