If you're considering separating from your spouse, knowing how to prepare for a divorce is a a smart move. Ending your marriage can be a traumatic experience, so you'll want to make sure your best interests are protected.
Dianna Gould-Saltman is a Certified Family Law Specialist and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Ms. Gould-Saltman is in demand as a lecturer on the subject of family law, particularly in the area of issues surrounding child custody. In addition to being named a "Southern California SuperLawyer" in each publication year, she has also been declared one of the "Top 50 Female Southern California Superlawyers" in 2004, 2005, and 2006 by Los Angeles Magazine/Law and Politics. To learn more about Ms. Gould-Saltman, please visit the Gould-Saltman Law Offices LLP web site.
Preparing for a Divorce
Recently, Ms. Gould-Saltman took time out of her busy schedule to answer LTK's questions about how to prepare for a divorce.
LTK: Would you say that most people you meet in your practice have decided that they want a divorce but are unprepared for the reality of the process of legally ending their marriage?
Not necessarily. Of clients involved in divorce, about a third are the ones who are filing for divorce and another third are responding because their spouse is filing. Another third are coming in to get information about their rights and obligations. No matter how much they've thought about it, few people are prepared for the emotional impact of divorce, even if it was their idea.
LTK: At what point should someone who is trying to prepare for a divorce contact a family law attorney?
At the earliest possible time. Even if you are thinking about divorce, it's really important to speak with an attorney about the range of options, as well as your rights and obligations, so that you know how to prepare, what to prepare and have a realistic time-frame for the process.
LTK: Should this be done before you tell your spouse you want out?
Definitely. The information you get from an attorney could affect when and how you choose to tell your spouse.
LTK: In an initial consultation with someone who wants to get a divorce, what types of information or documents should they bring with them? Why?
At an initial consultation, a potential client should come in with a list of questions to ask the attorney. Some of these will be substantive (How is child support determined? What is the law about dividing assets and debts in this state?) as well as questions that will let the client know whether this is the right attorney for him or her. (This may include the attorney's experience in the field or philosophy about how to approach a divorce case such as this one.)
Important documents include the past few years' of tax returns, most recent credit card and bank statements and any other documents that provide information about the family (face pages of insurance policies, copies of trusts or estate plans).
LTK: You recommend that someone who is preparing for divorce write down the story of their life. What should be included in the "story" and what will this information be used for?
I like clients to write a little story of the history of the marriage: date of marriage, birth of children, work histories of both parties, so that critical information can be considered and discussed in a meaningful way at that first meeting. I want to know whether there are any special considerations that could affect either custody of children or support, such as an extended period of unemployment by either party, a history of domestic violence, significant injury or illness affecting employability or special medical or educational needs of the children.
LTK: In a situation where the news that your spouse wants a divorce comes as a surprise, what should a person do?
Breathe! Think before reacting. Generally, both spouses are aware that there are problems in a marriage but may not have come to the same conclusion about how those problems will be resolved (or even the severity of the problems). We often discuss the emotional process of divorce in terms similar to the way Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross discussed the process of death and dying: fear, anger, sadness, bargaining and, eventually, acceptance.
While I find that most people going through a divorce experience each of these stages (some spend more time in one stage than others, and some go back and forth between stages before moving on), RARELY do I find that both spouses in a marriage go through the same stage at the same time. So where one may go through all the stages before announcing he or she wants a divorce, the other spouse may just begin the process (fear) just as one has completed the process (acceptance).
LTK: Based on your education and experience, do you have any other advice for someone wondering how to prepare for a divorce? Divorce is a process, not an event. You will need to make decisions when you may feel least emotionally prepared to do so. Do surround yourself with good people on whom you can rely but know their roles and boundaries. Your attorney is there to give you legal advice, not to be your buddy. Your buddies should be there to give you emotional support, not legal advice. Your therapist is there to help you stay focused and get your through the process. Your children will continue to need parenting even when you feel sad or frightened or angry. Don't expect to be superman or superwoman through a divorce but you'd be amazed at how resilient you are capable of being. Finally, in assessing any proposal for settlement, or in making one, always factor in the value of resolution and moving on with your life.