It looks like you are getting divorced. What to do? This i a general guide with steps that are generally advisable. However, this information is just a starting guide. Every case is different, so consult your attorney on the best course of action for you before you take these steps. These steps are presented in no particular order.
MAKE LISTS AND COPIES
Make and gather copies of as much relevant documentation as you can. Only unmarked copies can generally be used as evidence by your attorney, So, don't mark up the documents or provide a marked-up and clean set of documents.
Here are some typically important documents:
A. Tax returns. Especially the last three years and all years from your date of separation. Be sure to include all schedules, attachments and related documents. Federal returns are usually the most important but your attorney will probably ask for state and local returns too. Also include business, inheritance and returns solely from your spouse.
B. Assets. Including financial assets, real estate, appraisals, retirement assets, loan applications and vehicles. Information relating to value is what is important, so documentation that does not concern value is generally not relevant. Assets acquired (or increased) between the date of marriage and date of separation are generally marital assets, regardless of whether they are owned by you, your spouse or jointly. Documentation from the date of marriage, date of separation and date of major changes are especially important.
C. Debts. Including credit cards, mortgage balances and loans. Debts acquired between the date of marriage and date of separation are generally marital whether they are owned by you, your spouse or jointly.
D. Insurance documents. Especially showing cash value of insurance and values of items.
What is not relevant?
Generally, documentation that does not relate to money, value or finances in some way is not relevant to a Pennsylvania divorce. For example, documentation showing that your spouse was rude to you is not generally relevant, while documentation showing that your spouse gambled away the family finances is relevant. In both cases, your spouse was being unkind, but in the second case the unkindness involved money.
People often ask whether documentation of infidelity is important. This is a question for your attorney, but infidelity usually plays no role (or a minor role) in a divorce.
I can't get some/all of this documentation. What should I do?
Don't panic. Your attorney can generally get this documentation through request or "discovery". It is just cheaper, faster and easier for you to get it on your own. Some documentation (especially concerning a closely held business or "under the table" business) can be hidden, massaged or faked, but ask your attorney about that.
STARTING NEW ACCOUNTS
Starting a new bank account
Couples often place their earnings into a joint account. But when getting divorced, it is often easier and "cleaner" to separate accounts. This will allow your attorney to allot the spending to each party. This can help when figuring out who has paid into marital assets since separation, who has paid on marital debts since separation and who is using marital funds for marital (or non-marital) purposes. For example, a house purchased after separation entirely from non-marital funds is a non-marital asset. But if marital funds are used in the purchase, those funds remain marital. When accounts are commingled, these questions can become difficult.
Also, splitting accounts means that neither party can unilaterally drain the entire asset.
Starting a new retirement account
Only assets acquired between the date of marriage and the date of separation are marital. So, by starting a new retirement account after separation, you are making it clear that this new account is entirely non-marital and will not be considered in the divorce. Conversely, if you continue to fund a marital retirement account, the post-separation contributions must be separated out and then there are questions on characterizing the appreciation of the entire asset.
Separating credit cards
Debts acquired after the date of separation are not marital. So, by having separate credit cards, it is clear whose post-separation dates are whose. Moreover, it is a good idea to separate credit card accounts even if it is clear which party is using which card. It is true that post-separation debts are not marital, but credit cards companies don't care about divorce law. So, if your spouse rings up big debts on credit cards, you may have problems with your credit or the credit card company, even if the the debt will fall on your spouse in the end.
It is also a good idea to give notice about transferring funds, closing cards and staring accounts. Ask your attorney about how this is best done in your case.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing your best to stay financially liquid during your divorce. Divorced can be like moving. You (a) know that moving will take a long time, so you (b) assume it will take even longer than you think, but (c) it takes even longer than that. So, it is with divorce. You know it is expensive. You may build in extra costs, but it will probably cost more than that.
We always try to resolve matters as economically and amicably as possible. But even if your divorce is resolved amicably and economically, saving money during your divorce will give a kick-start to your new life. And you cannot know in advance exactly what may happen because nobody can guarantee the behavior of a third party with conflicting interests.
Why can divorce be so expensive?
- It costs much more to run two households than one. Even if you reside in the same household, it will be more expensive.
- Your tax status may be worse
- On top of legal costs, you may have filing fees, expert fees or court fees.
- Childcare can be expensive
- Starting new relationships can be expensive
- Your credit may be threatened
- You may need to pay support or else pay taxes on support
- Transportation of children can become expensive
- Your divorce will take time. Time = money.
- Health insurance after divorce can be expensive.
- Many more potential reasons
Why is it important to stay as liquid as possible?
- Divorce is expensive. See above.
- Liquid cash can make settlement much easier
- The more liquid you are, the less susceptible to pressure tactics you will be
- Divorce is stressful. It is psychologically best to avoid unnecessary financial stress at the same time you are facing psychological stress.
- Liquidity = freedom of action.
- Best to avoid large financial decisions when you are emotionally pressed.
- You may be required to pay some counsel fees to your spouse or you may not receive counsel fees from your spouse.
- Many more potential reasons.
What are some steps to consider taking?
- Make a budget and re-make your budget whenever circumstances change. You may be required by the court to make a budget anyway.
- Save what you can. Prioritize cash savings above immediate gratification, new large purchases and even long term investment. Getting efficiently divorced is the best investment you can make during a divorce.
- Put off buying a new house: It can be tempting to start over with a new house but wait until your divorce is finalized. You cannot know your final financial situation beforehand.
- Don't get too emotionally attached to your house. Don't let it dominate your life.
- Treat yourself some but not too much. Divorce is tough and it is tempting to reward yourself overmuch.
- Learn and understand your tax situation.
- Learn and understand your support exposure /expectation.
- Run your financial questions by your attorney
What if I cannot save money?
No need to panic. While it is always better to be liquid, there are usually steps you can take to lessen and quantify your financial burden. This is a very individual process. Consult your attorney, who will be knowledgeable about your particular case.
HIRE THE RIGHT ATTORNEY
How do you hire the right attorney? Ask the right questions. Here are some questions to ask of any potential new counsel:
1. Is this the only kind of law you do? Law, like medicine, is become more specialized all the time. Just as you would not hire a podiatrist for a throat problem, it makes no sense to hire an attorney how does real estate, slip and fall, criminal law etc. for your divorce.
2. Will you be my sole attorney? If you hire attorney Smith, you want attorney Smith to represent you. Some firms will have a partner be your official attorney while an inexperienced associate actually represents you. That is the worst of both worlds. You pay a lot and get a little. Also, you need to re-tell your story over and over (and pay for the privilege).
3. Who will I deal with at the law firm? While you hire an attorney, your interactions with the firm are likely to include staff such as a paralegal, secretary or assistant. Do I know this person? Do I trust this person? Does this person know my case?
4. How experienced is my attorney? Did they graduate recently? Have they handled cases like mine? How long have they practiced? Does my attorney seem to know what he is doing?
5. How do I get along with my attorney? Family law is the most intimate form of law there is. It is important that you feel personally comfortable with your attorney. Do I feel comfortable with him/her? Trust your gut - does he/she seem highly competent or a scared rabbit?