Important Steps to Take Before Divorce

If you’re certain your marriage is over, there are some steps to take before divorce that can help protect your financial and legal interests. While it may seem calculating to some, getting prepared for a divorce before you actually file can make the process much easier in the long run. 

Being proactive about your divorce gives you time to think through what you want, contact professionals to support you, and start gathering the documents you’ll need. To help you get started, here are 5 things you should do before ever starting the divorce process.

Five Things To Do Before Filing For Divorce

By Sarah J. Jacobs, Family Law Attorney

Divorce is more than just a breakup. On top of the emotional and logistical concerns that come with any separation, divorce involves complex legal issues that must be handled with care.

When possible, it’s in your best interest to get your proverbial ducks in a row as much as possible before you file for divorce. This doesn’t guarantee that your divorce process will be free from contention, but it does help pave the way for you to establish your goals and will increase your chances of having the result align with those goals—and an experienced divorce attorney can help. 

Whether your divorce is amicable, contentious, or somewhere in between, here are the top five things you should do before you file a divorce petition.

1. Assemble your support system

Divorce can be complicated, but it’s not something you should have to go through alone. That’s why it’s a good idea to create a list of family and friends who will be willing to help, possibly at a moment’s notice. 

These should be people you trust to:

  • Keep your confidences
  • Help your children retain as much normalcy as possible
  • Look out for your best interests
  • Provide emotional support without judgment
  • Bring in the tough love and voice of reason when necessary

You may also want to seek out professional support—emotional guidance from a therapist and help with money from a financial advisor, for example. 

Having a solid support system will help protect your mental health and allow you to focus your energy on a swift resolution to your divorce mediation or trial.

2. Hire an experienced attorney

While you always have the option to participate in any legal proceedings without retaining legal representation, this comes with risk—and divorce is one area where that risk may be too great. 

Additionally, the type of legal advice and the source you get it from matters! Free advice from a divorced friend or a neighbor who is a contract lawyer is not the same as guidance from an experienced divorce lawyer. Even in the most amicable of divorces, a family law attorney who understands the nuances of divorce law in your state and what they might mean for your particular situation is an essential resource who can guide you toward the best outcome possible. 

Your divorce lawyer will be responsible for addressing very personal and important issues that impact you - both today and in the future - so make sure you find someone you’re comfortable with. 

Besides hiring someone with experience and a solid reputation, make sure you have an attorney who has a mindset and approach that is either similar to yours or balances you out, making you a good team. It’s completely acceptable to meet with several attorneys and ask lots of questions before settling on the one you feel best suits your needs.

3. Establish your goals (and expectations)

Knowing what you want out of your divorce settlement allows you to stay focused on the parts of your case that will matter most to you in the long run. 

For example, if your primary goal is obtaining full custody of your children, you can save your negotiation energy for this issue, rather than expending emotional capital fighting over other points that may be of lesser importance to you.

You may not end up with a divorce settlement that looks exactly as you’d like it to, but knowing your goals increases your chances of getting what matters to you most - and takes you one step closer to your ideal future. 

4. Organize your finances

Besides dissolving your legal relationship, one of the primary functions of divorce proceedings is to fairly divide your marital assets and debts between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse. Knowing what those assets and debts are is the best way to protect your rights.

Understanding the entirety of your financial situation is a complicated and time-consuming process. When possible, it’s advisable to collect all of this information before you even meet with a divorce attorney. This is especially true if you think there’s a possibility your ex might attempt to empty your bank account, run up the charges on your credit card, or hide financial information from you or your attorney.

Consider the following items:

  • Income: Copy pay stubs and income tax returns for you and your ex-spouse so you have proof of income for the court. 

  • Bank accounts: Depending on how you and your former partner managed money between the two of you, you may have shared one or more bank accounts. Your lawyer can ultimately help you choose the best path forward, but you should make sure you have copies of bank statements, especially if there is a risk your ex could change passwords or make it difficult to access these accounts. If you have separate accounts, gather all of your information. If you have access to your ex’s information, copy that, too. (Without breaking any laws!)  

  • Retirement accounts: Obtain updated documentation of any retirement or investment funds that were opened during the course of your marriage, or that had funds added to it during the course of your marriage. The monies of those accounts may play a role in deciding child support or alimony payments, and they most certainly may be pivotal in distributing assets. 

  • Deeds and titles: Obtain notarized copies of any property deeds or vehicle titles. Even if the copies you have aren’t “official,” all information is helpful, so keep them handy and include them in what you want to provide your lawyer. 

  • Other assets: If you haven’t done so recently, you may need to order appraisals of jewelry, artwork, or any other valuable marital assets. Discuss this with your attorney, but make a list of everything so you have it all in one place. 

  • Personal credit score: If you don’t have any credit cards in your name alone, consider opening an account before filing divorce papers to ensure that you continue to have access to credit if it takes longer than expected to reach a settlement. 

  • Outstanding debt: It’s a good idea to have an updated accounting of the outstanding totals on student, auto, and home loans as well as any bills (credit cards, utility, medical, etc.).

5. Determine your living situation

If there has been a history of violence or abuse in your marriage, your first priority should be to get somewhere safe. 

If safety is not a concern, then it’s important to consider what living situation will benefit you and your family the most. Factors to weigh include:

  • Your current relationship with your soon-to-be-ex
  • The needs of your children (if you have them), including proximity to school, routines, extracurricular activities, healthcare needs, and more
  • Goals for your life following your divorce
  • Costs associated with moving

Note that, in the state of New Jersey, remaining (or not) in the family home during a divorce doesn’t endow either party with more legal standing to equitable distribution of property—including real estate. This is a great time to begin looking for a realtor familiar with your residential area and the area you may want to move to, and begin to get an understanding of market prices, options, and what’s necessary to sell, buy or rent. 

A good offense is your best defense

All the possible scenarios in this article are just that—possibilities. Your case will have its own facts and issues that will determine the specifics of your settlement.

But even with all the variances that make your case unique, a good offense is the best defense. And following these steps to take before divorce can help build your offense. Getting your affairs in order before you get the process underway and hiring a skilled divorce attorney who understands your goals is the best way to protect yourself - and your family - during your divorce. 

As a Matrimonial Law Attorney and mediator, Sarah Jacobs has been representing and protecting the rights of her clients for nearly 20 years and is dedicated to providing dynamic and personalized legal solutions. She is also the co-founder of the family law firm Jacobs Berger, LLC in Morristown, New Jersey. The attorneys at Jacobs Berger work find solutions that benefit divorcing families and de-stress the divorce process.


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