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Step 2A – Determine what you own
We are on Step 2 in our series regarding preparing for divorce. Step 2 involves making an accounting of the family finances. This includes determining what you own.
For some, that may be easy. If you have a good handle on the family finances, then you are a step ahead. If not, then it is time to do your homework.
Many of the assets of the marriage will be obvious – the home in which you reside, financial accounts, vehicles, recreational vehicles, etc. Others may not be so obvious – these include things like artwork, bearer bonds, a spouses deferred compensation, proceeds from a pending lawsuit, etc.
Then there is the possibility that your spouse is hiding assets (this is more likely if they are the ones initiating the divorce or if divorce has been discussed previously).
Review all possible assets. Attempt to gather documentation regardign each one including present value, where possible. Especially look for any recent appraisals of real estate.
If your lawyer is charging you hourly, then any of this information that you are able to gather should save you a lot of money. If there are documents you are not able to obtain, your lawyer may have to get them through the discovery process.
Step 2B – Determine what you owe
We are still on Step 2 of Preparing for a Divorce. Step 2 is “make an accounting of the family finances.” We’ve discussed determining what you own. This step requires you to determine what you owe.
You will need to make a determination of all of the debts of the marriage without respect to the name in which it was incurred.The Judgment of Divorce will need to address who is responsible for the debt whether it is in your name, your spouse’s name, or joint names.
I recommend that each of my clients obtain a copy of their credit report. This allows you to make sure that you know of all of the debt that is in your name. It is not unusual for a spouse to have incurred debt in the other spouse’s name without their knowledge. If that has happened, you need to know it before the divorce is final, not after.
There are many ways to obtain a copy of your credit report. You can request a free copy once per year at www.annualcreditreport.com.
Once you see what all debt exists, obtain copies of the statements on these accounts to determine the balances. You may also need the statements if your spouse has made large or inappropriate purchases on the cards.
If you cannot find credit card statements on each of the accounts, contact the credit card company directly and request they send them to you. You may want to check their websites as you might be able to make the request online. I normally want my clients to get a minimum of 12 months worth. Check with your lawyer to see what he recommends.
Step 2C – Determine Income (yours and your spouses)
Your lawyer will need documentation showing your income (if you work outside the home) and the income of your spouse. This is important for a number of reasons, but primarily for child and spousal support.
If your spouse is a salaried employee then your job is easy. Obtain a copy of the most recent pay stub and the most recent Income Tax Return. If you do not have access to either of these, you can obtain a copy of the Income Tax Return by requesting it from the IRS.
Complete Form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return and mail it to the IRS address in the instructions along with a $39 fee for each tax year requested. Copies are generally available for returns filed in the current and past 6 years. You can download the form at www.irs.gov.
If your spouse is self employed, then the job of determining their income becomes much more difficult. This is why discretion about your divorce plans is important. You may want to discreetly question your spouse (or if he has one, his business partner or his partner’s spouse) about income. You can attempt to get copies of bank account statements and financial statements of the business.
Another good way to prove income and assets of a self employed spouse is to obtain a copy of a loan application or net worth statement that they may have submitted to a bank or other lending institution for a loan.
Sometimes it is difficult to prove the actual income of a self employed spouse. At this point, gather the information you can. In the case of a self employed spouse, your lawyer will likely have to help you by using the discovery process to obtain and analyze additional information.
Preparing for Divorce: Step 3 – Make photocopies of all the financial records
Continuing our series on practical steps to take when it becomes obvious that divorce is imminent, we are now on to step 3. Step 3 is simple, but important.
Step 3 is to make photocopies of all of the pertinent financial documents.
As you gather the important financial documents, you should make two copies of each of them. One is for you and one if for your lawyer. Keep your copy in your divorce notebook or file folder. It is important to keep a list of what documents you have, what documents you still need, and which of them you have given to your lawyer.
Each case and each lawyer may require a unique set of documents. But, some of the common ones will include at least the following basic ones:
Preparing for Divorce: Step 4 – Prepare a budget (or two)
The next step in preparing for divorce is to make two budgets (one that shows the situation in the house before the divorce filing, and one that is your estimated budget for after the divorce).
Most folks don’t like to prepare one monthly budget, so I know I’m asking a lot to suggest that it is helpful two prepare two of them. There is a method to the madness though. It is important to know what it costs to run your household currently. Equally important is to have an understanding of what your costs of living will be after the divorce. Let’s take each in turn.
A. Know your current monthly budget
Knowing the monthly budget is important for the following:
B. Make an estimated budget of post-divorce expenses.
This is important for your personal planning and will likley influence your objectives in the divorce negotiations. You need to know what you will need financially in order to evaluate your settlement options or what you will ask the judge for in a trial.
This will undoubtedly take some estimating on your part. But, that is why it is called an estimated budget. It will be a work in progress. The point is to give some forethought to what your living expenses will be as you start the new chapter in your life.
C. How to make your monthly budgets.
If you already maintain your checking account records on a software program like Quicken then the process is easy. You can simply print out a monthly budget report. If you don’t then you will need to sit down and look through your check register and/or your spouse’s check register for the past three months. This will reveal the expenses you may monthly and quarterly (divide the quarterly expenses by three and enter them in the budget as a monthly expense).
You will then want to think about any annual or semi-annual expenses you may have such as for life insurance, homeowner’s insurance, etc. and convert those to a monthly figure and enter it on the budgets also.
In setting out your budget, try to be as realistic as possible. You should be conservative in your budget (meaning don’t understate the expenses and end up stating a budget that doesn’t realistically meet your needs) without grossly overstating the budget (which a judge would frown on should the case go to court). It is admittedly a fine line. The best advice is to base it on as real numbers as possible.
