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21 Things to Do Before Asking for a Divorce

2. Consult and Hire an Attorney

Red Alert

Be on the lookout for financial information that is distorted or intentionally incomplete. If you suspect any shenanigans on the part of your spouse, consult a forensic accountant.

Red Alert

When fishing for information about your spouse, do not explain, explicitly, why you need this information. Whoever you're asking might well figure out your motivation. Therefore, you must make it understood that discretion is essential. But do so subtly; the less said, the better. Remember, even a friend can be forced to testify against you under oath.

As soon as you think you will be seeking a divorce, you must speak with an attorney. This is the first step in your journey, and an essential one. Even if you have been married for only a short time, even if you have no property or children, and even if you plan to mediate your divorce or handle it all yourself, you still need to take this step. An initial consultation with a divorce lawyer can be free, but even if it costs you a couple of hundred dollars, it's better not to be penny wise and pound foolish.

You may think your situation is so simple, or your assets so negligible, that you have nothing to worry about, and nothing to lose except for the attorney fee. But you could be wrong. From lingering debt to funds in a pension or retirement plan, there are many assets and liabilities even the most modest couple is sure to have. You may make fatal errors before you have a chance to tell your spouse what's on your mind. Should you move to another apartment now? Might you lose your chance at custody of the children? Can you date? Should you take money out of your bank account? In short, are you at risk in any way?

A qualified divorce attorney will help you avoid traps you could never know about on your own. (Don't rely on advice from your divorced friend—every case is different.) During the meeting, the lawyer will ask you questions that will allow him or her to evaluate your case. Building on this knowledge and knowing the law and the court system, the lawyer will be able to answer your questions and offer appropriate strategies. Whether you end up hiring this lawyer or not, you will gain a better strategic sense of what's ahead.

Although the wealthiest individuals often pay their full-service attorneys hefty re-tainers to start work, those of more modest means may now purchase legal services à la carte through a new style of practice called “unbundled” law. In this method, an attorney will look over your shoulder if you can't afford “full service,” and no retainer may be necessary. He or she can help you strategize, write a legal letter, or review a mediated settlement agreement. Should you decide to handle many of the details and do the bulk of the work yourself, it is nevertheless in your best interest to have an attorney on tap who is familiar with your case. Even if you and your spouse have “worked everything out” or have chosen a mediator, your own lawyer will advise you about rights you probably don't know you have. You don't need a Marvin Mitchelson or a Raul Feldman, but you should find someone who has handled divorces before, someone you can afford, and someone with whom you feel comfortable. You are going to have to live with your divorce settlement for the rest of your life. Make sure you don't sell yourself short. More about this later on.

How do you find an attorney? Word of mouth is usually a good way to begin, but don't go by recommendations alone. Other resources are your local Bar Association, or if you are really strapped for cash, you can try legal aid. Don't settle for the first attorney you meet. You must find someone you like, and that individual must practice the kind of law that meets your needs. If you want someone to offer services by menu, then a full-service powerhouse may not be for you. Meet with a few lawyers before making up your mind. Even if you have to pay for these consultations, you'll learn a little about the differences in legal style and hone in on the qualities you prefer.

3. Know Your Spouse's Annual Income

One of the first issues you'll be settling in your divorce agreement or in court relates to money. Whether for spousal support or child support, you will have to know your spouse's earnings and assets to calculate a reasonable figure. If it doesn't make sense to ask your spouse, you might have to do some digging before that information becomes unavailable.

If your spouse has a salaried position or is paid by the hour, the information should be on a recent pay stub. Alternatively, look at last year's tax return. If your spouse is self-employed, a tax return might not tell you the full story. Do a little detective work. Be creative, but be careful not to break state or federal privacy rules. Perhaps you can enlist the help of another person. Does your spouse have a business partner? Are you friendly with the partner's spouse? He or she might know about the business and be willing to share what he or she knows over a friendly lunch. Is someone else in the partnership divorced? Make an ally of that partner's former spouse, who will probably be full of information from his or her divorce and only too eager to share it.

Ultimately, you might have to rely on your spouse to furnish this information, but it's prudent to know as much financial information as possible before taking it up with him or her. One wife we know happened to be enrolled in a course on money management when she decided to move ahead with her divorce. Before she informed her husband, she asked him to help her fill out an income-disclosure form—ostensibly her “homework.” When she began divorce proceedings, she had the information she needed—in her husband's handwriting, no less. Even if you're not enrolled in a class, requesting such information should be fairly straightforward. Why do you want the details? In this day and age, our financial status is something we must all be on top of. Just tell your partner you feel foolish without a handle on the economic underpinnings of your life.



Next: Assets >>
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Surviving Divorce © 2002 by BookEnds, LLC. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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