Planning for Your Divorce

For many people, divorce is among the most stressful events they will experience. According to studies, it is usually the stress of a divorce is outranked only by the death of a spouse or child

There are a few reasons for this. Divorce is a legal proceeding that dissolves a marriage. For many people, being married is part of their identity. When they divorce, they feel like they have lost part of themselves. Worse yet, losing a marriage is like losing a loved one and will trigger feelings of grief, even for spouses that were unhappily married.

Divorce also creates financial stress on both spouses. Even though the court tries to balance out the ex-spouse’s financial interests, two households are more expensive than one. This means that with child support and alimony, the higher-earning spouse will probably spend more on household maintenance than before. And the lower-earning spouse will probably not have enough money to meet the lifestyle they know.

Divorce also creates family stress. Concern over the well-being of the children will weigh on both parents’ minds. And couples without children could feel pain, guilt, and betrayal over the collapse of the marriage.

One way to deal with the stress of a divorce is to have a divorce plan of action. By planning for your divorce, you maintain some control over how the divorce will proceed and can anticipate how much it will cost, how long it will take, and how you will handle post-divorce life.

Here are some tips for developing a divorce plan of action.

Understand What a Divorce Does

The first step in your divorce plan of action is to understand what divorce does. Most divorce cases must resolve four legal issues before the judge issues a final divorce decree.

  • Child custody: If the marriage produced any children, including adopted children, the judge must determine how decisions concerning the children will be made (legal custody) and what the living arrangements for the children will be (physical custody).
  • Child support: Child support will help ensure the child has financial support from both parents. Child support is awarded based on the needs of the children and the financial resources of the parents.
  • Property division: All property acquired during the marriage is divided between the spouses. Any separate property, such as gifts, inheritances, and property purchased before the marriage, is awarded to the spouse who acquired it.
  • Spousal support: Also known as alimony, a court can award spousal support based on the fairness of the spouse’s financial resources.

At the end of the divorce, the family court issues a divorce decree that dissolves the marriage, returns each spouse to unmarried and single status, and orders how those four issues will be handled going forward.

Understand Why You Are Getting Divorced

It is important for you to know why you are divorcing when you prepare your divorce plan of action. A few reasons why you need to know your reasons for divorcing include:

  • Fault-based divorce: Many states require you to give a reason for the divorce. Some reasons include adultery, abandonment, abuse, criminal conviction, and separation. In fault states, a judge can dismiss the divorce petition if it does not give a reason for the divorce. Although 17 states allow no-fault divorce, the remaining all require you to assert who is at fault for the marital breakdown.
  • Goals: Your reasons for divorcing will affect your goals for the divorce. For example, if you just want to get out of the divorce because you are unhappy, you may be willing to leave some issues uncontested rather than fighting over them for months or even years. On the other hand, if you want a divorce because your spouse is hiding assets and income, you may be willing to fight to get every penny to which you are entitled.
  • Desire to remarry: The outcome of a divorce is a dissolution of the marriage. This is essential if you plan to remarry. But if you do not plan to remarry, you do not need to divorce. In many states, a legal separation will save you money and leave the marriage intact while still resolving the four main issues discussed above. This leaves you the option to reconcile and gives you most of the tax benefits of being in a marriage. Before jumping directly to a divorce, you should consult a family law attorney to determine if there are other options that will satisfy your reasons for wanting a divorce.
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Discuss Divorce with Your Spouse, if Possible

Many spouses prefer to take their spouse by surprise when they file for divorce. But in many cases, both spouses realize that they have grown apart and can discuss divorce. This discussion will help you and your spouse develop a divorce plan of action.

When a divorce can be discussed amicably, the couple has a realistic chance of filing an uncontested divorce. An uncontested divorce is a divorce where both parties agree on the resolution of the four issues. This allows the couple to file a settlement agreement with the divorce petition. A judge will review the settlement agreement to make sure it meets all the legal requirements of a valid contract, and issue a decree consistent with the settlement agreement’s terms.

The benefit of an uncontested divorce is that both spouses will save money on lawyer fees. And rather than trying to outdo each other by hiring the best divorce attorney, the couple can save their money to spend on their household or child expenses post-divorce. If the couple has children, an uncontested divorce can be easier on the children, and it may allow the parents to move forward with a cordial relationship.

However, uncontested divorce depends on the couple being able to compromise on all the issues. If they cannot, they may need to look at two other alternatives — contested divorce and collaborative divorce.