Divorce Preparation: Step 5 – Document & Safeguard Personal Property
The fifth step in our series on preparing for divorce: Document and Safeguard Personal Property.
Inventory and photograph your household furniture, art, jewelry and other items of value. Inventory and photograph the contents of any safe deposit box or family safe your family may own. Also, photocopy any important documents in the safe or safe deposit box (if you did not already do so when collecting the financial records).
It is unfortunate, but often these documents and property will “disappear” once the divorce process starts so get your proof in place now.
Additionally, you may want to consider safeguarding any items of particular value (either monetary or sentimental) which are small in size. I am referring primarily to things like the jewelry your mother passed down to you, your father’s fountain pen, your high school year book, your childhood photo albums, etc. Your spouse may not share your desire to divorce with dignity. Better to safeguard those items that are particularly difficult to replace.
Note that I am not suggesting you empty the house of its contents. That is a sure way to escalate the divorce and guarantee that you will not have a civilized divorce. Things like dvd players, camcorders and laptops can be replaced. Just document those on your inventory and photograph them for proof in the event it is ever needed.
Divorce Preparation: Step 6 – Establish your own credit
We are now on to the sixth step in our series on preparing for divorce. The sixth step is: Make sure you have your own credit established.
If you do not have your own credit history, you should begin the process of establishing it now. Obtain a gas card and a credit card. You will need to have your own credit established after the divorce. And, the sooner you begin the process the better. So, don’t wait until after the divorce. You can start this immediately.
Once you’ve obtained the accounts, you can imrpove your credit by using the cards and then paying them off each month. At this point, it is important that you use these cards only to the degree that you can pay them off each month. Your goal is to establish a favorable credit history, not to run up a bunch of debt.
Divorce Preparation: Step 7 – Assess the Financial Accounts
We continue with our series on steps to take when divorce is imminent. We are on to Step 7 which is Assess the Financial Accounts.
If you’ve completed the prior steps in this series, then you already know what accounts exist and what the balances are. You need to make a decision about what to do with them.
It is an unfortunate reality that one of the first things that some spouses do when they learn/decide a divorce is imminent is to raid the accounts. This is typically done after receiving particularly bad advice from an adversarial lawyer or a well meaning, but poorly informed friend.
In a perfect world neither party would touch the financial accounts except to pay normal household bills until after the divorce is over. However, if this was a perfect world, you would not be reading this blog, and I would be in another line of work because divorce lawyers would be unnecessary.
That being said I do not recommend that you clean out the accounts. Doing so immediately escalates the conflict and stress of divorce. It also will not be well received by the divorce judge.
So, you don’t want to clean out the accounts, but you want to be protected from your spouse cleaning them out. If you have a reasonable fear that your spouse will raid the accounts, the only reasonable solution that I know is to remove one half of the funds from the accounts and put them in a new account in your own name. Do not hide, dispose, or waste the money. Document carefully where every penny is spent because you will likely need to make an accounting of it later in negotiations or at trial. Additionally, you should not do this for the regular checking account out of which the household expenses are paid unless there is a substantial balance in the account over and above the amount needed for paying the current month’s bills. You do not want to take action that would cause checks to bounce.
I don’t make this as a blanket suggestion. If the money can be kept there and neither party remove it, that is preferred. Another option for certain types of accounts is to put a freeze on the account. Obviously that is only practical for accounts that are not regularly needed to pay bills and regular expenses.
Before you decide how to handle your financial accounts, consult with your lawyer. If they are suggesting you go take all of the money out without a good reason, I would seriously reevaluate the whether that lawyer shares your desire for a civilized divorce.
Divorce Preparation: Step 8 – Address the Credit Accounts
We pick up with Step 8 in our series on practical steps to take when a divorce is imminent. Step 8 is Assess how to handle the credit accounts.
If a divorce is imminent you do not want to be liable on any accounts on which your spouse has charging privileges. It is not unheard of for an angry spouse, upon learning of a divorce, to go on a shopping spree. Likewise, some lawyers may advise their clients to take out cash advances on joint cards to provide a cushion while the divorce is pending or to charge a large amount in lawyer’s fees on to joint cards.
You will want to consider canceling such joint accounts or at least reducing the spending limits. If they are an authorized user on charge cards in your name, see what steps the credit card companies require to remove them as an authorized user.
Also consider home equity lines of credit. You may need to consider whether you should close it or restrict access pending the resolution of the divorce.
Whatever you do, do not neglect thinking seriously about how to handle this issue, and discuss it with your lawyer before making a final decision.
Divorce Preparation: Step 9 – Avoid additional debt or major purchases
We continue our series on practical steps to take when you are about to face divorce. We are now to step 9 which is simple, but important:
Avoid additional debt or major purchases.
This suggestion goes hand in hand with assessing how to handle the credit accounts, but deserves its own separate mention. If a divorce is going to happen, you want to be conservative with the finances. It is not time to be putting in a pool, buying a new car, or buying new furniture on credit. You want to simplify the financial situation not make it more complex.
When the divorce occurs, one of the primary things that has to happen is for the divorce court to allocate who will be responsible for what debts. Generally speaking, the less complex the debt situation, the easier task that will be.
I should note again, all of this is general information. Your own specific situation may cause you to need to vary from it. For example, there are times when you may have to get an automobile and it would be better to do it before the divorce because you won’t have sufficient credit on your own after the divorce. So, obviously you will want to get specific advice from your own lawyer – which is why Step 1 was find a wise guide (an experienced, competent divorce law specialist)!