You can plan to buy a house. You can plan to get a new job. You can plan to go to school. For many of the major transitions in life, it’s possible to plan ahead. Most people, though, don’t really plan for divorce. For most women, they got married expecting it to last forever. When it starts to look like that might not actually happen, they’re flabbergasted.
I mean, what would the alternative be? Going into a marriage thinking for sure it was going to fail, and always planning and preparing for the other shoe to drop? That’s just…not the way these things typically work because, if you knew it’d fail, why would you get married to begin with? Besides, it’s decidedly unromantic to think that way (besides the fact that thinking that way in itself might pave the road to divorce).
Today, we’ll look into the steps you can take to plan for divorce, both financially and legally. There are a lot of things you can do to help protect yourself, and I want to make sure you have as much information as possible. Over the years, we’ve found that there are plenty of tips and tricks that can help make the transition easier. Maybe not easy, exactly, because no matter how you slice it, divorce and custody cases are emotional, expensive, time consuming and difficult – but that’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do to help make it easier.
How do you plan for divorce?
Planning for divorce is difficult, but it’s possible. Though you may not have planned to end up in this position, once it starts looking like you’re headed down this path, there is often time to take steps to protect yourself.
Planning is always key. Just like you have life insurance and an estate plan to protect yourself and your family in the event that something unexpected happens to you or your spouse, you can put a plan into motion to protect yourself in the event of a divorce.
What if I don’t have any money for my Virginia divorce?
If you don’t have any money, then careful planning is even more important. Stay at home moms or women who are underemployed are pretty common in my line of work; it’s a little sexist, but it does seem like it’s typically the women who work less or not at all in order to do the necessary work of supporting the family. That’s not a dig; if anything, it’s a testament to your strength and your willingness to work for the benefit of the family for little or no recognition or pecuniary compensation. But it DOES mean that planning is even more necessary.
If you don’t have any money, now’s the time to start gathering it. There’s no other way about it, you’re going to have to take steps to ensure that you have what you need to move your case forward.
1. Get cash back.
Every time you go to Target or the grocery store, get an extra $20, $40, or $100. Whatever you think you can withdraw without your husband getting suspicious, because that can be super helpful later. Remember that you may very well have to retain an attorney, pay a security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, or buy new towels and sheets and so on after you and your husband officially separate.
Separation is an expensive and scary time, and the more you can gather some money now, the better.
What you gather, make sure to keep in cash; don’t put it in a different bank account. (If it’s in a bank account, it’s discoverable, and divisible in the divorce.) Whatever cash you have on hand that your husband doesn’t know about will help you establish yourself, especially if he’s the breadwinner. It’s hard for stay at home moms or women with less lucrative careers to survive financially, especially in the beginning before child and spousal support would even be awarded on a temporary basis.
2. Take care of known issues now.
Need new tires on your car? Now’s as good a time as any. Need surgery? Medical treatment of any kind? Definitely time to start taking care of it. Kids need braces? New school shoes? Why not take care of it now?
After all, you have more money now, while it’s still marital, than you will once it’s your money and his money. You also probably have a lot more control over priorities and how it’s spent, so it’s a good time to think about taking care of some of those big ticket items that will be harder for you to afford later.
It’s also not a bad idea to pay down debt, so you don’t wind up having to pay a portion of it after divorce. It’s easier to put marital money towards a credit card or car payment than it will be later. Besides, no judge is likely to find fault with you for taking care of marital debts.
3. If all else fails, remember – the bank account is half yours.
This is a risky choice, but one that’s sometimes necessary. If you have a joint account with access to some of the marital money, you can take it. While I generally don’t recommend taking any more than half (because that’s roughly the amount that the court would award you if you took the issues to a judge), technically its yours and your husband’s equally. Either of you could spend all the money, or remove the money and close the account.
Why is this risky, if it’s your money anyway? Well, obviously, because it’s going to make your husband pretty mad. If things were amicable prior to this point, taking this step will likely cause it to be less so. He’ll get his guard up and, in the future, he’ll likely put his money somewhere you can’t reach it. So, it can backfire, especially if you’re depending on access to that money (which, if you’re in this position anyway, you probably already are).
Sometimes, though, it’s the only way to get enough cash in hand to do big things, like rent an apartment or hire an attorney. I definitely recommend talking to an attorney before you take any big steps like this, though, to come up with a plan of action moving forward. Maybe it’s okay because your attorney plans to file for a fault based divorce, schedule a pendente lite hearing right away, and have temporary child and spousal support awarded in the next couple weeks. But you’ll want to at least have that conversation and make sure you know what the plan is – because chances are very, very good that as soon as your husband finds out you made this withdrawal, there won’t be a joint bank account anymore.
4. Borrow, borrow, borrow. Or use your credit.
This last one isn’t a possibility for everyone, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that, in many cases, our clients borrow money from family and friends. We see lots of moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends who help provide the money our clients so desperately need to secure legal representation.
Still others pay their attorney’s fees on credit. It’s not ideal, but it’s often key, especially in more difficult divorce or custody cases. You have to have representation – and there’s so much risk, in many cases, to not having it.
