There’s no doubt about it…divorce is stressful. To help alleviate some of that stress, it’s important to be prepared.
Perhaps the most difficult part of a divorce is preparing emotionally. Both before and during the divorce process, it’s important to surround yourself with a supportive team of family and friends who understand what you’re going through, and love and support you unconditionally.
Consider working with a therapist in order to learn tools and coping mechanisms that will help get you through this trying time. If you have children, make sure they, too, have the therapeutic support they need. These experts can help with creative strategies and techniques that may be required to address questions and issues as they arise.
Getting Your Assets in Order
Consult with a family law attorney to gain a better awareness of your legal rights and obligations during this transitional period. Educate yourself on your financial situation so that you can empower yourself and your attorney. Some of the most valuable information to use in preparing for your divorce is as follows. It’s important for you to obtain copies of as many of the documents or information about the items listed below:
- Your and/or your spouse’s Social Security Earnings Statement. This is a concise snapshot of each party’s income and earning history.
- The last 5 years of federal and state income tax returns and all W-2s, 1099s, Schedules, and K1s.
- Copies of all current bank, brokerage and stock account statements.
- A copy of your and/or your spouse’s Employee Benefit Manual. These often provide a detailed list of every benefit made available by an employer to its employees (i.e., health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, 401(K), IRA, ESOPP, ESPP, pension information, and the like).
- If a pension exists, documentation from the Plan Administrator identifying the nature of the pension, the benefits, the specifications, and a form Domestic Relations Order required to divide the pension.
- Copies of any other defined benefit and defined contribution retirement account statements (i.e., IRAs, 401K, 403(b), TIAA).
- Copies of all the children’s savings accounts, 529 Plans, savings bonds, etc.
- Documentation to prove the existence of any other assets (i.e., Kelley Blue Book values of vehicles, appraisals of real or personal property, estate planning documents, trusts, etc.).
- Inventory any safe or safe deposit box. You should make videos and photograph all items they contain, and safeguard any item you cannot afford to lose.
- Inventory any gift cards accumulated by either you or your spouse. These could amount to significant assets.
- Obtain copies of your credit report.
- Obtain copies of credit card statements to show debt and charges. Year-end summaries are extremely helpful.
- Consider obtaining credit cards in your own name.
- Consider establishing and opening your own bank account.
- Inventory artwork, wine collections, furniture, furnishings, jewelry, sentimental property, or other valuables. You should also make videos and take photographs of these items as well.
- Obtain records of your frequent flyer miles and credit card rewards.
- If you are under your spouse’s health insurance policy, this coverage will no longer be an option post-divorce. Explore obtaining and maintaining your own health insurance. Gather information about insurance policies available to you (i.e. medical, dental, vision, prescription drug, life, homeowner’s, disability, etc.).
- If you are aware of a Health Savings Account in your spouse’s name, obtain as much information as possible about it.
- Obtain current mortgage statements. If there is an open line of credit, contact your bank to ask that they require dual signatures before anyone can access the line. If you think your spouse will invade and dissipate the line of credit, you might consider closing the line or suspending it.
- Obtain your and your spouse’s last 3 paystubs.
- Obtain all documents that might be helpful in assessing the value of any businesses, partnerships, or business interests.
- If you’re claiming an asset is premarital or inherited, and therefore is not subject to equitable distribution, the burden of proof is yours. Compile all documents necessary so show its immune status.
- Keep a journal of custody and parenting time issues and/or concerns.
- Monitor and be mindful of your, your spouse’s, and your children’s social media accounts.
I always ask my clients for their wish list as to where they want to be mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually in a year following the divorce. This helps me develop a strategy in working to achieve their goal. As I review their wish list, the documents I may need may change. Each divorce is unique, and each couple’s individual facts and circumstances combine to determine the outcome of a divorce. Being prepared to address the divorce comprehensively and holistically will help alleviate unnecessary stress and worry throughout the process.
Managing the Emotional Side of Divorce
Equally important to ascertaining the financial components of a divorce or breakup is working toward managing the emotions and the pain that often accompanies a couple parting ways. One of the most difficult aspects of being a divorce lawyer is managing an angry or bitter client, or one who does not wish to be divorced. It is troubling when a client demands justice or retribution by way of the divorce process. It is generally a very difficult conversation and contrary to every stereotype believed by the client, but justice is not always, and dare I say not often, achieved in a divorce.
A client seeking justice, retaliation or revenge is sure to leave the divorce process extremely frustrated, quite angry and I am sure, near broke, both financially and emotionally. It’s a challenge to try and shift their focus to one of healing from the pain or building their strength to accept and flourish post-divorce.
The greatest gift a client can give himself or herself is to enter the divorce process with the least amount of anger and bitterness as possible. I’m not saying you can’t be angry or bitter or seek to ring the neck of your spouse but I would strongly urge the client to hire a therapist and work out those emotions in a therapeutic process, not in the divorce process. It will take time and effort, but the results will be worth it.
What I know for sure is that the best divorce is an amicable divorce reached without protracted and extensive court intervention and where both parties feel as if they lost something to gain something as part of their compromise.
After all, the test of a true compromise is if you feel like you gave up something to get something. As you prepare for your divorce, it would serve you well if you deleted from your vocabulary words like justice, punish, spite and revenge. In every instance where you can take the high road and not get into the sand box with your spouse, take the high road; even when you feel like screaming. In the end, when you reflect on how you conducted yourself through the divorce process, you can be proud of how you acted. If you have children, they are sure to benefit from being sheltered from unnecessary controversy and drama.
There certainly are situations where you will need to fight and to take an aggressive stance. When those situations arise, it is important to take a reasonable stand, present a strong attack and litigate. Those instances are generally few and far between, and even then, the litigation process can wear on a client and bankrupt the client emotionally, financially, or both.
In the end, the goal for every client should be to find peace, closure, and a settlement that works for him or her. When clients focus on preparing themselves both financially and emotionally, the divorce process can feel and become much less stressful.
Jeralyn Lawrence is the Founder and Managing Partner of matrimonial, divorce and family law firm Lawrence Law. She is First Vice President of the New Jersey State Bar Association and President Elect of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Lawrence Law has offices in Watchung and Red Bank, New Jersey.