Most people marry with the intent of remaining married for the rest of their lives. In reality, 50 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce and roughly 1 in 4 married people have thought about divorce in the last six months. On average, it takes two years from the time a person starts thinking about divorce to the time he or she actually files. But what happens once the decision to divorce is made? There are at least 10 things to do before filing for divorce, so we have included 11 or more here for those who are considering ending a marriage.
What To Do Before Filing for a Divorce
Filing for divorce is a single step in the process of divorcing a spouse. Ideally, it is not even the first step. Creating a planning checklist for divorce can help people stay organized, think clearly, and break the seemingly overwhelming process into manageable chunks.
Some of these steps may need to be started 6–12 months prior to filing, if not sooner. Exercise discretion, however, because once you file and your spouse knows your intent, some steps may be more difficult to take. Every situation is unique, but the following guidelines apply to many people in a broad range of scenarios.
*Note: In situations that involve domestic violence or any threats of harm, the top priority is always to get out safely as quickly as possible. If you need assistance with that first step, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-SAFE (7233) or by texting “START” to 88788.
No. 1—Consult with a Lawyer
One of the very first things to do before filing for divorce is to find a good divorce lawyer. Many people who are contemplating divorce put off talking to a divorce lawyer until they’re ready to file. However, talking to a family law attorney in the early stages can help to sort out many of the pre-divorce matters and can help avoid major pitfalls. A good divorce attorney will not try to sway a person one way or the other. Instead, he or she will provide the potential client with the information needed for the best decisions moving forward. Among the questions a family law attorney can help to answer are:
- How and when should a person broach the subject of divorce with his or her spouse?
- Does it make sense to wait until a particular milestone is reached involving the kids, taxes, etc.?
- How much can one spouse expect to pay or receive in child support or alimony?
- How does living in two separate homes work financially? (Is it a bad idea to move out right away?)
- What sort of custody or parenting time schedule would be ideal?
- What type of divorce would work best (e.g., mediation/collaborative divorce, fault/no-fault divorce, simplified divorce, uncontested divorce, etc.)?
Seeking legal insight can help a person to clarify goals, understand rights and obligations, determine a need for litigation, and make informed choices about what to fight for and what to compromise on. Understanding your state’s laws on child custody, shared parenting time, asset division, and debt sharing can guide future conversations with your soon-to-be former spouse. An attorney can also recommend other key advisors, such as financial experts, asset evaluators, child psychologists, and tax specialists.
Consider interviewing two or more attorneys before deciding which one to hire. This is a person in whom you will be placing a lot of trust and with whom you’ll be working closely through one of the most emotionally and financially consequential times in your life. Look for someone who fits your communication style, listens carefully, understands your goals, and is qualified to handle the unique elements of your case.
No. 2—Gather Evidence
In cases that involve domestic violence or other bad behavior as grounds for divorce, the court may require evidence in order to award financial support and custody of children or to prevent issues during negotiations.
Knowing what to do before divorce can help you to gather appropriate documentation for any behaviors that your state recognizes as grounds for divorce. Some state statutes require a reason for divorce, often from a pre-approved list.
No. 3—Organize Your Finances
One primary function of a divorce is identifying which assets and liabilities rightfully belong to which spouse and how to fairly divide them. To do this effectively, spouses need a clear picture of where they stand financially.
For this step, locate and make digital copies of all financial and property records, including mortgage/rental agreements, bank accounts, pay stubs, tax returns, spouse’s income, vehicle records, pension plans, retirement accounts, valuable heirlooms, luxury items, inheritances, etc. Pull records of debts, such as mortgages, student loans, credit cards, collection notices, and others. Gather evidence of regular monthly expenses, such as childcare costs, groceries, utilities, home and vehicle maintenance, etc. All of this will help to give the court or the lawyers a good idea of the fairest way to divide everything. In addition, be sure to gather all login credentials for each of your accounts.
If you have a prenuptial agreement, find your copy and make a digital scan for backup if you haven’t already. That agreement can have a powerful impact on future proceedings.
No. 4—Establish Your Line of Credit
Consider establishing credit in your own name. It’s also a good idea to set a strict budget for yourself and save whatever you can. Divorce can be expensive, and the aftermath typically requires each spouse to get by with fewer resources.
No. 5—Write Your Ideal Plans for Child Custody and Parenting Time
Sharing parenting responsibilities and time with the children is every parent’s right, unless he or she presents a threat of harm. This, however, can be an emotional decision. Draft the ideal child sharing schedule that you think best fits your circumstances, keeping in mind that the other parent will have significant input. Any final plan will need to be approved by the court, which will be guided by what is in the children’s best interests.
Every state has its own rules for child custody after divorce. Some presume joint custody, which is equally shared parental responsibility and parenting time. Some favor maternal custody for unmarried mothers but will give equal rights to both parents if they were married. The final decision depends not only on the law in the parent’s jurisdiction but also on the family’s circumstances.
Even legal presumptions are starting points that can be successfully overcome. Barring evidence of abuse or neglect, family law courts generally consider regular, continued contact with both parents to be in the best interests of the children. In determining custody and parenting time, the following factors are usually weighed:
- The age of the children;
- The living situation of both parents;
- The willingness of a parent to support the co-parent’s relationship with the child;
- The relationship each parent had with the child before divorce;
- The preferences of the child; and
- Stability and continuity.
