Preparing for Divorce Part 2: Getting Organized
Last time, we talked about getting prepared emotionally for a divorce. You need to be absolutely sure that your marriage is irretrievably broken and/or you are no longer committed to saving it, commit 100% to follow through with the divorce in spite of the costs, spend some time for yourself during the process, and seek support from family, friends, and local support groups. Now that you are emotionally ready to part ways with your spouse, it is time to get organized.
During the divorce process, you will need to make countless decisions that will affect virtually every aspect of your life, your future, and the life and future of your children. The better organized you are, the better you will be able to determine what issues are most important to you, so you and your attorney will be better able to effectively negotiate critical matters such as the division of the marital estate, child custody and visitation, and support.
Here are some important steps to take to get organized for your divorce:
Gather your Financial Records
Before your initial meeting with your attorney, you will need to organize all of your important financial documents. Your financial records tell an unbiased story about the finances in your marriage. The more complete your financial documents are, the easier it will be for your attorney to negotiate a settlement that protects your interests and/or argue your case in front of the court (if necessary).
Your financial records can be divided into the following categories (some of which may not apply to your specific situation):
- Income-related documents: Federal and state tax returns from the past three years and paycheck stubs from all sources of employment for the past year. If possible, try to obtain at least one of your spouse’s check stubs as well. Just one check stub will often show year-to-date earnings, and this should provide the full picture of earnings from the past year. If either of you are self-employed, you will need documentation regarding the income and expenses of the business; such as bank statements, credit card processing statements, expense receipts, financial statements, and profit and loss statements.
- Joint financial account documents: Your most recent monthly bank statements for accounts in your name and accounts held jointly with your spouse. In addition, you will need statements related to certificates of deposit, stocks, mutual funds, and other investment accounts in your name and those you hold jointly with your spouse.
- Documents related to retirement accounts: Statements showing the most recent values of pensions, 401Ks, IRAs, and other types of retirement accounts, and documentation showing any loans currently owed back to the account. Although retirement accounts are individual by nature, the portion of the account that was accumulated during the marriage is generally considered part of the marital estate, with exceptions.
- Documents related to marital debt: Create an itemized list of all outstanding debt that is in your name, your spouse’s name, or held jointly. This may include credit cards, unsecured personal loans, student loans, unpaid medical bills, and many others.
- Real estate-related documents: Obtain the tax value and any appraisals completed within the past 5 years on any property you own individually or together, in addition to the most recent mortgage balance and equity line statements.
- Documents related to vehicles owned: Titles and current loan balance statements for vehicles owned by you and your spouse jointly or separately. These may include automobiles, motorcycles, boats, ATVs, etc. It is also helpful to go ahead and run a Kelly Blue Book (or similar) calculation for each vehicle’s sales value.
- Life Insurance policies: If you or your spouse have any whole life insurance policies (i.e. insurance policies that have a cash surrender value), bring documentation showing the current cash surrender value of each policy and any loans that may have been taken against them.
Make copies of your financial documents for your attorney, and make sure to retain copies for yourself. You can make paper copies separated into files based on the categories above, electronic copies, or both. If you prefer to just use electronic documentation, be sure to have the files backed up on an external hard drive, flash drive, and/or a cloud-based backup system. If you are using paper copies, keep them in a safe place where only you have access to them.
Receive your Mail Outside the Home and Secure your Email
If you have already separated from your spouse, be sure to have your mail forwarded to your new address, so that your spouse does not have access to it. If you and your spouse are still living under the same roof, it is best to obtain a post office box or another type of outside mailing address where you can keep your private correspondence secure. Make arrangements to secure your private mail as soon as possible. Also ensure your email account is protected and has a password that is unknown to your spouse. It will be important during your divorce process that you have a private and confidential mode of communication with your attorney and other potential experts in your divorce case.
Plan for Financial Challenges
Finances can get tight during the divorce process, not only because of the legal expenses, but because of what may happen once your spouse knows that the process has been initiated. For example, some spouses act spitefully by emptying out bank accounts and trying to cut off the other spouse’s access to any of the finances. To prepare for a worst-case financial scenario, it is a good idea to set money aside in a separate checking and/or savings account. You may also want to consider obtaining a couple of individual credit cards for emergency expenses.
Keep Your Own Journal of the Divorce Process
Divorce is a difficult and emotionally taxing process. One of the ways to help you deal with it is to keep your own journal of what is happening. You can start with writing down the events leading up to the divorce, then record the day-to-day events during the process. This will help keep you focused, and it will give you a better memory of these events if you ever have to testify about them in court. A divorce journal will also be valuable in the future to help you recall where you were and how much progress you have made since the marriage dissolution was finalized.
Be Careful what you Say about your Divorce Publicly
One last thing about getting organized. What you don’t say may be just as important (or more) as what you do say. In today’s electronic age, much of our communication can be permanently documented. Text messages, social media posts, social media messages, and similar forms of communication can come back to haunt you in your divorce proceeding. For example, social media posts you make are considered “discoverable” and could be used by your spouse against you. Be very cautious about what you say through any form of electronic communication while the divorce process is ongoing.