As anyone who has ever been through divorce will tell you, even under the best of circumstances, divorce is an overwhelming process that will bring unprecedented changes to your life.
Divorce is complicated. It can be messy. It can lead to an emotional and financial overload that will tax you a dozen different ways to Sunday.
Having some sense of what to expect, as well as understanding what steps you can take to get through a divorce in the best shape possible will save you a ton of grief, time and money.
There is no single magic bullet when it comes to divorce and no single guide can cover every situation you may encounter. But to give you a leg up on what to expect, we’ve assembled this guide on how to prepare for divorce so you know what to do next.
Some of you may be further down the path than others, so jump to the section you want based on where you’re at in your divorce.
- Get a Game Plan
- Learn the Legalities
- Face Your Finances
- Mastering the Mental Side
- Planning for Life After Divorce
Get a Game Plan
1. Do some soul searching to be sure that the marriage is over. Just like marriage, entering into a divorce is not something to be taken lightly. You are changing your life forever.
If you’re sure there’s no hope for reconciliation, then move forward, but do so with the sense of gravitas that going through a divorce demands.
2. Figure out how to tell your spouse. Every spouse will react differently. Some with sadness. Others with disbelief. And some may even become angry or violent. Be calm but firm in your approach.
If you are worried about a bad response, break the news in a public place. Otherwise, pick a quiet and private time to have this delicate discussion.
3. Identify your goals and priorities. Start thinking about what’s truly important to you. What are your needs and wants? Try to peel back the layers and really understand what’s important to you and why.
For instance, let’s say you want to keep the house. Why do you want to keep the house?
Perhaps it’s about providing stability for your kids and being able to stay in the same school district.
Defining your goals and interests as well as your spouse’s is critical to reaching a mutually acceptable resolution. It might not be an easy task, but if you figure this part out, it will save you a lot of time and money not fighting about things that don’t matter all that much in the big scheme of things.
4. Talk to other people who have been through a divorce. Try to understand the process and what it was like. Don’t focus on the specifics because your divorce will be different. Just get an overall feeling of what to expect, what to watch out for, and how to plan for the unknowns that you’re going to be facing.
5. Understand your divorce options. Once you have made the decision to divorce, the most important decision is how you get divorced.
There are several options – litigation, mediation, collaborative divorce, and DIY divorce.
Each process has its advantages and disadvantages. There’s no one process that’s right for everyone. It truly depends on your situation. For instance, mediation may not be a good fit if there’s a history of domestic violence or a big imbalance of power.
If you want an in-depth rundown on the types of divorce, check out this great guide.
6. Consider the timing of your divorce. Timing matters for a lot of different reasons.
For example, in California, 10 years is the magic number to be considered a long-term marriage. If you’ve been married for over 10 years, then that limits the courts ability to set a termination date on spousal support.
Did your spouse just lose their job? Or was your income the last couple years significantly higher (or lower) than average?
These are a couple scenarios that could impact your divorce from a timing perspective.
Make sure you understand the divorce laws in your state to determine what’s best for you.
7. Start building your divorce team. A great divorce teams starts with a skilled family law attorney, but because there are legal, financial, and emotional dynamics involved in every divorce, you may need more specialized help in each of these areas.
An attorney can help with the procedural aspects, provide legal advice, and negotiate on your behalf.
On the financial side, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst is your best bet. Depending on the circumstances, you might need a forensic accountant and tax accountant as well.
A therapist can help you work through the emotional issues and a divorce coach can help with communication issues and developing a parenting plan.
8. Set up a divorce filing system. This may sound extremely simple, but the fact is that you are going to be bombarded with a lot of important paperwork at times, and you’re going to need to be able to lay your hands on it at a moment’s notice to keep the process moving forward. Staying organized will save you time, money and anxiety if you set up a dynamic system at the outset.
9. Reframe your divorce as a business transaction. From a business perspective, divorce is the unwinding of a business partnership between you and your spouse. It’s easy to be clouded by your emotions, but if you can compartmentalize your thinking, you can move forward in the most efficient way possible.
10. Look for common ground with your spouse. When you can agree on the ground rules for your divorce, you can set a plan in motion that will allow both of you to reach a final settlement as quickly, fairly and inexpensively as possible.
