Making the decision to divorce is huge, but it’s only the beginning of what can be a draining process, both emotionally and financially — especially if you’re not prepared.
Once you’ve come to your decision, you may wonder — where do I even go from here? We asked divorce attorneys who have guided clients through this many times before what steps to take first. Here’s what they said.
1. Do your research on divorce lawyers and ask for referrals.
Take some time to research attorneys in your area. Solicit recommendations from trusted people in your circle. You can also contact any respected attorney, even if they don’t practice divorce, and ask them for their recommendations, suggested Atlanta divorce lawyer Randy Kessler — author of “Divorce: Protect Yourself, Your Kids And Your Future” — suggested.
Be thoughtful and selective during this process.
“Do not just hire any family attorney or the first person you Google,” Lauren Lake, family attorney and judge on “Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court,” told HuffPost. “You must do your research, set up initial consultations, and see if their style of representation is a good fit for you.”
“Even if it is not deserved, keep your head high and act honorably — it will be worth it.”
You want to find a lawyer who is willing to walk and talk you through every step and represents your interests well, Lake added.
“Always remember the lawyer works for you, not the other way around,” she said.
2. Consider your specific needs and circumstances.
When receiving lawyer recommendations from friends and family, it’s important to keep in mind why that person is suggesting this particular attorney, New York divorce lawyer Dana Stutman said.
“Be aware that every divorce is different and every person going through divorce has different needs,” she said. “Make sure your needs drive your decision.”
To help guide your search, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do you want the divorce process to be amicable? Or do you want a lawyer who is going to “fight” and stand up for you against your spouse?
- Is cost a driving factor?
- Do you want the divorce to proceed quickly? Or do you want more time to process the decision?
3. Set up a few initial consultations.
Don’t be afraid to shop around. Try to meet with a few different lawyers before choosing one.
“I suggest meeting at least three different attorneys to compare different personalities and focus,” Stutman said. “There may be a fee, but it is a worthwhile investment. Be prepared with questions, and find someone who is the right fit for your needs and budget.”
Be transparent with your attorney during this meeting. New York divorce and family law attorney Daniel Clement advised to candidly discuss all of the relevant facts of your case: “both the facts in your favor and the ones that may actually hurt you.”
4. Gather all of your and your spouse’s financial documents.
Before initiating a divorce, you want to have a clear picture of your marital finances. It’s best to do this ASAP because once the word “divorce” is mentioned, “important documents often ‘go missing,’” Chicago divorce coach and attorney Karen Covy told HuffPost.
“That’s why it’s important to take the time to gather information as soon as you can, rather than waiting,” she said.
At a minimum, Clement recommended you should secure copies of the following:
- Several years of your tax returns
- Checking and savings account statements
- Records of all investment accounts and retirement accounts
- Mortgage statements
- If you or your spouse operate a business, secure copies of the business records
- Inventory of your valuable personal property, like artwork and cars
- Inventory of the contents of any safe deposit boxes
- Credit card bills
Stutman recommends pulling financial documents from the past three to five years.
You’ll also want to have a “firm understanding of your family’s budget and the costs of maintaining your household,” Clement added.
5. Then, make copies of these documents and put them in a safe place.
After you have gathered this data, make sure you store the copies in a secure location — like your new lawyer’s office, Boston divorce attorney CiCi Van Tine suggested.
“You need copies of all of the financial documentation not only to provide you with present value information, but also to provide insight into whether there are other assets, etc., you might not be aware of,” Van Tine said.
“This will also help determine if your spouse has engaged in financial shenanigans — such as trying to hide money — in the years leading up to your decision to divorce,” she said. “Even if nothing nefarious has taken place, you can only ensure a fair and equitable contract if you have a clear understanding of the family finances.”
6. Educate yourself on the divorce process.
Divorce is complicated and it doesn’t work the way people often assume it does, Covy said.
“If you want to give yourself the best chance to create the outcome you want, while limiting the damage that divorce can do to your family and your finances, you must understand how it really works.” she said. “That means taking the time to educate yourself about the divorce process.”
7. Take care of yourself emotionally.
Divorce requires you to make a ton of other major life decisions. And you can’t make sound choices when “your head is in a fog, and you’re an emotional wreck,” Covy said.
That’s why it’s crucial to work through your feelings — not stuff them down or let them get the best of you.
“Get a therapist. Keep a journal. Do whatever it takes to manage your inner game,” she said.
“Get a therapist. Keep a journal. Do whatever it takes to manage your inner game.”
Lake also recommended speaking to a mental health professional — and suggested doing so before you make the decision to split up.
“Marriages have stalling points but that doesn’t mean the relationship can’t be salvaged or the marriage saved,” she said. “Make sure you really want a divorce and aren’t just acting out of anger, frustration or emotion. A licensed therapist can help you sort through your issues and remain impartial. Friends and family will often be biased and you may be unwilling or unable to share the whole truth and nothing but the truth with them.”
8. Let critical thinking guide your decisions, not your emotions.
“Often, and especially when divorce is foisted upon us, emotion kicks in and a gut response becomes the decision maker,” Stutman said. “We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Never make a decision when you’re mad,’ and that especially applies to your divorce process.”
New York attorney Katherine Eisold Miller and host of the “Divorce Dialogues” podcast also underscored the importance of not making rash decisions in the heat of an argument. You may say something you don’t mean that ends up having serious consequences.
“For example, threatening to take the kids and move across the country in the middle of a fight might trigger your soon-to-be ex to file an emergency custody proceeding,” she said.
9. Change your passwords.
Stutman suggested updating your passwords before the divorce is underway. But one caveat: You should only change them for your own personal accounts and devices, not for ones you share with your spouse (unless advised by your lawyer).
Change your email password first since that’s linked to your other accounts, attorney Molly B. Kenny wrote in a blog post.
“If your spouse can log in to your email, he or she will be able to snoop around and get any emails you receive about new login credentials,” she wrote.
Then consider changing other passwords, like those for your individual bank accounts, credit cards, laptop, cellphone and social media accounts, among others.
10. Pad your savings account, if you can.
If you’re able to, set aside some money for a “rainy day” fund. Ideally, you’d want to have enough to cover at least a few months of expenses “in case your spouse cuts you off out of anger when you file,” Kessler said.
11. Be cordial to your spouse.
They may not deserve your kindness, but treat them kindly anyway.
“Even if it is not deserved, keep your head high and act honorably — it will be worth it,” said Kessler. “Even if all else goes wrong, there can be peace of mind knowing you acted honorably.”