Divorce. This was not a word on your mind the day you said, “I do.” But here you are. Your “I do” has turned into “I don’t.” Whether you saw this coming or are reeling from a sideways blow, you are about to make a series of decisions.
It’s likely that none of them seem to have any good options. Yet, virtually every decision could have significant financial, legal and relational impact for you, your soon-to-be ex-spouse and any children involved regardless of age. Many will have ripple effects for extended family, community and social circles as well.
What is the best way to navigate this potential mine-field with the least amount of collateral damage? How do you protect yourself? And where do you go from here?
This roadmap will guide you through the rocky road ahead:
1. Know What You Want, What You Really, Really Want – This statement sounds simple, yet most people wander through their divorce determined to get what’s fair without thoughtful evaluation of what they want, what they don’t want and what they need.
Try this exercise to gain clarity on what you really, really want. Draw three buckets at the top of a page and label them “need,” “want” and “let it go” respectively. Then begin listing items below each bucket. Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really need and want. This will also be a handy visual to help you stay on course while negotiating with your soon to be ex-spouse.
It’s also important to consider what your spouse really wants and why. The more you and your attorney understand what motivates your spouse, the better positioned you will be to decide what to ask for, what to fight for and what you can live without.
2. Understand It’s Business Now – When you married your spouse, you entered into a legal contract. Sure, there were feelings and flowers and rings involved; moreover, you signed a binding contract that day. Now you are entering into a lawsuit to terminate that contract.
You probably never thought of it that way, but the fact is that divorce is a legal proceeding. It’s more than a court case; it’s a lawsuit against a person you once loved and maybe still do. It’s important to navigate the business aspects of the case when your emotions are in check.
While it’s also critical to acknowledge and process your emotions with the appropriate people, you must remember that this is the legal dividing of your marital assets and responsibilities, governed by state laws.
Divorce laws differ from state to state and, sometimes, are even implemented differently by various county judges. That is why it is imperative you understand and protect your rights. Be aware of the law and know what a court might do. Then focus on creating settlement negotiations in the way that will get you your top divorce priorities with as much grace and dignity as you can.
3. Know Your Numbers – The first step is to order your free credit report through AnnualCreditReport.com or a company website like www.CreditKarma.com. Start understanding where you are today by gathering your tax returns and financial statements on all assets you own and debt you owe. Begin tracking your expenses and make sure you have a bank account and credit card in your own name.
Organizing as much of the financial records that you have access to before you interview attorneys will save you billable hours. At some point you will need to create a Financial Affidavit which is required by the court.
Your attorney will help you complete this so it’s important to get the most accurate information possible and document where you took the numbers from. If you don’t have access, don’t worry – your attorney can get it.
4. Create Your Empowerment Team – While your friends and family care about you, even the most well-intentioned advice may cause confusion and unnecessary stress. You will be making the most difficult and important financial decisions of your life during an emotionally chaotic time, so you need a professional team to help you deal from a position of strength, not weakness.
You will need an attorney who specializes in family law. You will also need to decide which process you will use to get divorced. There are three primary processes: mediation, collaborative or traditional litigation.
Each has its benefits and drawbacks and selecting the right fit for your family’s unique interests could result in an enormous savings in the amount of time, cost and conflict involved. Now is also the time to find experts to help guide you through the financial, tax and emotional aspects of divorce as well.
No matter how strong your team is, you are the CEO and it’s critical you manage the process as well as each team member.
The cost of divorce includes the amount of legal and professional fees paid. But have you ever considered the time and energy you are investing in the process as dollars? How about the opportunities you will miss? Those costs add up.
How much “life” are you willing to spend on your divorce? Clarity is imperative in deciding when it is time to fight, time to negotiate and time to settle.5. Remember You Are Writing Your Next Chapter – While it’s ideal to remain amicable during the divorce process, it’s critical not to sign a bad deal under any circumstance. Once you have come to some agreement, your attorney will draft a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).
The MSA is a lengthy document detailing all the parameters of your divorce, and it’s important to get a second and even third set of eyes to look it over before you sign.
Keep in mind that the document is only as good as it’s legally enforceable. There are many logistics in terms of re-titling assets and removing names from debt that you will need to take care of. Practical implementation of this document is imperative.
As difficult as it may be, keep looking forward rather than in the rearview mirror. Remind yourself that the decisions you make today are the foundation of your future. Make sure to nurture yourself and protect hope.
Be open to all possibilities. Focus on the business aspects while addressing the emotional and psychological challenges. The end of your marriage may or may not be amicable, but you can choose to manage your emotions and prioritize so that the divorce and co-parenting might be. Each step you proactively take, as well as the missteps you avoid, will get you closer to the future you want to create.
What will the opening line of your next chapter be?