Where money doesn’t exist, sometimes you have to look to other sources.
That’s a pretty fair summary of a couple financial steps you can take to begin to prepare for divorce. Many of them aren’t perfect, but, taken together, you can at least make a dent in the amount of money you’ll need on hand to take care of yourself and your children in the meantime.
What other steps can I take to make my financial plan for divorce?
There are still more things you can do to help prepare for your divorce. The first three things I pointed out are designed to help financially, at least in the interim period between when you separate and when a (1) temporary support is awarded at pendente lite, (2) an agreement is signed, or (3) a judge makes a final ruling in your case.
If you STILL need help…
Will an attorney represent me pro bono?
Money is key in a divorce, and there are very few, if any, attorneys who take on cases pro bono. (I don’t personally know any, I only write this that way to allow for the possibility that some attorney, somewhere, might take a divorce case pro bono.) If you need an attorney to represent you (most people do), you’re going to need to be financially prepared to hire someone to represent you.
You’re welcome to call around to talk to attorney offices to see whether they’d take on a case pro bono, but don’t expect much. We also can’t take cases on contingency fees in family law cases (the “there’s no fee unless we get money for you!” kind of thing you see in commercials, especially from personal injury attorneys); it’s considered unethical, and we could be disbarred for doing it.
Can’t I get a court appointed attorney?
No. In divorce, there’s no such thing. Court appointed attorneys are provided in cases where a person’s liberty is at stake – meaning when there’s the possibility of a jail sentence. Custody and divorce cases do not apply. In the judge’s view, divorce and custody cases are optional, not mandatory. You can’t help if someone accuses you of a crime; all you can do is mount a defense. You CAN help, though, whether you choose to file for divorce or custody—and, anyway, it’s not like you risk going to jail. I don’t tell you this to suggest that its sound law; I’ve often thought that it’s not very fair that some of the women I see are unable to get even court appointed representation. I only tell you to give you an idea of how the law works in cases like these.
What about Legal Aid?
Definitely call Legal Aid. Sometimes they can help, especially if you’re really impoverished. They’re often not super helpful, but they can sometimes point you in the right direction.
Generally speaking, if you fall below a certain portion of the poverty line, you can get representation (or at least some guidance) from Legal Aid. Legal Aid doesn’t take contested cases though (meaning cases where an agreement can’t be reached). Why? Aren’t people facing contested cases the very people who need legal help the most? Probably. But there’s also no doubt about it that contested cases take a lot of time, energy, and money – and in an organization like Legal Aid, where funding is limited and attorneys are already overburdened by insanely heavy case loads, taking even one contested case takes resources away from all the others who could reach an uncontested resolution. It probably doesn’t seem fair, especially if you’re facing a contested case, but… That’s how it works.
Feel free to reach out to Legal Aid, though. In many cases, even contested ones, they can at least give you information to point you in the right direction.
What other legal resources are there to help me make my financial plan for divorce?
Good question. I like the way you think. Getting all the information is definitely the first step towards careful, rational preparation for anything, but especially for divorce.
1. Request a free book or any of our free reports.
There’s SO MUCH free information on our website! Between the library portion of our blog, where you can get specific information on topics that interest you (seriously, just search spousal support, contested divorce, separation agreement, collaborative divorce, grandparent rights, pro bono, or an other issue that you’re interested in, and see just how much information is there), and our resources page that includes access to any of our four free books (on divorce, military divorce, how to hire an attorney, and child custody and visitation) or a wide range of free reports.
Talk about an education! Pretty much anything you could want to know about Virginia divorce and custody law is available on our site, and we’re happy to send you a free electronic copy of any of our books (a hard copy, too, if you live in our immediate area) or reports.
2. Attend a monthly divorce seminar.
Want a chance to ask your questions live, to a real attorney? Look no further. Our monthly divorce seminars are taught three times a month; on the Second Saturday of the month in Virginia Beach and Newport News, and on the third Tuesday of the month in Virginia Beach.
Each seminar is taught by one of our attorneys and deals with many of the most frequently asked questions we get – like, when am I separated? When can I change the locks? How is spousal support determined? How does custody work? And, of course, so many more – plus, we take questions from the audience, too! It’s a great way to get some of those initial “can’t eat, can’t sleep” questions answered.
3. Come in for a consultation.
Yup. We’re at that point. Once you’ve read all you can read on our website, and attended the seminar to ask any questions that you’ve not been able to get answered or just wanted more clarification on, it’s time to talk one on one with an attorney about your specific case.
Wondering what to expect? You’re not alone, and it’s a good idea to know ahead of time what happens in our typical appointments. You probably have a lot of questions, and we’re here to help make sure you get them all answered, and have the opportunity to come up with a custom tailored plan of action, designed to take all of your needs into account.
A consultation is a great way to take your planning to the next step. It’s personalized, confidential, and the next step to get the information you need to begin to prepare for your divorce.
It’s great that you’re thinking about all the ways you can prepare for divorce. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and with a little bit of information and a whole lot of empowerment, you can make the best decisions possible for you and your family.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment to talk to one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give us a call at 757-425-5200.