If you are a woman considering divorce or are being forced to think of divorce, because your husband has declared his intention to separate from you, you are no doubt wondering what first steps you should take. If you are like most people, you will think of calling an attorney to help you navigate this difficult process.
Though you will certainly need legal advice, there is another professional you should consult perhaps even before you make that call to the lawyer: a Certified Financial Planner™. A CFP® can be invaluable to you during this time, because when a marriage fails, money issues often dominate the divorce proceedings.
The financial aspects of breaking the marital bonds are among the most important decisions you will ever make during your lifetime. You have to protect yourself, and that means you have to make financial plans to preserve what you have contributed to the marriage early in the divorce negotiating process - even while the shock is still sinking in. These are assets you have a right to share. Trusting that the legal process will take care of you is the worst assumption you can make.
Divorce Is Like Riding an Escalator...
Going through the legal process of getting a divorce is like stepping on an escalator. The escalator doesn't stop. Once you're on, you are going to get off - whether under your own power or by being thrown off by the unrelenting process of the legal system. Ready or not, you will be divorced.
As you approach divorce, you will find yourself being dragged up the legal escalator while you must struggle up the emotional staircase on your own. That is a tough balancing act!
My experience shows that women urgently need divorce advice. They dislike confrontation, shy away from conflict, and traditionally have taken a back seat to men with regards to money management. After the legal complexities and emotional nasties have been exhausted, money is what divorce is all about.
Money issues are critical when you go through the divorce process. If you ignore them, you will suffer financially. When the divorce is over, regrets won't provide solace for the financial assets you've lost.
The good news is that you can emerge from divorce with your fair share. That's why I've wrote the book "Fair Share Divorce for Women." It shows you, by instruction and through examples of what other women have experienced - both the good and the bad - how important the first steps in a divorce can be to the final financial outcome.
Divorce Comes in Many Different Forms
Sean is a good example of how and why women come to me when divorce has become a certainty in their lives.
When Sean presented herself, her distress was obvious. As she bit her lip, she told me her husband had left the previous weekend after informing her he wanted a divorce. Her personal agony was intensified by the fact that she had no previous indication of a problem in her marriage.
Panicky, twisting a handkerchief with her fingers, Sean related the events of the weekend.
"After working late at the office on Friday, Jim got up earlier than usual on Saturday and told me he wanted to talk. We sat down and had a cup of coffee. He said he was leaving. Just like that. He had found an apartment and was going to move in on Sunday. He needed time away from me and the family. He was feeling overwhelmed at work and needed to be by himself."
"I asked if he was involved with someone else, and he told me that was not why he was leaving, but he wouldn't answer my question directly. He said he would take care of me financially and continue to put his paycheck into our bank account twice a month. We were only going to live apart for a few months. Other than that, he had no plans.
"First, I was stunned. Then I cried. Jim went upstairs and started packing his clothes. He was very methodical and organized and seemed to have a careful plan of what he was taking. He asked if he could take some of the furniture and gave me a list of the things he wanted from the various rooms in the house and garage. He said he would have a truck come by on Sunday to pick up his belongings, and then he left. He came back on Sunday just as he planned and moved out. The children and I sat at the kitchen table and watched him leave-it was so surreal. We were all crying."
Get Organized as Soon as Possible
I listened to Sean carefully, sympathized with her, and told her I empathized with what she was going through. Then, to get her mind on to practical matters, I asked her to get a copy of her last three years' income tax returns, current year-end brokerage statements, an employee benefits summary, a recent pay stub, and a joint financial statement, because those files would be important. I explained to her that a financial statement would have been required when she and her husband financed or refinanced their house. Also, I cautioned her that if she couldn't locate the information, we needed to find out why. Would Jim have taken it with him? Could it be in his office or stored electronically on the computer? The importance of having financial data early in a divorce can't be overemphasized.
I tell clients like Sean they should see a financial planner who understands the divorce process as soon as possible when divorce looms. A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ (CDFA™) is licensed and trained to provide financial support services to clients, attorneys, and mediators. These financial professionals will help you to:
You can visit www.institutedfa.com to find a qualified financial planner in your area. If you cannot find a local planner with that designation, you may want to use the Financial Planning Association's search tool at http://www.fpanet.org/PlannerSearch/PlannerSearch.aspx. From there you can find advisors with the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) designation.
A financial planner can help you acquire and organize the information you and your attorney will need to be better prepared to cope with the intimidating legal process ahead. The attorney's job is to advise you on such matters as:
In Sean's case, no one had filed for divorce, and Jim had told his wife that he hadn't planned to file at the point of their separation. That may or may not have been his intention. Although Sean was shocked at her husband's surprisingly abrupt departure, his actions were not uncommon. In some cases, the departing spouse has been carefully developing a plan designed to hide his intentions. Shock is a powerful weapon in manipulating an unsuspecting partner. In other cases, women overlook or underestimate the signs of impending trouble, naïvely hoping things will improve.
In my twenty-five years of experience dealing with divorce cases, I have come to live by the motto: TRUST, BUT VERIFY. If divorce is a possibility, get organized as soon as possible. Get the facts while the spirit of cooperation and guilt is on your side.
What is the first step?
What should you do first? Your own situation dictates the best answer. When faced with a spouse's demand for a separation or divorce, you may need to first see an attorney in order to respond properly.
Even in such a circumstance, you need to begin financial preparations immediately. If you have any questions about how to address these critical issues, see a qualified financial planner as soon as possible.
If your most demanding issues are emotional, and you cannot start being financially practical, take care of yourself. That may mean talking with a therapist, a family counselor, a cleric, or a close personal friend. What is important is that you take a positive self-affirming step rather than go into hiding. As that maxim goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step."
Take that step now.
Excerpted from Fair Share Divorce for Women, Second Edition
Kathleen Miller is a Certified Financial Planner and president of Miller Advisors, Inc., a wealth management firm in Kirkland, Washington. She has helped more than 3,000 couples divide their assets and has developed expertise and insight on the modern marriage as well as financial strategies to assure a fair division of assets.
As you begin to prepare for divorce, the following articles offer more information for you to take into consideration: