We don’t get married expecting to divorce. We don’t prepare for it. When it happens, we’re usually too angry, stunned, overwhelmed, scared, annoyed or (insert your reason) to handle it all with grace.
Because we are smart, successful, self-starting people, we think we know what we need to do. But we don’t. It is almost impossible to know exactly how to proceed into the unknown. Even if we’ve been divorced before, it probably didn’t happen with this spouse under these circumstances.
When I got divorced, I was in law school. I expected it to be straightforward and easy. It wasn’t. Though I was studying law and the legal system, the process was unfamiliar. If you’re not thoroughly versed in family law and procedures, information and answers aren’t always readily available.
So, where do smart, savvy people begin? I recommend the following steps – the same steps my divorce strategy clients take with my assistance, and the steps I would take if I were in your shoes.
Note: You can complete these steps in any order. If you begin with the second step, the first step may be easier. But the outcome of the second step may be more cost-effective if you complete step one first. If you have an emergency, I urge you to contact a licensed divorce attorney immediately to determine exactly what you should do in light of your situation. If you aren’t aware of any emergencies, read on.
Step One: Assess Your Situation
Whether you are contemplating divorce or the decision has already been made, you must assess your situation. You need to take an objective but up-close and personal, high-definition look at your life exactly as it is right now.
Assess your finances, including your individual and joint income, expenses, assets, debts, lifestyle, children, housing, education, status of employment, career, dreams, fears, length of marriage, place of residency, challenges, business, extended family, and any agreements made during or after marriage or after separation.
Evaluate your spouse’s temperament, personality, actions, inactions, behaviors, words, and the dynamic of your relationship now and during your marriage. Look at how much information you have about each of these aspects of your life.
Your initial assessment should be as complete as possible. But if you tend to procrastinate, feel overwhelmed or your circumstances are such that a complete assessment could take weeks or months, don’t let your inability to complete it prevent you from taking step two as soon as possible. Time is of the essence in divorce and acting quickly to assess your situation and understand your case in light of the law can reduce complications.
Divorces rarely get easier with age. In fact, most divorces involving the division of assets and debts, child custody, child support and/or spousal support become more complicated with the passage of time.
A common complication arising from the passage of time occurs in California divorces when a divorcing spouse moves out of the couple’s home – which for purposes of this example is a community property asset – and uses his or her separate property to pay the principal on the loan. Later, he or she asks to be reimbursed for the separate property used to pay the principal on the loan, and seeks to charge rent to the spouse who remained in the house. This problem comes up even though the remaining spouse did not explicitly choose to remain in the house and wouldn’t have done so if he or she knew he or she could be charged the fair market rental value of the home during the occupancy.
Another common complication resulting from delays in California divorces occurs when a couple own a community property business. One of the spouse’s continues to work in the business after separation and the other does not. The business appreciates in value after the separation, as a result of the efforts of the spouse working in the business after the separation.
I’m sharing these examples to make a point. And to inspire you to take the steps sooner rather than later – with one caveat:
There may be times in divorce when taking action sooner is not better than later. If you own real estate or stocks, it is possible that dividing and/or selling later could be better than sooner. In order to figure out if action should be taken sooner or later, speak to a divorce attorney and any other relevant experts.
Once you complete your assessment, or determine it is going to take a great deal of time to complete – and you can’t afford to wait to take step two, take step two.
Step Two: Pay a good licensed attorney to give you a legal overview of your case
Whether you intend on representing yourself in divorce, using mediation or collaborative divorce, or hiring a trial attorney, speak with an experienced licensed divorce attorney. If you are in California and become one of my clients, we will take this step together in our second meeting.
Ask a licensed attorney in your state to explain your divorce laws and procedures as they apply specifically to your circumstances. Do this even if you think your divorce is simple or you and your spouse have already determined how to resolve your divorce. Do this because you need to:
- know what you can do, can’t do, should do or shouldn’t do
- know what can happen if you do or don’t do something
- understand how your state’s divorce laws and procedures apply to your situation, and what a judge may or may not do if required to make decisions in your case
- know if you have any deadlines you need to meet, how to meet them, what to do if you missed any, why you don’t want to miss them, and anything else you need to know about those deadlines
- understand the ramifications of the things you are thinking about doing or have already done
- understand the methods you can use to resolve the issues in your case
- begin identifying any experts you may want or need to work on your case
- understand the options available to you, which is the focus of my suggested Step Three below
- know what a good divorce attorney would need to know if you were hiring him or her to represent you in your divorce
Get this information from a good divorce attorney. You will need to pay for it because most good divorce attorneys, myself included, will give you this information provided they are available and their fees are paid. The word “fee” may scare you, but don’t let it. The clarity, relief, urgency, power you gain from this investment is worth it. And, if the attorney is being paid, he or she should not rush to get you out of his or her office because he or she needs to do billable work to pay his or her rent. (Lawyers have to eat too.)
If you are wondering, “Can I get all of the information I need in a free consultation, book, conversation with a divorced friend?” The answer is maybe, but I doubt it. Every divorce is unique and what has worked for others may not work for you.
Step Three: Identify your options
Although it may not seem like it at first glance, you probably have a lot of options available for resolving each of the issues in your case. Your options may vary in desirability and feasibility. Some options may be obvious, and others not so obvious. Some may be simple to execute, and others seemingly impossible. Regardless, identify all of the options you have for resolving each of the issues in your case.
Seek the help of an experienced divorce attorney. Divorce attorneys with years of experience have already worked with many clients to resolve the same or similar issues you may face. This experience enables them to share creative solutions successfully used by others. Also speak with other professionals who can help identify your options. Experts to consider include real estate agents, mortgage brokers, appraisers, vocational evaluators, accountants, financial advisors, business valuators and therapists.
Options are beautiful and essential as you contemplate or initiate divorce. If you know your options, you can make decisions more quickly. You can develop divorce strategies focused on securing your most desirable options, and have fallback options identified in the event you need them.
If you are getting divorced in California and would like me to help make your divorce easier, please hop over to this page and complete the form provided so we can connect.
This article is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney if you have legal questions that relate to your specific divorce.