For those of us who have gone through a divorce, the signs become clear, though too often in hindsight. Maybe you avoided important conversations, stopped coordinating schedules and planning regular date nights, or tried therapy and still were not able to reestablish your connection. Whatever it was, at some point it becomes clear that the writing was on the wall.
Once that point is reached, you feel like your world is falling apart. You may feel totally unprepared for how to deal with the process that now ensues — emotionally, financially, and legally. There are so many details, yet you don’t know where to begin. The process of undoing the “I dos” can be overwhelming.
Once you are certain your marriage is over, it is essential to make a plan and take actions to protect yourself and secure your future. Here are the key steps to take, including the three professionals you need most when going through a divorce.
Step 1: Find the right family law attorney to keep a cool head (even if you may be losing yours).
Engaging an attorney who listens to your concerns, keeps you informed of your options, advises you with flexibility, and can minimize confrontation is extremely important. Doing this early on helps you avoid legal pitfalls, like settling out of a sense of expediency or not asking for what you are legally entitled to. Advance knowledge about your legal rights is imperative as you address such issues as spousal and child support, property division, and allocation of financial obligations.
Finding an attorney with experience navigating emotional transitions can ease you through rough patches in a way that allows you to think strategically and plan rather than simply reacting in an adversarial way.
Collect important financial information before one of you moves out and make copies of your household financial records. Once papers go missing, you could lose easy access to documents such as tax returns, check registers, Social Security earnings statements, and loan documents. You may wish to check your credit score as well. Look at bank and credit card statements to see where money is going. Are there any debts you don’t know about? What about transfers of funds to unfamiliar accounts? Gathering a complete picture of these details will be critical for resolution of the financial aspects of the divorce.
Step 2: Put a skilled financial planner on your team.
It is no secret that after divorce a woman’s standard of living often diminishes, sometimes dramatically. You may need help designing a financially sustainable lifestyle. What can you really afford? Spousal and child support payments are of limited duration. Spending wisely and planning for their termination is vital to financial stability in the long term.
A financial planner can be of considerable help in evaluating marital assets and debts, as well as providing an opinion on how these can be divided fairly. This assessment provides valuable expertise to the divorce lawyer in negotiating and reaching a settlement. The financial planner can also give guidance on how to invest retirement accounts that may be split between former spouses, advising on continued funding for your retirement.
Step 3: Use a therapist to help manage your emotions and smooth a rocky road.
The upheaval in your life circumstances may unleash a wellspring of emotions, making it difficult to think clearly. You are faced with many hard decisions at a time when your judgment is likely to be clouded. Getting help to sort out the emotions is absolutely necessary. The negotiating process with your soon-to-be ex can be extremely unsettling and upsetting.
A skilled, licensed professional, such as a psychologist or marriage and family counselor, can help you maintain an even keel as you work through the divorce. A therapist can also help you frame your new reality and begin to imagine a positive outlook for your future.
Divorce can take years to accomplish and longer still to recover from. It is a time when you feel important social relationships are in jeopardy. Who will you remain friends with? Who can you really talk to about the experience? The professionals on your team will help get you through a period like no other in your life. If there was ever a time to seek out help, this is it!
Joann Babiak is an attorney and mediator serving the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.