Marriage is the hardest thing many of us ever do. When you vowed “till death do us part,” you could never have anticipated the myriad challenges a lifetime of togetherness brings. While ending a marriage can be painful, it can also open the door to new kinds of happiness. Many people find that divorce spurs a kind of personal renaissance, offering them access to strength they never knew they had and a life they never thought was possible. Yet the process can be overwhelming. What kind of professional help am I going to need? Will it be a contested or uncontested divorce? What about all of the endless paperwork to file, and of course, the many fights to be had?
The truth is that none of these hassles have to be a part of divorce. The direction of your divorce--as well as its costs and stressors--is entirely up to you. Here’s your divorce checklist...must-haves as you meander through the confusing world of divorce.
Make Sure You’re Ready
You probably spent a lot of time contemplating whether you were ready to get married. The decision to divorce is equally weighty. Don’t file for divorce because you’re mad, or because you hope doing so will be a “wake-up call” to your spouse. If you have kids, property, or a business together, you’re going to be in each other's’ lives for a while after the divorce. File only if you are truly ready to end your marriage. If you can’t imagine living without your spouse, watching them date someone else, or losing contact with them, you’re not ready. Couples counseling may be a better option.
But if you know you can’t tolerate this marriage anymore, divorce might be for you. It’s normal to feel sad, even heartbroken. It’s equally normal to feel excited--or some combination of many emotions. Don’t allow your emotions to make the decision for you. The only question that really matters is whether you want to end your relationship.
Circle the Wagons
Even if you’re ready to leave, divorce can be tough. Your kids may struggle. Your finances may shift. Your life will change. You’re going to need support. So don’t wait until you’re floundering. Circle the wagons before you file. Get back in touch with old friends. Ask your family if they can help with childcare. Develop a plan for whom to call when you need support, childcare, or a night out. Explore your options for therapy or other emotional and mental health support. Support and self-care can mean the difference between thriving and barely surviving.
Audit Your Finances
Before you divide your assets and debts, you need to know what they are. That’s especially true if your spouse handles your finances or earns most of the money. Besides, courts in most states require financial disclosures as part of the process, whether it’s contested or not. Make copies of key financial documents. Review several years’ worth of tax returns. Make a budget so you have a clear understanding of what you need to survive. You may even need to hire an accountant who can help you better understand your financial state. And if you think your spouse might be hiding money, consider hiring a forensic accountant, who can piece together a confusing financial puzzle.
Decide What You Want
Once you have a clear idea of what’s financially on the table, it’s time to think about what you want from your divorce. Ask yourself the following:
- What child custody arrangement is in my child’s best interests? What will the court think is reasonable?
- Which assets do I most want?
- Do we have debt? How should we divide it?
- How will we divide the family home?
- Are child support and spousal support at issue? What do I want--or hope to pay?
Remember that this shouldn’t read like a wish list. It should be a reasonably fair division of assets. Consider whether there’s any chance that your spouse will accept your proposal. If not, it’s back to the drawing board until you can come up with something more reasonable.
Talk to Your Spouse
Note that there’s no need to approach your spouse with your news until you’ve already done quite a bit of work. Your divorce will proceed more smoothly if you already have support in place and a general plan. Once you’ve done this, sit down with your spouse and calmly tell them that you want a divorce. If you’re concerned about their reaction or there is a history of abuse, consider telling them in a public place.
Now is not the time to relitigate what went wrong in your marriage. It will only worsen tensions and decrease the likelihood of a smooth process. Instead, remain positive but firm. Don’t allow your spouse to pull you into a fight, and don’t let them talk you out of your decision.
After this preliminary discussion, give your spouse some time to process things. After a few days, revisit the discussion. Ask them if they have thoughts about how they’d like to proceed. Explain that things can be more affordable and less stressful if you agree to terms rather than hiring lawyers and fighting to the death. Then work together to hammer out terms you can both live with.
File for Divorce
Now it’s time to file. If you and your spouse have significant disagreements, you’ll need expert guidance to ensure your interests are represented, and help you navigate the somewhat lengthy process. If you can agree to fair terms together then you may be able to do it yourself. This option is certainly more affordable, and significantly less contentious.
Filing for divorce can feel stressful. It can bring up painful emotions, and even traumatic memories from childhood. But you can get through this. Life on the other side really can be better. So protect yourself and your children, and know that the only way forward is through. Divorce can be hard, but there is life on the other side.