Divorce may be fairly common these days. But despite the frequency, it’s still about as pleasant as a root canal or a colonoscopy. And it can make both of those seem downright pleasant if the spouses declare war on each other. Fortunately, divorce does not have to be angry texts, shrill voices, and endless battles. It can go relatively smoothly with preparation and a concerted effort to act with maturity.
If you decide to take the plunge, the first step is to pick an attorney. Generally, you’ll want to meet with a few attorneys to see if there’s a good personality fit. When doing so, pay attention to whether they recommend litigation. If they sound aggressive, be careful. Because while you may think you want a bulldog who will make your ex pay, in reality the only one who gets paid in a bruising divorce is your lawyer. So what you want is a lawyer who can fight but who is sensible enough to caution you against spending $10,000 in legal fees to gain an extra $5,000 of marital assets.
Second, while interviewing attorneys, you should also conduct an inventory of your financial situation. Begin with what you own—land, the house, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, and so on. And consider less obvious assets too, like pending tax refunds, airline miles, or loyalty points. You’ll then want to figure out the current value of these items as well as when and where they were purchased and if they were bought using marital assets. Next, figure out what you owe. Sometimes that process is as simple as getting a copy of your credit report. Other times it will take additional sleuthing. After that, calculate your and your spouse’s income. A good place to start is your most-recent tax return. But if you or your spouse is self-employed, then you may need to review financial business statements and bank account statements to get a clear picture.
Third, close all of your joint credit accounts. The last thing you need is an angry spouse running up a credit card bill that you may be responsible for later. And if the account is carrying a balance that you can’t pay off, then consider freezing the account instead. Once the divorce is over, the responsible party can then deal with the debt without affecting the other spouse’s credit.
Fourth, think about opening a new credit card in your name only. But only use it sparingly and make sure that you pay off the balance every month. The idea is to build up your credit score, not generate debt.
Fifth, develop a post-divorce budget. I know budgets are not fun. But it’s helpful to evaluate your future income and expenses for a couple reasons. Primarily, it will give you useful information for negotiating a settlement. But it will also prepare you for the reality that your post-divorce finances will likely be gloomier than your marital finances because, for example, while you’re married you share a house and other necessities whereas after a split, each of you will need your own residences, vehicles, utilities, and so on.
Sixth, write everything down. Did you have an argument? Make a note of the date, time, and topic. Did the two of you agree on a custodial plan for the kids until the divorce wraps up? Write it down. Did your spouse drop off the kid late or not at all? Document it. The point is that it’s easy to forget this stuff later. But if you need to file a motion with the court, then your notes will be invaluable.
Finally, be on your best behavior because every misstep will be used against you. Post a vacation picture while claiming that your spouse is asking for too much money? Expect that picture to surface as proof that you can afford your spouse’s demand. Post a picture of yourself at bars while you are trying to get primary custody of the kids? Don’t be surprised if your spouse uses the photo to argue that you prioritize your fun over your kids’ wellbeing.
But those are not the only reason to be on your best behavior. The reality is that while lashing out and acting badly might feel satisfying in the moment, it only makes the situation worse. It prolongs the divorce process, deepens disputes, and poisons your family—especially if you share kids. And that’s no good for you or anyone else.
This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be taken as legal advice. For your specific case, consult a lawyer.