Choose a Divorce Process

The key to a divorce plan of action is choosing a divorce process. If you cannot settle with your spouse, you will need to prepare to fight.

A contested divorce is the opposite of an uncontested divorce. In a contested divorce, at least one of the four main issues cannot be settled. For example, even if the couple agrees on child custody and child support, they might disagree on property division and alimony. This disagreement could result in months or years of litigation.

A contested divorce is what most people think of when they think about divorce. Each spouse will hire a divorce attorney. The lawyers will review the couple’s finances and a battle over nearly every issue. At the end, the couple could have hard feelings toward each other that might never go away.

But when a spouse is unreasonable and uncompromising, a contested divorce might be necessary. Similarly, if a spouse is deceitful and has hidden assets, debts, or income, the only way to get the full picture might be a contested divorce.

Somewhere in between a contested and an uncontested divorce is a collaborative divorce. In a collaborative divorce, the goal is a settlement agreement. But the spouses still have issues to resolve. They will resolve them with the help of experts and, in some cases, divorce mediation. The idea behind collaborative divorce is that the couple has staked out differing positions, but can compromise if an unbiased third party can explain a fair resolution.

As a result, most collaborative divorces begin with a divorce plan of action where the spouses jointly hire a team of experts. Usually, the team includes a financial expert, a family expert, and a mediator. The financial expert and family expert prepare reports for the couple that explain a fair outcome for their situation. For example, if a couple has a special needs child, the family expert might develop a plan that provides both parents as much time with the child as possible, without interfering with the child’s therapy and treatment.

Once the spouses have reviewed the reports, the team may conduct one or more mediation sessions. A mediator does not take sides. Instead, a mediator facilitates compromise by providing a channel of communication between the couple. For example, if one spouse desires the family home, the mediator may discuss with that spouse what he or she would be willing to give up in trade. By keeping the discussion going, the hope is that the couple will find a way to resolve their differences.

Prepare Your Children

Divorce can be very hard on children. They might think their family is falling apart or that their parents are abandoning them. A sound divorce plan of action includes the couple’s children and making sure their needs are met during and after the divorce.

Divorce will resolve all the issues relating to the children of the marriage. This includes biological children, adopted children, and biological children of one spouse who were adopted by the other spouse. It does not include stepchildren who were not adopted by the stepparent. Any child where both spouses are the legal parents of the child will be included in the divorce, whether that baby was born to the spouses or adopted after the birth parents signed papers giving baby up for adoption.

These children will need to understand how divorce works and how their lives will change after the divorce. Most states encourage both parents to remain actively involved in raising the child. Unless one parent poses a danger to the child, courts are usually inclined to try to divide the children’s time equally between the parents. For example, if one parent is accused of domestic violence, child abuse, or is addicted to drugs or alcohol, a court may take extra precautions to protect the child.

This is one reason why you should avoid any criminal offenses that could bear on your ability to care for your children. If you are ever divorced, your spouse could bring up the criminal charges as a reason to limit or deny your parenting time with your children. As a result, you should fight unfair or false charges like a DUI by hiring a good DUI defense attorney.

Some children will understand how the divorce will affect them and process it in a healthy way. But many children will not. This is particularly true if the children are placed at the center of a bitter divorce. Having to deal with acrimony between the parents and the aggressive tactics of a child custody lawyer fighting for each parent can be traumatic. If your child is having trouble processing the divorce, you may want to seek therapy or counseling for the child so the child’s trauma does not come out in destructive ways.

Get Your Financial Records Together

Although divorce is not solely about finances, it can tend to dominate a divorce plan of action. Most couples can agree to a fairly even split for parenting time. But very few couples can agree completely on financial matters such as property division and alimony.

Most states use an equitable division of property. This means a judge can award the property to address unfairness in the couple’s financial conditions. For example, if one spouse is a high earner and has the means to find a new place to live, the judge may award the family home to the other spouse rather than forcing them to sell the home and divide the sale proceeds between them.

Some states use community property instead of equitable division. This constrains the judge to divide the marital property equally. The goals of this system are to treat the spouses equally and to reduce the acrimony between the spouses. Since the judge has no discretion in how much each spouse gets, there is one less issue to fight over.

A good divorce plan of action will include gathering all your financial records, preparing your kids, and understanding the how and why of divorce. Armed with this information, you will be prepared to take divorce on.

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