Going through a divorce is seldom easy. But it can become even more difficult when one partner is in the dark about important information. As a divorce lawyer, here are six things I wish all my clients knew right off the bat.

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An illustration of a married couple sitting at a table.
Credit: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

As a divorce lawyer and a working mom to three young children, it is not lost on me that the stresses of life can take a toll on many marriages. It is also likely that the stresses of the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated looming issues in a relationship.

Separating from a partner is not an easy decision or being told that your partner wants to separate is not an easy thing to hear. But whether you are in an intact marriage or considering a separation now or in the future, this is what I want you to know to be better prepared in the event of a divorce no matter what state you live in.

Questions About Finances Are Important

When a case first begins, the lawyer (or the court) needs to know what the financial issues may be (splitting a family business, spousal support, valuing real estate, etc.) and what the family's income, assets, and liabilities are. Often a client comes to us and is in the dark about the family's finances.

During the divorce process, you are entitled to your family's financial information and history, and you are entitled to ask questions. However, whether or not divorce is even on your mind, you should be comfortable speaking about finances with your spouse or partner. If you don't know, ask about their income structure—for example, do they receive a W-2 or a K-1 tax form? Do they receive deferred compensation and how? What other perquisites ("perks" like a car, cell phone, dining, or travel stipend) do they receive from their job that you may not be aware of but could be considered "income" in a divorce?

Many times, a client tells us they just sign the tax return handed to them. We can't blame them given the stresses of day-to-day life, but it's a good idea to review it and keep a copy for your own records. Make sure you have access to joint bank and investment accounts and ask about separate accounts that your spouse/partner may have that your name is not on, such as retirement accounts. Also be aware if your spouse is accumulating debt, in joint names, or their sole name, so it is not a surprise at the time of a divorce. 

Know Your Monthly Expenses

It is not uncommon to have one partner who pays all of the bills and prepares detailed spreadsheets of family budgets, while the other may handle everything else. Even if you are the one handling everything else, it is important to have a good grasp on your family's monthly expenses.

In many cases, lifestyle and need are important considerations in awarding child support and spousal support. Knowing how much you and your family spend on everything, including housing costs, utilities, health insurance, food, dining out, toiletries, beauty care, vacations, education, and tutors, only helps both you and your lawyer obtain a better understanding of what you may need to maintain a semblance of your pre-divorce lifestyle in the future.

Keep in mind, a major red flag could be the sudden changes in spending habits by one spouse. It is not unusual for one spouse, who may be considering a divorce, to start cutting back on the family's expenses in an effort to lower what the other spouse may argue is the family's lifestyle.

Where You Reside Matters

We have seen a lot of families take on temporary residences during the pandemic, which have then extended beyond what they initially planned. While your "home" and "assets" may be located in one state, your children and you may be in another state and that could affect which jurisdiction determines custody or even the divorce itself. One state may have jurisdiction over the custody aspect of a divorce while another state has jurisdiction over the financial aspect of the divorce.

Custody is More Than Just Where the Kids Live

In a divorce or separation, custody is divided into two aspects: legal custody and physical custody. Physical custody is where the children reside and how often they see both parents. Legal custody is how the parents will make decisions for the children related to education, health, and welfare going forward. While one spouse may be in charge of the finances, the other may handle all of the child-related stuff (and, again, this is OK). You may not be able to be an active part of your child's daily life but make an effort to know what's going on (think names of doctors, teachers, and coaches) as this may play a role in determining legal custody.

Can a Divorce Be Stopped?

Yes, a divorce can be "stopped" at any time if the two parties choose to reconcile or try to work it out. However, as much as one spouse may not want a divorce, "no fault" divorces are permitted in all states. This means that one spouse does not need a reason to ask for a divorce and may move forward with a divorce regardless of whether the other spouse wants it or not.

Most Divorces Are Resolved Out of Court

The court system is a valuable resource for when there are complicated issues that a divorcing couple cannot resolve on their own. However, the majority of divorces are resolved outside of court whether by negotiation and settlement using lawyers, mediators, or the collaborative divorce process. Divorce is hard for many reasons, but it does not have to be ugly. Working with a divorce lawyer only helps control emotions and allows both parties to be on equal footing and separate fairly.

Amanda Laird Creegan, Esq., is a partner at Rabin Schumann and Partners LLP, a New York-based boutique matrimonial and family law firm.