If you are reading this article, you are at least contemplating a divorce. You already know that this is not a decision taken lightly, and that there are likely some do's and do not's to adhere to. While this article can't cover every single thing you should do to get ready, it will cover the most vital items.
Take Your Time
Getting a divorce isn't a quick process, and every case has ripple effects.
A decision this consequential is one you should take your time to make — and you might consider making it in conjunction with your spouse.
If you feel safe doing so, broach the topic with him or her. There is a chance they want out just as much as you do. In a case where you don't think your spouse would agree to a divorce and you feel the need to be discreet, ask yourself some key questions:
- Am I prepared to leave both emotionally and financially?
- Do I need to increase my earnings by returning to paid work or moving from part-time to full-time work?
- Do I need to complete some education to bolster my earning potential?
- Is it important to stay until any children hit a milestone, like leaving for college?
- Is there anything else that might make leaving now more difficult, like an existing health issue? Is there a way to mitigate this factor?
The major exception to this advice is if you are the victim of domestic violence. If you are unsafe at home, your first priority must be to get yourself and any children to a safe place. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them on the web at thehotline.org, where you'll find resources to help you leave safely.
Do Your Homework
If you've taken your time and feel ready to leave, the next thing you must do is your homework. The internet can be a good source of information, but be picky about the sources you use.
The divorce process varies from state to state and county to county, so it's important to look for local resources first.
Start by visiting the web page for your local Bar Association and looking for the Family Law Section subpage. These organizations often list resources for clients such as primers on the local divorce process, information about child custody and child support, and information about available legal aid. A solid understanding of what you can expect once the ball is rolling will help you navigate the process with confidence as well as start to get comfortable with moving forward.
Also consider what sort of resolution process you want to use in settling your case. Research the processes available in your locality and have in mind the one you'd like to use. Here are a few examples:
- Is your case a good candidate for a Collaborative Divorce or a collaborative-style process? Perhaps you and your spouse can agree on a settlement with minimal guidance from outside professionals, and just engage an attorney to draft your divorce decree. This is sometimes called an uncontested divorce.
- Will you use formal mediation? A formal mediation will allow you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse to reach an agreement with the assistance of a trained mediator and your respective attorneys. In cases that threaten to become contentious, this can be the best way to reach agreement. It is also a requirement in Harris County before proceeding to trial —and another reason it's important to understand your local processes.
- Do you think your case will be adversarial in nature and require appearance in a trial court? If you anticipate going to trial, this will affect the attorney you choose to hire and may mean that you need to include other experts in your case preparation.
Divorce is a difficult and sometimes lonely event. If you aren't already in individual therapy, you might consider finding a good therapist to help you navigate the many confusing emotions that are likely to come up for you.
Find your tribe.
It's also helpful to “find your tribe,” as they say. Find the best-suited people among your friends and family to be your support network. Knowing who you can call when you are struggling can be a huge comfort. Lastly, remember that you'll need to engage in regular self-care. Never allow yourself to get too hungry, too tired, or too lonely.
By now you've made a decision to leave, done your homework, and found your tribe. Next you'll need an attorney. Divorce is first and foremost a legal proceeding, and trying to DIY your divorce can have negative consequences. Your attorney is your counsel and advocate, and they will set the tone for your case; make this choice carefully. During your research, you will have identified a resolution process that appeals to you. As you seek out an attorney, try to find one who has experience with (or even specializes in) your desired process.
Plan to interview no few than two candidates. If you have time, interview three. Many attorneys will offer a free consultation either in person or on the phone. The research you did earlier will have also given you some guidance on the questions to ask an attorney in a consultation. While this will be time-consuming, this decision is too critical to rush.
In terms of whom to interview, start by asking for referrals from people you trust: your therapist, a friend who has divorced, a trusted financial advisor, or an attorney you've worked with before (who doesn't practice family law). If you aren't able to source a good referral, you can turn again to your local Bar Association's Family Law Section web page. There you'll find listings of local family law attorneys that likely include information about areas of specialization. You can also do a simple keyword search on your favorite internet search engine, though this may turn up an overwhelming number of potential candidates.
When assessing who to interview, look for candidates who are:
- Specialists — You want an attorney whose practice is limited to family law and maybe one other related area. You might consider looking only at Board Certified attorneys.
