How to Prepare for Divorce

A woman writing down list of assets to prepare for divorceThe holidays are not always merry and bright. For some, the anticipation of more family time, annual traditions and a load of expectations can cause tensions to run high — even for the healthiest of couples. For those on the brink of divorce, it can also be a time of emotional avoidance or another year of “just getting through” the holidays. Not surprisingly, January is the most popular month for divorce.

However, despite your already packed schedule, here's a hard truth: if you are planning to get divorced, you need to start preparing one to three months prior to separation. Meaning, if you think 2023 is a new year, new you, you need to start preparing now.

Here’s another hard truth: if you’re thinking about divorce, your spouse probably is as well. And if he or she has consulted an attorney, they’re one step ahead of you. To stay in the driver’s seat, follow these six steps on how to prepare for divorce.

1. Hire a lawyer.

Think you can prepare everything on your own? Think again. If you don't hire a lawyer many clients spend more money cleaning up a messy separation than they would have paid me to do it right the first time. Doing it on your own will likely not save you money, especially if property division, child custody or child support are involved. Curious (or concerned) about the legal fees? Here’s a breakdown of different legal cost structures you can expect.

A lawyer can help you get organized and also explain your options, including state requirements for filing and grounds for divorce. And while you may not be thinking this far in advance, it's important to note that judges will always prefer you have a lawyer.

How to choose an attorney

You want an attorney who can support you and guide you through this challenging time, but also one who will educate you on what to expect from the legal process and fiercely advocate for your interests.

To get started, interview a few family law lawyers. You can check Super Lawyers to find a list of top-rated attorneys, or here are some more tips from the American Bar Association on how to find a lawyer.

During your consultation, here are a few things to look for:

  • A good listener – Are they truly hearing your concerns?
  • An innovative thinker – Have they offered you a customized approach to your case?
  • An accomplished litigator – What’s their courtroom record?
  • A support system – Have they asked you about your goals for the life you’ll build afterwards?
  • A dedicated family law lawyer -– Is the practice dedicated to family law and offer one-on-one communications?

The Benefits of Filing First

Oftentimes I’ll meet with clients who are scared to file first for fear they’ll appear as the party at fault. But, just as there are clear benefits to preparing first, there are clear benefits for filing first. You get your case put on first, present evidence first, and decide on witnesses first. Point being: you construct the narrative instead of crafting a reactive defense. Your spouse will, of course, put on their case, but it will be in the shadow of your own.

Lawyers also tend to believe in the primacy effect, which states people have a tendency to remember the first piece of information encountered better than information presented later on. So while you might not be interested in a trial, it’s best to prepare for all situations.

2. Organize your finances.

Hopefully this step doesn’t come as a surprise. You will need to organize your financial paperwork prior to filing for divorce. Here’s a quick breakdown of exactly what you’ll need:

  • At least six months of bank statements as well as credit card statements from each account, either in your name or in your spouse’s name
  • Your retirement plan information, including 401K and IRAs
  • At least last six months of paystubs, if you are working
  • Any documents relating to loans, mortgage statements, property deeds or leases in your name and/or your spouse's name

Does your spouse have full control over the finances? Clients are often surprised to learn that not only is this common, it’s not a permanent roadblock. If you can’t access this financial information on your own, you will be able to obtain all of this information through litigation.

3. Make a list of personal property.

Make a list of important or valuable personal property. This includes everything from real estate property and furniture to stocks and pension assets. Additionally, your list can include intangible property, such as patents, trademarks, the value of certain investments, and goodwill in a business.

Remember, marital property is property that’s been acquired during your marriage, while nonmarital property is either property you owned before the marriage or acquired during the marriage through inheritance or gift (not from your spouse). You will get to keep your nonmarital property — so long as you can prove when and how it was acquired. (I mentioned the importance of preparing for divorce, right?)

As for marital property, Maryland is an equitable distribution state, which means each spouse can walk away with an equal share of assets. However, it’s not always so simple as to what’s considered marital or separate property. Division of property can be complex, which is another reason why you need an attorney. What’s more, property division can affect child or spousal support. Learn more about property division here.

4. Create a budget for your post-divorce living expenses.

This isn’t a fun one, but you need to create a budget for your post-divorce living expenses. If you’re moving from a two-income household to a one-income household or you’re a stay-at-home parent, finances will likely be tight. It’s important to figure out how much you’ll need to support yourself (and your children) after divorce.

Hard truth (I know, there are a lot of them): if your children are old enough, and you have been a stay at home mom, the chances are high that the judge will expect you to get a job, absent some kind of disability.

There are different approaches to building your budget as well as tools to assist you in building one. Here are some budgeting tips for life after divorce.

5. Change your beneficiary designation and power of attorney.

Most couples name one another as their primary beneficiary on life insurance, 401k accounts, bank accounts and more. While you aren’t always able to adjust plans, you are always able to update beneficiaries, and you should do so if preparing for divorce.

Similarly, you may have signed a power of attorney at some point, giving your spouse authority to make financial decisions on your behalf. In the unlikely case something happens to you while your divorce is pending, you probably don’t want your spouse to be the one calling the shots. Divorce also doesn’t revoke a will, so you’ll want to update this as well.

6. Prioritize your mental health.

Finally, it’s imperative you take care of yourself during this difficult transition. While an attorney can help guide you, you may want to consider therapy to help you manage your mental health. A therapist can also help you prepare for court and coach you on how to talk to your kids.

And similar to a lawyer, what you say to a therapist will remain privileged and cannot be shared in court. Remember, what you say to a friend or family member can be repeated in court and possibly used against you.

If you are preparing for divorce and want to speak to an attorney, reach out for a consultation at (301) 637-6070 or