It is not an easy call to make. You have probably been thinking about it for months, maybe years. As for how a divorce will impact your life financially, you have very few answers, and you are not even sure you know what the questions are. That is okay. My job is to help you start answering the questions you did not even know – or were afraid – to ask, and – eventually – to help you achieve the softest financial landing possible. Those answers, for the most part, will depend on your unique circumstances.So, whether you call me or someone else, there are things you should do BEFORE you call a divorce lawyer. And, perhaps even more importantly, there are definitely things that you should NOT do before you obtain legal advice.
First, understand – at least in broad brushes – the four basic components of your financial landscape – that is, your income, expenses, assets and liabilities. Some couples never commingle funds, maintain separate bank accounts, and pay individual expenses out of their respective accounts. Others deposit all of their income and pay all of their bills out of a single, joint checking account, although – in this situation – one person often becomes the “bill-payer” (the one who writes out the checks every week or month for the mortgage, insurance, and other bills.). The other spouse may have a solid grasp of the couple’s collective financial landscape, on the one hand; or, on the other hand, may not even know where the checkbook is or what bank holds the accounts.
If you are that “other spouse,” do not panic. Pulling together basic financial information is easier than you may think. You need only obtain basic information that will allow your attorney to later track down, if necessary, more specifics.
If you and your spouse have filed joint personal tax returns, much of the information you need is contained in those personal tax returns (and/or in the documents that you provided to your tax preparer, such as W-2s, 1099s, 1098s.). Locate those tax returns for the last four (4) years and make copies for yourself. It is also helpful if you can locate bank and investment account statements to note the bank names, types and number of accounts (checking, savings, CDs) and account numbers. Finally, obtain a copy of your most recent credit report. You can get a free report annually at www.freecreditreport.com. (You do not need your credit score – just a list of the open and closed accounts in your credit history.). With these documents, you will be in a better position to provide the attorney with information that will help him/her better advise you during your initial phone call.
Now, what NOT to do. I have seen far too many people make major changes in their living arrangements and/or commit themselves to significant transactions before obtaining legal advice, simply because they think the possibility of divorce requires these changes. This is a mistake. For instance, if you own a house, do NOT assume that you have to sell or refinance your house and do NOT commit yourself to a listing agreement (and certainly not to an offer or refinance arrangement) before you fully understand your options. Do NOT assume that you and your spouse must separate in order to obtain a divorce. Believe it or not, many people live together while a divorce is pending. In fact, there may very well be good reasons – financial and otherwise – why you should NOT move out of your house. So, unless there is an urgent safety issue (which is an entirely different set of circumstances that you should immediately seek advice on) do NOT leave your home. You should also NOT make major changes to your retirement and investment accounts, or to your insurance policies, including your beneficiary designations. Upsetting the status quo of your financial landscape before seeking legal advice often results in changes that you have to undo; or, worse yet, irreparable financial mistakes.
Janie Lanza Vowles represents individuals in a variety of domestic matters before the Commonwealth’s Probate and Family Courts, including divorce, paternity, custody, support and guardianship matters. With significant experience as both a trial attorney and guardian ad litem investigator in contested custody cases, Attorney Vowles regularly assists clients manage even the most contentious custody and financial matters. If you have a question about this blog post or any other family law issue, feel free to contact Attorney Vowles to discuss your matter further.