- A good fit — If the candidate has a website, visit it to get an idea of how they practice. If you want to use Collaborative Divorce (or a collaborate-style process), do they do this type of work? If you are hoping for an uncontested case, is this part of their practice?
- Local — You'll be visiting your attorney's office from time to time, so it's a good idea to work with someone you can easily get to.
Once you've found an attorney who is a good fit for you, there is just a little more work to be done before you set the process in motion.
Gather and Organize Information
We all hope that the parties can and will cooperate with each other when divorce becomes a topic of conversation. However, we can't always count on this — and if you anticipate an adversarial process, it is wise to do a few things before broaching the topic.
First, if you don't have a private email address, get one. It will take less than five minutes and is vital to protecting your confidentiality going forward. Next, gather information about your household finances. If you can, make copies of account statements for your family's financial accounts. Don't forget copies of billing statements for the debts on your family's balance sheet. If they are available, make copies of prior year tax returns and W2s for both you and your spouse.
...have a clear picture of your finances before moving forward.
You may or may not need all this information, but it is helpful to have a clear picture of your finances before moving forward. If you can't get all of the items listed above, don't panic. Make a list of all the assets and debts you think your family owns, and set that aside with the other information you've collected. When your case begins in earnest, your attorney will help you fill in the blanks.
Make a Plan
There are just a few final details to attend to before you move forward. First, make a plan for how you will tell your spouse that you want a divorce. Will you sit them down for a calm discussion, or are things bad enough that you need to move out before you break the news? Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, think about how this conversation will go. If you are working with a therapist, have them help you make a plan and maybe even engage in role-playing to help you get comfortable.
You'll also need to plan for other logistical elements, including your interim financial and living situation. Will you stay in the family home? If not, where will you live, and when will you move? If you want or need to stay in the family home, when would you like to see your spouse move out? If you are a stay-at-home parent, employed in a lower-paying job, or retired, make sure you've set aside cash for yourself. Don't try to hide money from your spouse, but make sure you have cash in an account you control. This makes you less likely to be manipulated in the short-run because you can't pay your bills.
Set up Finances
If you don't already have access to income through employment, retirement benefits, or investments that you own, you need to make sure you have access to cash and credit in the short period before your Temporary Orders Hearing. Establish a credit card and open a bank account in your individual name. You may need to fund your new bank account with jointly owned money. Lean on the advice of your attorney as far as how much to set aside and how to document the funds you move.
When navigating divorce, it can be tempting to engage in bad behavior. As you prepare to leave, keep in mind these Do Not's of Divorce.
- Purposefully waste money, attempt to hide assets or give property away to friends and relatives in an effort to keep it out of your spouse's hands. This can and likely will backfire.
- Hide information like account statements, billing statements, tax records, or other financial records. Make your own copies and leave the originals where you found them. You'll go through a process of exchanging information during your case, and hiding things only generates animosity.
- Clean out the joint bank account. If you must take money out of a joint account to look after yourself, seek the counsel of your attorney on the amount to remove and proper documentation.
- Accrue large amounts of high-interest-rate debt. Now is the time to preserve cash and limit spending as much as is practical.
- Attempt to remove your spouse's name from any insurance policies or as a beneficiary on financial accounts. This can only happen after your case is settled.
If you are contemplating divorce, you may not need to complete every step outlined in this article. But if you do heed this advice, you will likely find yourself moving into your case on a more confident footing, which can help set you up for a less stressful and potentially less costly divorce.
Ready to make a graceful exit? I can help.
 Houston Bar Association Family Law Section: http://hbafamilylaw.org/, Family Bar of Fort Bend: https://familybarfortbend.org/, Katy Bar Association – family law attorney listing: https://katybar.org/cat/family-law-attorneys/
 These experts may include a Certified Divorce Financial Analysist™, Forensic Accountant, or Certified Public Accountant. This topic is covered in detail in the April 2019 edition of Graceful Exits: Taking a Team Approach to Divorce.
 Common complementary practice areas include immigration, estate planning, and business.
 These include things like banking, investing, IRA, 401(k), and pension accounts.
 These include things like car loans, mortgage loans, credit cards, and student loans.
 A Temporary Orders Hearing will set the ground rules for the period between now and the time your divorce is final. If you are a non-working spouse, the judge may order your soon-to-be-ex to pay temporary support. In the meantime, you'll want to make sure you'll be covered.
 I address the issue of Containing Costs & Financing Your Divorce in the September 2019 edition of Graceful Exits.