11. Take into account your work situation. If you have a job, try to work with your employer up front so that you can handle meetings, court appearances and other matters related to your divorce with as little interference as possible.
Learn the Legalities
12. Do your homework. In a divorce, what you don’t know can hurt you, especially when it comes to legal matters. You don’t need to know every last law and statute on the books for your state, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you at least don’t spend some time soaking up information on the most important elements of your impending legal battle.
13. The first and biggest legal question…do you need an attorney? Divorce is a legal process and if there is going to be any level of disagreement, retaining an attorney will protect you from what lies ahead. Even if you and your spouse agree on an uncontested divorce, you should still consider an attorney to help you with the various processes that can ultimately save you time and money.
14. Consider retaining a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst. In a simple divorce, a family law attorney may be able to handle all of your needs. However, if there is any degree of financial complexity to your divorce, you will need a specialist to sort through the issues on your behalf.
A CDFA is specifically trained to deal with a full spectrum of financial issues that will impact you during and after your divorce. To learn more about how a CDFA can assist you, check out our article “What is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst? (and why you need one)”.
15. Create legal boundaries. If you are dealing with an abusive spouse or domestic violence has taken place, you must protect yourself and your family members by working with the courts and law enforcement through the issuance of a temporary restraining order, sometimes referred to as a temporary order of protection. Legal boundaries can also extend to housing, finances, healthcare, child care and temporary alimony and child support.
16. Know your state’s residency requirements. All states require that you live in the state and the county where you want to file for divorce for a certain period of time. This can be as little as 10 days or up to a year in some instances. Check the local and state laws at your county courthouse or go online to find out what the exact requirements are.
17. Pick your battles. In a divorce, you can’t fight all of them. Not only will you exhaust yourself, you could come off as unsympathetic and that could put you at a disadvantage in the eyes of the court.
If child custody is huge for you, focus on that, but be prepared to be flexible on other issues. Trading off and negotiations are the only way to make progress and complete your divorce.
18. If children are involved, be prepared for a child custody battle. Courts uniformly always put the best interests of a child first when considering custody. By law, judges also must consider several factors as well.
These can include school, health and religious considerations, the mental and physical health of each parent, the willingness of each parent to be an active participant, the relationship of each parent and the child, if drug or alcohol abuse are present, and several other factors.
19. Gather your legal documents. This is going to be a tedious and time-consuming process. But it is critical that you do your best when it comes to assembling information you will need to present your side of your case.
To see what you’ll need, take a look at our Divorce Information Checklist you can access as part of our article “The Ultimate Divorce Checklist: The Information You Need to Prepare for Divorce.”
20. Substance abuse as a legal issue. Some states allow substance abuse to be cited as a reason for divorce, others do not. Where substance abuse plays a major role is in child custody.
If it is determined that one or both parents have a substance abuse problem, this may cause the court to limit or deny custody and visitation privileges.
In some states, substance abuse can be a factor when dividing assets as well.
21. Set up a new email account and PO box. You do not want your spouse intercepting sensitive and critical information that you will be exchanging with various parties. Keep your privacy intact by also possibly getting a separate phone number as well.
22. Decide what is separate property vs. marital property. This will have a huge bearing on how assets are divided. In general, separate property is that which was acquired before marriage or after the date of separation.
Marital property is that which was acquired during the course of marriage. There are exceptions, such as with gifts or inheritances. This will vary slightly from state to state, so be sure to do your homework to legal protect what it yours.
23. What if you’re a member of the military? Service members are afforded certain protections under federal laws.
For example, under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, active military members are protected from default judgements while on active duty. This protection was put in place because no servicemember should be distracted by legal issues such as a divorce while actively serving in another state or country.
Some parts of a divorce will follow individual state laws, and there are special residency issues and retirement issues that should be considered when going through a military divorce.
24. Bifurcation as a possible alternative. Bifurcation splits a divorce into two separate actions. The first half of the bifurcation satisfies the grounds for divorce. The second part deals with things that may have become sticking points such as child custody, visitation, child support, alimony or other issues that are keeping the divorce from being finalized.
Some states allow bifurcation while others do not because it can prolong a marriage and creates judicial inefficiencies through the need for two trials instead of one. Check your state laws if this is a possibility for you.
