Now that the holidays are over, many of us are thinking about changes we’d like to make in the new year. Some of us have embarked upon a new diet or exercise plan, and others are cutting back on caffeine or quitting smoking. The new year brings an even bigger change for many – divorce. Some couples try to work it out, yet unhappy holidays make the failure of a marriage clear. Others have had one foot out the door for years and the fresh start of a new year is the final push needed to move forward.
Whatever the circumstances, if you’ve been considering divorce, here are some items to consider before you file:
1. Take stock of your finances and gather paperwork.
Pre-divorce is an ideal time to thoroughly review your financial situation. This is particularly important if your spouse has been primarily responsible for family finances. Ignorance on your part could lead to difficulties when it comes time to negotiate a settlement, and taking stock of your finances is easier before litigation begins than after.
Start with two lists. The first list should include a description and account number for all property owned by either spouse, including checking or savings accounts, brokerage or mutual fund accounts, real property, business interests, retirement accounts, and mineral interests. The second list should include all debts and obligations, including credit card debt and mortgage information. Next, collect important documents regarding income, property, and debts. (Important documents include tax returns and other IRS forms, recent bank statements, real estate closing documents, vehicle titles, profit and loss statements for any business in which either spouse spouse owns an interest, paycheck stubs for both spouses, and credit card statements.) Preparing this information now will save time and effort later and help a family lawyer evaluate the case.
2. Check your credit report.
According to one study, arguments about money are by far the top predictor for divorce. Similarly, high levels of debt tend to be associated with marital difficulties. For these reasons, pre-divorce is a good time to pull and review a credit report from all three credit reporting agencies. Anyone can access each report for free once per year from www.annualcreditreport.com. A person considering divorce might also consider monitoring his credit report to make sure his spouse isn’t opening credit in his name or charging things on his credit.
3. Plan for expenses during and after divorce.
Most people can expect a vastly different budget before and after divorce. During divorce, your family lawyer may advise you to request a temporary orders hearing at which the judge will make decisions such as who will live in the marital residence, who will pay which expenses, and who will pay child and/or spousal support while the case is pending. A list of your income and expenses will be helpful to your attorney in preparing for that hearing, and it may help you decide what you’d like the court to order.
This exercise can also help you start brainstorming what your budget might look like after the divorce is final. How much can you afford to pay for housing on a monthly basis? What do you need to save for retirement or for your children’s college tuition? If you have been a full-time parent, will you need to go back to work? Beginning to think about these questions pre-divorce will help you create a plan for financial stability post-divorce.
4. Secure your online data.
Most of us are constantly connected. We use the internet to balance our bank accounts, pay bills, chat with friends, network with colleagues, correspond with our doctors, and share our knowledge and opinions with the world. Not surprisingly, the online worlds of divorcing couples are frequently at issue in court. As you are reviewing your online data, please note that one anticipating a divorce (or any lawsuit) must not delete or destroy any existing data. Doing so can seriously damage a legal case.
While you cannot delete past emails, tweets, or other online data, what you can consider doing is changing your passwords so your spouse can’t access your accounts. You can also check your privacy settings on social media so your online interactions aren’t available to the viewing public (or your spouse). After our clients file for divorce, we suggest they take great care when posting anything online. Ask, “What would the judge or jury think about what I’m about to post?”
5. Stay single for now.
Clients frequently ask their family lawyer whether they can date while their divorce is pending. Dating during a divorce could be harmful to the case for several reasons. First, it’s almost guaranteed to upset the spouse, which may cause an uncontested divorce to become contested or a contested divorce to become more heated. This means more stress (and more attorney’s fees).
Second, dating while divorce is pending is technically adultery under Texas law. If the court finds a party committed adultery, it can award the non-cheating spouse a disproportionate share of the community estate. The court could also order the party who committed adultery to reimburse her spouse for any funds spent on the person(s) she dated during marriage.
Third, when children are involved, additional concerns are raised. New romantic partners can be confusing to children during divorce. All sorts of allegations can be raised about the impact of the new partner on the children.
For these reasons and more, dating during divorce is discouraged. Those who choose to date during the divorce process would be wise to use discretion, especially on social media and around the children. While the divorce process may seem never-ending, at some point it will be completed. Taking the right steps now can help that happen more smoothly.
6. Be Sure.
As all of the above suggests, divorce isn’t really an “easy way out.” The process is often stressful, invasive, and emotionally and financially taxing. While people can and do live happy and full lives after divorce, it is obviously not a decision to be taken lightly. If you have any doubts, consider seeking professional counseling either alone or with your spouse. Even if a counseling professional can’t save your marriage, he or she can help you make the decision, get through the process, and move forward successfully.