Pre-Divorce Checklist: The Rational Preparation Before an Emotional Journey
Divorce is rarely easy for anyone. But if you’re serious about terminating your marriage or partnership, there are some steps you can take to legally, financially and emotionally prepare. Taking these steps first can make the process easier for all.
Choosing a Divorce Lawyer
Before making any major decisions, meet with and retain a family law attorney. You should retain a lawyer who listens, makes time for you, is responsive, and with whom you are comfortable talking to.
Some questions you may want to ask include:
- What is your hourly rate?
- What is your retainer? Does you retainer get applied to the monthly bill? If so, how much will be needed to replenish it?
- Is the retainer an Evergreen retainer? An Evergreen retainer is applied to the final but not monthly bills. You will be expected to pay your bills monthly.
- Do you have people who assist you? For instance, paralegals have lower hourly rates, as do associate attorneys.
For some, it may be tempting to just pack a bag and leave. That’s a natural, emotional response in some situations, but don’t do it.
It takes at least six months for a divorce to finalize in California, and sometime after moving out a party will almost always decide there are certain assets worth fighting for. Without proof that those assets are community/quasi-community, separate, or commingled property, the divorce can take longer depending on how long the parties want to fight over them.
Here is the rational response:
- Photocopy all financial information such as bank statements, 401k, tax returns for the last five years, credit card statements, appraisals, and insurance policies.
- If you are self-employed, make sure you have any documents you need to run your business – put them on a flash drive so you have a backup.
- Take photos of anything valuable you may need to leave behind.
- Gather all important documents: passports, social security cards, photos, baby books, and birth certificates.
- Aside from the “big ticket items” like cars, homes, business interests, stock accounts and bank accounts – you should also make a list of retirement accounts, employee benefits, investments, life insurance, intellectual property, frequent flier miles/points, club memberships, season tickets, collectibles, jewelry, and proof of gifts.
Be prepared for a lot of paperwork. California Family Code §2100 mandates both preliminary and final Declaration of Disclosure forms stating all of your assets, debts, income and expenses under penalty of perjury.
Prepare the disclosure forms like tax returns. Sit down with your records and a computer, and set aside several hours to fill out everything as completely and accurately as possible. Engage someone to help you if necessary. The more thorough you are, the less your attorney will need to do, which keeps your fees down.
Decide what your goals are, so that you are less reactionary and more proactive as the divorce progresses. Some questions you may want to ask yourself include:
- Who should have physical and legal custody of the children and/or the family pets?
- Do you want to stay in the marital home, or would you prefer a clean start?
- Can you afford to stay in the marital home?
- Which assets are most important to you?
- What sentimental items are most important to you?
Have a support system in place: friends, family, a therapist. You will grieve the relationship. Divorce will not be easy but you will get through it.
Dealing With Your Ex
Keep your communications with your soon to be ex-spouse short and respectful. In other words, do not engage in emotionally driven texts, emails, phone calls or social media posts. Also remember that you do not need to respond to every communication, and that often, waiting a day to reply gives everyone better perspective.
Stick to the facts and do not explain yourself. For instance, if your spouse says: “I can’t believe you did not practice with our daughter before her big math test and she did poorly. She should not go to your house before a big test.”
An appropriate response might be: “We did practice but she really needs more help than just the night before. Would you agree to split the cost of a math tutor? I think she would really benefit from one. Please let me know by Friday.”
Pick and choose your battles. Ask yourself: “Is it really worth the cost of attorneys’ fees to fight about this?” The more belligerent the parties, the longer the divorce takes. And that can be costly for all.
Vanessa Soto Nellis is a California Family Law Certified Specialist and the Chair of our Family Law Practice Group.