25. Who gets custody of Fido? Believe it or not, deciding who gets custody of the family pet can lead to major battles. Pets can endure stress in a break-up just like any other family member.
In a civilized divorce, both sides should take into account the move, kids and work factors to decide what’s best for the pet. They should not be used a leverage or as a means of spite against the other spouse.
California is one of a handful of states leading divorcing pet owners into a new era with the recent passage of Assembly Bill 2274.
You might want to give this some thought among all the other issues you’re facing as get into the specifics of trying to settle custody issues, human and otherwise.
Face Your Finances
26. Divorces cost money, so budget accordingly. How you choose to proceed will have a direct impact on how much your divorce will cost. Generally, the more cooperative you are with your spouse, the cheaper the experience will be. You really need to consider whether spending a couple thousand dollars versus tens of thousands of dollars is going to benefit you in the long run.
27. Pull your credit report. The first step in splitting up your debts is identifying them. That’s where a credit report comes in. A credit report will help you identify any debts that you’re responsible for.
If you don’t normally handle family finances, you could be in for some big surprises. Creditors don’t care about your divorce. They only care about you meeting your financial obligations. So, if your name is attached to a debt, whether you know it or not, you are legally responsible to pay it.
28. Start closing joint accounts. Even in an amicable divorce, a spouse may abdicate their responsibility to pay a debt they have been assigned.
You need to unwind your financial relationship with the other person as soon as it is feasible to protect yourself. You could be asking for unpleasant surprises down the road if you don’t take care of business now.
The flip side to this is to open separate bank accounts. Denying access by your spouse to your funds is critical. Keep things clean and start taking a big step toward financial independence.
29. Start building your credit. Divorce can do a number on your credit score. It’s not uncommon for one spouse to stop paying joint debts or rack up charges as an authorized user of a credit card in your name.
Once you’ve reviewed your credit report, then you can start building credit in your name.
30. Give serious thought to your future housing situation. Do you want to keep the house? Can you afford to keep the house?
Think through your housing options and begin to do your due diligence. How much is your house worth? How much would it cost to rent? How much would it cost to buy a new house?
If you want to keep the house, what are you willing to give up in return?
This is one of the biggest decisions that will frame your post-divorce life, so spend a lot of time on it from a rational, financial and an emotional standpoint.
31. Give serious thought to your future job options. Unless you’re financially set, you need to think about how you’re going to generate income after a divorce. If you have been a primary caregiver or stay at home spouse, you may need some serious training or schooling to make you more attractive in the job market.
Where you work may also be impacted, especially if you have child custody and visitation issues to resolve.
32. Will you receive child support and spousal support? If so, for how long? Each state uses formulas in determining child support and you should be able to figure that amount with some legal help. Spousal support involves a number of factors and judges have much more leeway in determining the amount and duration.
33. Do you know what’s involved in splitting a retirement plans? Other than a house, retirement plans often represent the largest asset to be divided in a marriage, especially one that has lasted for any length of time.
It is a multi-step process that requires court approval, input from the plan administrator and making sure that the account and what you may be entitled to are valued the right way.
Ultimately, plans are divided using a Qualified Domestic Relations Order, and you will need to have an attorney help you execute one to ensure you get what you should receive.
34. Track your spending and build a budget. You’re going to be making lots of major financial decisions throughout this process.
It’s nearly impossible to make smart financial decisions if you don’t have an accurate picture of how much you spend and how much you expect to receive each month.
Start by reviewing your bank statements and credit card bills for any accounts that you spend money. Use this to develop an understanding of your historical spending. From there, create an interim budget (during the divorce process) and post-divorce budget.
You may need to create a few versions of the post-divorce budget if you’re considering various living situations.
35. Stash that cash.
Set up Armageddon fund. Find inconspicuous ways to save money (cash from ATM, cash from grocery stores, etc.) and quietly put it away in a safe place. That way, you’ll have options in the event the early days of breaking the news goes bad.
36. Waiving your filing fees. If you can show that you do not have the ability to pay the filing fee for divorce in your state (typically $150 to $400), then you may be able to have that fee waived so that it is not a barrier to getting a divorce.
