The first steps you take are often the most important, because they go so far towards setting the tone for your divorce. Are you going to sit back and wait to get served divorce papers from your husband’s fancy attorney, or are you going to take the steps now that will protect you in the months to come?
I generally preach rational behavior and reasonableness because I feel that this is generally the best practice to effectively fight for your position. As my mother always used to tell me when I was angry—you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. What you do now, in the first few days after you and your husband talk about separating, really does make a difference. It’s important to walk a fine line, but there are two main goals here: (1) protecting yourself so that you get what you deserve, and (2) not making your husband think you’re gearing up for a fight.
If your first steps put him on the offensive, you’re not helping the situation. Think of it this way: a divorce is a business transaction, and its primary purpose is to divide the assets. Your assets are your assets, and there won’t be any more. You and your husband will have to divide those assets among yourselves, minus whatever it costs you to pay your attorneys. Do you see what I mean? There’s nothing to be gained by fighting. You need to take the steps to protect yourself now, without making him feel like he has to start fighting back.
So, what should you be doing?
1. Carefully analyze all the assets you share with your husband. Do you own a home? Share bank accounts? What about retirement or investment accounts? Do you have health insurance through his employer? Your divorce will deal with all of these items, but it’s a good idea to go through these things now and get an idea of what you share, what you’ll have to establish on your own, and, ultimately, set a budget for yourself. It’s also not a bad idea to open your own separate bank account, especially if he stops having his paychecks direct deposited into the joint account—you’ll need somewhere safe and separate to keep your money.
2. Collect as much paper as possible. A lot of women are scared that their husband will hide assets so that they don’t have to share it. How do you help prevent this from happening? Get as many official statements as possible (or at least, scan or copy the statements). What should you save? Utilities, mortgage statements, credit card bills, bank statements, retirement account statements, tax returns, information regarding safe deposit boxes or rented storage units… Anything that relates to your family’s finances, save it. It may not end up being super important, but it’s a good idea to get copies of all these documents while you still have access to them. It becomes a little more difficult later, if he moves out and takes them all with him, and then your attorney has to request them formally in discovery (which takes time and costs money). If you can’t find these statements now, call the companies directly and request them.
3. Be willing to negotiate, but don’t undervalue yourself and settle too early. You should have a serious chat with your attorney about what you can expect to receive in a settlement. Don’t just accept whatever your husband offers. It’s normal for separation agreements to be revised several times before the parties can finally agree. You’re not in a position to agree to anything until you’ve spoken with an attorney and have an idea of your rights and entitlements under the law. Once an agreement is signed, there’s really no going back—so don’t think that you can sign something now and change certain parts of it later on.
Again, it’s incredibly important to take carefully calculated first steps designed to promote settlement, protect your interests, and prevent the situation from escalating unnecessarily. There are cases that need to be litigated in the court, but it is far more beneficial for both parties if they can reach an amicable agreement regarding the division of their assets without involving a judge. After all, the judge is the person who knows the LEAST about you, your husband, and your lives—do you really want to give him that much power over your life?