How to Get a Divorce
Unlike any heartbreaks you had in high school, college and beyond, the pain of going through a divorce is on a whole different scale. Even though statistics on divorce in the United States are daunting — nearly 50 percent who walk down the aisle will also walk into the courtroom — no one is considering that plot twist when heading into a new marriage. If all signs point to ending things and you’re ready to start carving out an individual path for yourself, there are a few things you need to know.
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With so much to consider — and frankly, so much to protect — you want to make sure you begin proceedings with your best, safest and smartest foot forward. Here, the ultimate guide on what to expect when you’re going through this daunting journey, the answers to your most important questions, and how to handle each step of the way. You got this — and you will find a new start on the other side.
How Long Does a Divorce Take?
After you’ve made the decision to call it quits — for better or for worse — you still have quite a long road ahead before you can officially be unmarried. Though some separations can be completed within a few weeks, most divorces take several months, depending on a variety of details including location, assets, children and more. As matrimonial and family law attorney Emily S. Pollock shares, she’s worked on cases where she was able to get a judgment of divorce within a handful of weeks, while others have lasted many years, thanks to custody disputes, complicated financial issues and other hurdles. Sometimes, paperwork, court waiting times and other matters can delay the process, even among exes who approach divorce on the same page. “There is no average length for a divorce proceeding, but a case without many complicating factors should be able to be resolved within a year,” she notes.
Managing Attorney and Supreme Court Certified Family Law Mediator, Leisa Wintz, MS, Esq., echoes Pollock, adding a six-week divorce is only an option in cases that are relatively uncontested, meaning both spouses agree on all (or most) of the issues. “If the parties are not in agreement and we have to have a judge decide all or most of the issues, it can take longer,” she says. “In contested cases where a judge needs to decide the issues, it’s likely about nine months to a year on average.”
How Much Does a Divorce Cost?
While it would be ideal for divorce to be inexpensive, that’s usually not the case, according to Pollock. The price tag however, is on a wide sliding scale, determined by how long the process takes, how complicated the paperwork is and your home state. She estimates an inexpensive divorce to cost the ballpark of $15K, but expenses can reach all the way up to hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not more. “Because each case presents different issues, it is hard to identify an average cost, but the factors that will increase the potential cost are the same as those that can increase how long the case will last: contested custody disputes, complicated financial issues, substantial and difficult to appraise assets to be divided, and, of course, the reasonableness of the litigants,” she explains.
Another factor that could impact your lawyer bill are your children, according to certified family law specialist Richard Ian Ross, Esq. Like Pollock, he says while there is no average price for a dissolution of marriage case, generally speaking, those involving minor kiddos are the most expensive, as well as any couplehood that involved businesses and properties.
What Do You Need to Prepare for Getting Divorced?
As with any matter of the law, you can’t simply sign on the dotted line and call it a day. Since marriage joined together two lives, divorce must now separate that creation, and with it comes a mountain of paperwork and required documents to set the record straight (or should we say, single). When you have this information in hand, the process will begin on a smoother note, making for hopefully a speedy (and less expensive!)divorce. Here’s how to prepare for the journey:
Move Out From Under the Same Roof
Whether you or your partner decide to pack a few bags and bunk at a friend’s house, Ross urges couples to sever joint tenancy ASAP. How come? Though morbid, he says it’s an important first step since should one spouse die prior to the divorce being finalized, the other spouse would automatically be awarded the residence. “Joint tenancy can be severed by preparing and filing a document with the court and is imperative in the early stages of a divorce. It’s important to note that moving out of the family residence does not sever joint tenancy,” he continues.
On an emotional note, separating physically may make your divorce more amicable, and help you begin the healing process from the aftermath of your marriage.
Know Your Financial Picture
Much like starting a new job or filing for marriage, divorce requires a clear understanding of your money situation — from spending to taxes, and more. Pollock recommends each part of the twosome create a monthly budget for your lifestyle, as documented by your actual and historical spending. This will help determine various factors like child support or spousal support, should it come up in court proceedings. You should also print out all financial statements for personal and share accounts and make copies of them.
Make sure you also have your tax statements from at least the last three years on hand. Keep these papers in a secure, safe place like a deposit box at your bank or with a trusted friend if you’re worried about your spouse trying to take advantage of you. From a practical standpoint, all of this detailed info makes the transition easier, but it also provides you with a first step in setting up your new life, solo. “Your divorce will be less expensive and less time-consuming if you are informed about all assets, liabilities and income sources and understand how much the marital lifestyle costs and what changes, if any, would need to be made to move into two households post-divorce,” Pollock adds.