Mastering the Mental Side
37. Brace yourself for the shitstorm ahead. It’s coming and the best thing you can do is try to prepare the best that you can. You are going to bad days, worse days and flat out awful days but you will get through things. Over time, things will get better.
38. Keep your friends and family out of the middle. This is one of the awkward parts of divorce. People will want to help. People won’t want to help. Others won’t know what to say.
The worst thing you can do is drag them in and have them become punching bags or fight your battles for you.
By blasting your spouse to your friends and family, you may be inadvertently asking them to take sides, and you might not like the outcome.
Find a few close friends and family members you can talk to, but save destructive talk for the attorney’s office, or better yet, a therapist.
39. Limit talk about the blame game. Sure, you’re going to vent. It’s natural. But divorce is rarely completely one-sided, so don’t cast stones too often or too hard.
It’s another destructive behavior that only makes things worse.
40. Steer clear of social media. What you say can and will be used against you.
Be careful of what you post on social media. Make sure your friends and family are aware of this too.
When in doubt, don’t post it. Your spouse’s attorney can use whatever they find on social media against you. Don’t give them any ammo.
41. Don’t force your kids to take sides. As hard as divorce is for you, at least you have some measure of control about what’s happening. Kids have none.
Their world is going to be rocked exponentially compared to yours. Answer questions about what’s going on. But don’t badmouth your spouse. Children hear and remember everything so keep them out of it.
You may be losing your spouse, but you don’t want the regrets of losing your children as well.
42. Treat your kids as kids—even if they’re older. Avoid the temptation to use your child as a confidante, even in a calm, cool and collected way. Remember, your ex is their parent too.
Don’t put them in that position. Turn to friends, family, or a therapist for emotional support. In turn, you’ll be in position to provide the support to your kids that they need during this transition.
43. Do not panic. Easy to say, but at times, difficult to do.
Divorce is the second most stressful life event (just behind the death of a spouse or child). It’s totally normal to be overwhelmed.
That’s why it’s important to focus on the things you can control and go about your divorce one step at a time.
44. Pace yourself. Divorce is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash.
Your brain may race overtime trying to get a handle on everything that needs to happen, especially at the outset. That’s why it is important to educate yourself on the process and order of things.
Taking it slow can be a really smart move – especially if you weren’t the one initiating the divorce.
Legal and financial issues aside, it takes time to emotionally process the end of a marriage.
Your perspectives will shift over time. You will become more resilient as you move forward.
Giving yourself time and space to think about things means you’ll be a better place when it comes time to make one or more of the several big decisions that you will need to decide upon.
45. It’s okay to give yourself a “time out.” If you’re getting too angry or overwhelmed, then call a time out. It’s allowed, especially since you may say or do things you wouldn’t normally do in an agitated state.
46. Stay civil. From an emotional standpoint, staying civil will prolong your life. From a financial standpoint, staying civil will prolong your bank account. Take emotions out of the equation as much as possible and treat divorce as a business transaction instead of a battle you need to win.
47. Trust your team. This may be your first time through divorce (we hope!). You need to rely on the skill and experience of attorney’s CDFAs, accountants, therapists and others who deal with your type of situation every day.
Listen to them. They also have the benefit of being less emotional than you, so their judgment will be less colored than yours.
Planning for Life After Divorce
48. Don’t jump into dating. The initial rebound might feel good and give you some emotional support but did you know in some states it’s considered adultery to date during separation. At the very least, check out the laws in your state because adultery can be used against you in some instances.
49. Revisit your bucket list. A divorce can mean a new level of freedom in your life. If you have children and you’ll only be with them part of the time, you will need to fill that void with something positive and meaningful.
Plan the trip you’ve always wanted to take. Take up the hobby you’ve been wanting to try. Join new clubs and social organizations. Find new and creative ways to grow and fill your time.
50. If you need help, get help. Divorce is ugly business. It can wipe you out mentally and emotionally. Some people can soldier through, but there is no shame in seeking help if you need it.
A therapist or a >divorce coach can help you work through depression, negativity, uncertainties about the future and spot things that may be delaying your healing. These things can also manifest themselves physically as well.
You may need to resort to medications to improve your mood until you’re able to move on and more fully heal from your divorce trauma.