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The do's and don'ts of getting divorced

Are you untying the knot that binds you and your spouse? The process is often difficult, especially if you don't do your homework.

Facing the decision to file for divorce can be unsettling and may bring unresolved issues to light. Ultimately, determining how easy or difficult the process will be depends on you. The more you properly prepare yourself emotionally and financially, the smoother the sailing will be.

Once you've made your decision, how you go about your divorce is subject to its complexity, what is at stake and the state in which you live. For instance, the divorce of a couple that has been married for one year with no sizable assets or children will be different from for a couple with two children and a 25-year marriage. Still, however distinct your circumstances may be, there are some common sense recommendations that apply to most situations.

Here are some straightforward financial and emotional do's and don'ts that experts recommend will help you stay on course to a smoother divorce:

DO consult with a lawyer. It's a good idea, especially if you have children or assets. Experts say when looking for an attorney, you should ask people you trust for recommendations, and don't cut corners when it comes to good, solid legal help. If you intend to hire a lawyer, start putting aside money for your legal costs, so you can pay the upfront retainer fee often required. The lawyer's hourly rate is billed against the retainer. "To try to navigate without a lawyer would be like trying to do your own open heart surgery," says John Finnerty, a certified matrimonial attorney and chairman of Finnerty & Sherwood in Fair Lawn, N.J.

DO make copies. Photocopy every important, relevant document from the last three years of your marriage. This includes tax returns, mortgage payments, bank statements, pay stubs, stock certificates and bonds to supply your lawyer or mediator.

DO steer clear of damaging credit problems. Cancel joint credit cards. Experts say if your credit card accounts are in both you and your spouse's names, and they remain open, you are still responsible for any charges made by your spouse. If charges go unpaid, they can end up on your credit report. Get credit cards and accounts in your own name to build your own credit.

DO make sure you're covered. Medical insurance coverage can end in divorce. If you are on your husband's insurance plan, you should be able to continue coverage for up to 36 months under the Consolidated Omnibus Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Under this plan you pay the premiums, which may be expensive.

DO take a home and asset inventory. This will better clarify what exactly needs to be divided. Susan Goldstein, family law attorney and co-author with Valerie Colb of "The Smart Divorce: A Practical Guide to the 200 Things You Must Know," advises you to write down everything you know about your assets and debts, and record the persons who can be witnesses. It's good for people to compile lists. You can't bring your lawyer too much information, Goldstein says.

Also consider taking pictures or videos of your home and contents and making copies of family photographs you want to keep. "Family photographs are often a major point of contention," she says.

Next: "Remain practical ... when planning your divorce."
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