Let’s start with the first thing you must do once you’ve made the brave and difficult decision to start the process of getting divorced: Take a moment and feel proud.
And if getting a divorce wasn’t your choice, you should still feel proud for the strength and bravery you’re calling upon to face this situation.
As you know, going through a divorce is not an easy situation to face and I’m sure you’ve gone through countless sleepless nights and hours of debating with yourself to get to this point. So this is a good time to give yourself a pat on the back for putting yourself through all of that and emerging with a direction forward.
But as you surely thought about in the lead up to this, divorce is a process. And now that you’re here and ready to start, there are many other things you’ll need to go through before you sign your divorce papers. The decisions you make now can help you throughout your divorce. These are the 10 things I tell all of my clients that they should do now:
1. Get organized
You’re at the beginning of a very long process, and the more you know about the status of your finances, your assets, even your support system and your family schedule, the better you’ll be. Not only is divorce a long process, it’s complicated. It’s smart to know as much as you can now, so that when an issue pops up, like needing to attend a meeting last minute for example, you’ll know right away who you can reach out to for help picking up the kids at soccer practice.
You can split up the areas that you need to get organized into four main categories:
- Financial documents
- Family resources
We’ll go into these categories in greater detail below.
You’ll need to figure out an organizational system that works for you. The goal of getting organized is so that you’ll be ready if to produce a document for a lawyer or mediator or another interested party when they need it, that you’ll know who to call if you need last minute childcare or have a financial question, or that you can help keep life as normal as possible for your children, if you have any.
2. Stop feeling embarrassed or ashamed
Let’s be honest: divorce isn’t typically celebrated in our culture, unfortunately. Despite the fact that it is often the best solution to an impossible problem, it seems as though most people look at it as a negative.
But here’s something that you should tell yourself over and over–you’re not most people. Only you know what led to this point and you know you’re making the best choices for yourself and your family. It’s extremely helpful to put the opinions of “most people” out of your mind as best as you can.
I say this to my clients all the time–there is no embarrassment in getting a divorce. Especially when you consider that the divorce rate in this country is around 45%, everyone you know has a close friend or family member who has gotten a divorce or has gotten one themselves.
3. Build a support system
Who are the people that you trust? Who do you go to when you’re feeling beaten down by a tough day? Who do you go to when you just need to vent and could use an ear to listen to you rant? These people have always been important in your life, and you’ll find that they have never been more important as you go through a divorce.
Your support system is made up of your best friends and your family members (we’ll talk about your professional support system in a little bit). Ideally, you want people who know you really well, who see what you’re going through and can offer you advice–without telling you simply what you want to hear.
A word of caution, however–not all the people you consider closest in your life will qualify for your support system. You will find that some people will be resistant to the idea of divorce out of cultural, religious or personal beliefs. Some people can’t or won’t make the time for you that you’ll need. Still let them have a place in your life, but figure out who you can reach out to for the divorce-related support you need.
4. Get the tax returns
So much of the conversations that you and your spouse are going to have as you go through the divorce process are centered around your finances. You’ll need a clear understanding of how much income the family has and what your current assets and debts are.
Your tax returns are often the most convenient and complete set of documents that have all of this information. Once you have them, you will have a good starting point for creating a complete picture of your and your spouse’s financial situations. Try to get the returns going back a few years as well, for an even more accurate picture.
5. Start a document collection
You don’t have to stop once you have the tax returns however. Here are other financial documents and information that you should hold onto, as they’ll come in handy in the months ahead:
- A list of all property owned-either jointly or by one of you
- Bank and investment account statements
- Mortgage/loan documents
- Credit card statements
6. Start to understand the cash flow situation
As you have surely already started to think about, your personal financial situation is going to change pretty soon. It makes little difference if your spouse was the sole breadwinner in the family or if you both brought in salary. Once you start the divorce process, you’re going to have a new relationship with money.
Start by wrapping your head around your household’s monthly budget and expenses. This includes recurring bills like utilities and mortgage or rent, as well as general spending.
Then figure out exactly how much your spouse earns. Even if he has told you his salary, try to find his paystubs so you can see how much of his stated salary actually makes it into your household budget.
7. Protect your credit
Your credit score is like your financial reputation. This is the number that companies, especially financial institutions, use to determine how likely you are to repay your debt. The higher the score, the more likely you are to be approved for a loan.
If you don’t have credit cards in your own name, now’s the time to apply for them and start using them. This will help you establish your credit history. Make sure you pay your credit card bills on time, to show institutions that you’re trustworthy with your credit.
The other aspect to this, and it applies if you have an established credit history or not, is to keep an eye on your credit score. You can do this online, often through your bank’s website, or through one of the three credit reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion, or Equifax.
You may find that your credit score is lower than you thought, in which case you should take the necessary steps to improve your credit. You also want to make sure that your spouse’s spending habits aren’t hurting your credit score–either intentionally or unintentionally.
8. Be cordial and professional
In most cases, divorce is a contentious process. If you and your spouse politely agreed on most things, you probably wouldn’t be going through a divorce, right? But just because you two are used to being combative with each other, doesn’t mean that you should keep acting that way through official divorce proceedings.
Anything that can be construed as inappropriate behavior, or presented as inappropriate by a single-minded attorney, could come back to haunt you in court proceedings. This is doubly true if one of the issues that may come up is custody of your children.
9. Hire the right team
Divorce is complex in many ways: legally, financially, emotionally…
You may think that you’ll be able to manage this alone, or with the help of your personal support network, but the decisions that you’ll be making are so consequential that you’ll appreciate the help of trusted experts. Some decisions that you’ll face may not seem that important at first, but could have massive implications later on in the process. It’s for this reason that you need a trusted advisor in your corner that has helped other women just like you through divorce.
I always recommend that anyone going through a divorce hire a team that specializes in certain areas. This is the professional support system I mentioned earlier. You’ll need a lawyer for the legal proceedings and a therapist to help you deal with the emotional fallout of the divorce. Many people also choose to hire a Certified Divorce Financial planner to educate them about the financial aspects of the divorce and empower them to fight for their long-term earnings.
10. Keep the end in mind
As you’re going through a divorce, it’s easy to get caught up in the issue that you’re facing at the moment. Sometimes I see women determined to win every argument, and sometimes I see women who have a hard time letting go of pieces of their married life for sentimental reasons. But for whatever reason they have, they lose sight of the big picture–of where they want to be at the end of the process.
I encourage clients to start thinking at the beginning of the process about what they’d like to see happen at the end. Particularly the financial outcomes. That way, you can focus on what’s important to get to those goals, and you can more easily concede issues that won’t get you there. Because the truth is that you can’t split every asset 50/50, but you can aim for–and achieve–an outcome that allows you to be the best version of yourself going forward.
Once you’ve decided to get a divorce, you’ve made the first step on a path that will have its twists and turns, but will ultimately put you where you want to be, most likely. But now that you’ve made that first step, make sure your next ten steps are the ones we laid out here. They will help you throughout the journey.