Prepare for Custody Concerns
Pollock says if you have any concerns relating to the custodial fitness of the other parent, you should start documenting proof of their inconsistencies or incompetence ASAP. Whether due to a toxic work situation or a substance-abuse habit, the more you can illustrate what is actually happening in your family, the better chance you have of gaining full custody of your beloved kids.
“Begin keeping a calendar in which you note all examples of incidents that concern you — from missing bedtime again to having a drunken episode in front of the children,” she continues. “You will be much better positioned to argue your concerns to your attorney and the court if you are able to support them with specific information.”
Refrain From Making Other Big Life Changes Until After the Divorce
When you’re going through a divorce, every part of your life — from your habits to your income — is scrutinized under the law. All of these factors impact outcomes in the proceedings, making it essential to keep the status quo until after everything is finalized. This means you should refrain from buying a new house, taking money out of your 401K, quitting your job or relocating without consulting your attorney first. How come? These could reflect poorly on your character and mental state, or could set your spouse up to receive part-ownership or financial awards if you are technically still wed.
Do You Need a Lawyer?
More often than not, the answer to this question is definitely. Though they don’t come cheap, an attorney can help you navigate the many frustrating, complicated and taxing aspects of getting a divorce. In fact, Pollock says even if you don’t intend on hiring representation, a phone call or meeting is recommended to guide your choices. “You should consult with an attorney to determine what the divorce process entails, what your rights are, and what are your options for proceeding. It may be that you and your spouse will be able to work together to submit uncontested papers without counsel,” she continues. This is usually the case in super-short marriages that don’t involve children or any shared assets.
However, if you have fully intertwined lives and kids to consider, Pollock says it’s worth the investment since retaining an attorney to get a good agreement is less expensive than having to retain a professional to fix a bad one. Winz agrees with Pollock, noting that she often receives phone calls from people who’ve attempted to do a divorce themselves and it backfired — sometimes even years into the process. Because family law is complicated and most untrained people are unaware of every nook, cranny and loophole, an attorney is there to protect you and your new future.
When looking for a lawyer, Wintz says it’s important to work with someone you’re comfortable with and who has experience in this particular facet of law. This will not only make you feel optimistic going into the divorce proceedings, but you can rest easy, knowing you have a trusted expert in your court. “Make sure that you find an attorney who has a similar philosophy to you on how to manage a case. Not all attorneys are created equal, and much like with a therapist, finding a good fit is critical to making sure that you have the best process possible,” she adds.
What Should You Consider if You Have Children?
As if overcoming the end of a great love isn’t difficult enough, parents have to also consider the well-being of their offspring when going through a divorce, too. Any time children are involved, a case becomes more complicated, and often, emotionally-charged. First and foremost, Pollock urges couples — no matter how angry they are at one another — to focus on finding an arrangement that works best for the family by prioritizing the emotional and physical safety of the children. This means being mindful and honest about what each parent is capable of taking on by accounting for their parental history, caretaking abilities and the relationship they have with each child. “Sometimes a good parent can be a bad spouse and it’s important that divorcing parents work to separate those ideas when considering what post-divorce arrangement will be best for the children,” she continues.
Ross recommends men specifically to go through a series of questions themselves to be self-aware of their parenting practices. Here, he lists a few: “How much custody time do you want the court to give you? How involved were you in the past with raising your children? Have you been a coach on the soccer team or were you working every day and never home leaving the job of raising the children to your spouse? How connected emotionally are you to your children? Do you attend doctor and dentist visits and go to back-to-school night? Will your job hours be flexible enough to allow you to have a large block of time with the children? What concerns do you have about your spouse and how your spouse treats the children? Is your spouse a gatekeeper? Does your spouse work or is she a stay-at-home parent?”
He explains all of these considerations must be weighed along with other nuances affecting your family and your case to determine custody. In most cases, primary custody is awarded to women, but men should make every effort to be actively involved in their children’s lives by finding a comfortable meeting ground and compromise that puts the kids first.
What Should You Consider If You Have Debt?