No. 6—Create an Ideal Plan for Spousal Support
Most people understand that there can be negative financial consequences associated with divorce. When couples divorce, each former spouse again becomes individually responsible to support himself or herself and possibly the children. Often, the marital home and all other financial assets are divided. Unless the couple had a prenuptial agreement, one spouse might be legally required to support his or her former spouse.
Some states have guidelines for calculating how much spouses are required to pay depending on such things as assets prior to the marriage, what each spouse contributed to the marriage, and the current financial situation of each spouse.
Therefore, create a plan for what you believe would be an appropriate amount of alimony or spousal support and for how you think everything should be properly divided. Although you might not get what you want, having a plan that is based on your state’s laws with help from an experienced attorney can prove invaluable.
No. 7—Learn the Statutes in Your State
The statutes for alimony, legal counsel, financial support, custody over children, and more can vary from state to state. For example, some states require a legal separation before a spouse can legally file for divorce. Therefore, the things you need to do before filing for divorce might include a legal separation, which often requires documents to be accurately submitted to the court.
No. 8—Take Steps To Separate Your Life
You didn’t build the life you and your spouse share together overnight, so separating won’t be simple. If possible, consider taking some of the following baby steps before you file to help avoid potential consequences later:
- Open your own bank account and credit card. This is especially important if you rely solely on joint checking and savings accounts or credit cards that you share with your spouse. Avoid making large purchases on your new credit card or arranging for direct deposit of your paychecks into your new checking account until you discuss it with your lawyer. In many states, income earned or debt acquired during the marriage can be considered marital assets or liabilities, regardless of whose name is on the accounts.
- Protect your personal information. Set up a secure email address and change passwords for private accounts, social media, etc. You don’t want information gleaned from those sources to be used against you in court if you can avoid it.
- Set up a post office box. This is especially important if you don’t want your spouse to know that you’re filing for divorce until the last minute. Having a P.O. box will allow you to receive important documents pertaining to the divorce without your spouse seeing or having access to them.
- Figure out health insurance. If you’re depending on your spouse’s employer for health insurance, begin establishing your own separate health care if possible. Unemployed U.S. citizens may be eligible for assistance. Additionally, if your spouse has health care power of attorney to make medical and financial decisions for you if needed, consider filing updated paperwork that specifically designates another individual for those duties.
- Make a checklist of your belongings. Your list should include shared assets and your individual things like gifts, family heirlooms, personal items, etc. If any of those items might be at risk of being taken or damaged by your spouse once you reveal that you want a divorce, consider placing them in the care of a trusted friend or family member for safekeeping, with the understanding that you will have to preserve them and disclose their existence in financial disclosures related to the divorce.
- Save money or increase your income. Divorce inevitably alters people’s finances. Look into whether you can find a way to soften the blow by working extra hours or taking on a temporary side hustle. Put away a little extra each month for as long as you can. Also, if possible, delay making any major purchases.
No. 9—Decide Whether To Stay or Move Out
When you decide to file for divorce, you may feel more than ready to move out on your own. However, barring an abusive situation, it may be a good idea to wait until you speak with a lawyer. Moving out can have a negative impact on later decisions regarding property division and child custody/parenting time. Knowing the financial and legal implications of moving out can help you to make the most beneficial choices.
No. 10—Stay off Social Media
You probably have good reasons for wanting a divorce. Those reasons may include hurtful, deceitful, upsetting, annoying, unfair, or even abusive behavior by your spouse. Sharing these things on social media, however, can adversely impact your divorce.
As easy as it may be to share your personal grievances with a larger audience, doing so could hurt your court case, especially if you have children. Therefore, keep your conflicts with your spouse off social media before and during the divorce process.
No. 11—Organize a System of Support
No matter how ready you are to end your marriage, divorcing can be hard. Feelings of isolation and trauma can overwhelm even the spouse who has decided to file for divorce. Surround yourself with people you can lean on to help you feel less alone, make it easier to let go, help you overcome grief, and motivate you to emerge stronger. The healthier your mental state, the more prepared you will be to face whatever is next.
At first, consider reaching out only to your most trusted family members or friends. If you don’t have someone close to you, look for support groups for sharing experiences. The internet makes this easier, but be sure that you can share confidentially. Lastly, consider investing in the help of a professional counselor or therapist. These sessions can sometimes even be done virtually now.
Divorce may be difficult, but with careful planning and discussions with an experienced family law attorney, you can make the transition as seamless as possible. Before you file for divorce, take the time to consult with an attorney, figure out what statutes apply in your state, collect your evidence, and prepare your documents. Most importantly, you will want to start separating your life from your spouse’s so that you will not be as entangled when it comes time to file.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does a divorce take?
The time a divorce takes depends on many factors, such as whether the couple has a lot of joint finances, whether there was domestic abuse, whether the spouses are fighting for child custody, and more. An attorney can review your situation and give a more accurate timeline estimate.
Why should I hire a divorce lawyer?
What to know before getting a divorce is imperative. Making a mistake or forgetting a piece of documentation can impede your chances of being awarded your desired terms of divorce. An attorney can help you to plan, gather evidence, prepare the right financial documents, and more. An experienced divorce lawyer can also help you to avoid wasting time on unnecessary steps.
What are the best steps to take before divorce?
The best steps to take before divorce include finding an attorney to help with negotiations and making a statement of funds and investments held jointly or separately. An attorney can help prepare statements to justify the request for divorce depending on the state. A lot of preparation must be done before you file in order to get the results you want.