When you say for “better or for worse” and “in sickness and in health,” you may have meant it. And perhaps, even now, you love your partner but you know you aren’t right for each other. But the “richer or poorer” part of traditional vows? They’re not to be overlooked, especially in a divorce. Pollock explains debt can cause a real headache at the end of a marriage, though laws vary state by state. In most areas of the country, however, she says you are not responsible for the debt your spouse incurred before marriage… but you could be held partially liable for anything tallied up since you said ‘I do.’
Ross explains this is often considered “community debt,” and translates to the money owned half-and-half by the spouses. This can become tricky when you’ve been married for many years — and when considering student loans. “Generally, outstanding student debt is awarded to the spouse who went to school. In long marriages, where the community benefited by the school because the student spouse now earns income for the community for many years, the rule may be different,” he warns.
If your spouse has a history of credit card debt and added up even more zeroes while you were together, you may be responsible for it. The same goes with a family residence debt (aka, your mortgage), and may require the couple to sell the home if neither person can afford to cover the cost on their own. For all of these situations — and many more that rear their ugly head during a divorce — consulting an attorney is the best route to set yourself up for the best possible outcome at the lowest cost.
What Do You Need to Know About Alimony?
Say you’ve been with your partner for a decade or so, and she quit her job to care of the kids. You’ve been climbing up the corporate ladder — and tax brackets — but her career has been put on hold. This means your income is much higher than what she’s earning, which would require you to pay alimony. Wintz explains this is the support owed from one spouse to another. Though frequently contested in divorces, the purpose isn’t to run someone’s well dry, but to create an even playing field during the moving period. “The intention is to put the parties on nearly equal footing at least for some period of time or to help a party transition to being single,” she explains. If you’re worried about paying this monthly sum for a lengthy period, Pollock recommends the consuel of an attorney who can better predict the outcome based on your unique situation. The period of alimony is usually determined based on the laws of the state, how long you were wed, your age, the value of the assets you’re splitting up, and other considerations.
What Do You Need To Consider Based On Your Location?
Though intensive, this guide is an overarching perspective on getting a divorce — and not intended as your one and only resource. After all, there is one major factor that can’t be discounted: your zip code. As Pollock explains, virtually every aspect of your divorce is dependent on your state — from whether you need to assert a fault-based claim to what valuation method should be applied in appraising a business interest, and everything in between.
As an example, Ross says California requires a six-month residency in state and three months in the county prior to filing your case. Others don’t deem this necessary, while others have different laws that can complicate the process. No matter where you are, going local when picking an attorney will be your best bet.
How Do You Start the Healing Process?
Though there are plenty of practical aspects of getting a divorce that need your attention — from paperwork to moving — you can’t discount your heart during this turbulent period. Here, some tips to keep in mind as you start to mend your soul:
Let Yourself Grieve
Dr. Sarah Schewitz, a love and relationship psychologist says all too often people get lost in the tangible aspects of separating that they forget to pay attention to what’s happening internally, and ignore their feelings for far too long. This is a mistake, since heartbreak is no easy experience to pass over. Even if you wanted to end your marriage, it’s a traumatic event to reimagine a new life without your spouse. “Not only are you letting go of a person, but you are also letting go of the future you had imagined with this person,” she explains. Though you may want to numb yourself via binge watching TV, playing video games, taking on more work, or worse, drinking too much or sleeping around,you have to feel your anxieties before you can release them.
Surround Yourself With Support
Even if you will soon no longer be a spouse, you’re still a friend. A son … A brother. Psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. suggests that, especially during difficult situations, gathering around loving family and friends can help you see how valuable and worthy you are. Separations can make us doubt our self-worth but those who see all of our goodness won’t let us forget what makes us special.
If you need an unbiased, safe space to discuss and dissect your feelings, Dr. Thomas also suggests seeking the help of a therapist. “It is often beneficial to work with a psychologist to help you get back on your feet and to figure out what lessons can be learned from the marriage not working out so that you are less likely to repeat a pattern with a future person of interest,” she explains.
Don’t Judge Your Process
Dr. Schewitz reminds divorcees there is no set amount of time that you should feel upset — or not. Everyone recovers differently, and the less pressure you put on yourself to feel a certain way or move at a certain pace, the less you heal. “Sometimes people get frustrated with themselves because they are still upset long past the time when they think they should be over it,” she continues. “Your process is your process and judging it only prevents you from truly healing on the timeline that is right for you.”
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