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When divorce looms -- some basic financial steps

If unhappiness describes the general mood of your marriage and talk of going separate ways is becoming commonplace; it's time to get your act together. Divorce sounds likely. Have you given much thought to your finances? It's time.

Two experts in the subject -- a lawyer who has been divorced and a certified financial planner who founded the Institute for Certified Divorce Planners -- offer financial survival tips for the soon-to-be-single.

These aren't stick-it-to-your-spouse tips. We'll leave those to your attorney. Rather, they are suggestions for what to do before the papers are filed, with the goal of easing the financial impact of the transition from wedlock to singlehood.

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When divorce isn't a surprise, there's some preparation time.

Above all, says Carol Ann Wilson, the certified divorce planner, you should keep your emotions out of your financial decisions. This brings to mind the old Steve Martin routine about how to make a million dollars and pay no taxes: "First," he pronounced, "make a million dollars. Then ..."

In other words, easier said than done.

Think clearly, calmly
Wilson realizes how difficult it is to keep a clear mind amid marital breakup, but she says you have to try. Otherwise, you'll forget to do the most basic things, like making that run to Kinko's.

As people dodge the rubble of crumbling marriages, Wilson says, "one thing that they have to do is get copies of every financial record they've got. They have to get copies of statements of every kind of account they have." That includes money markets, 401(k)s, pension statements, certificates of deposit, checking accounts, the works. These papers verify the value of assets that a married couple holds.

Why make copies?
"When divorce seems to be on the horizon, these things seem to disappear," she says. "One person scoops them up and takes them away. So get copies of everything."

Wilson isn't afraid of sounding repetitive on this issue because many people don't heed the advice and they then run into problems: "They don't have copies of anything and don't think it's important."

It is important, so make copies of wills, premarital agreements, insurance papers, promissory notes, deeds, credit card statements, even utility bills. You need to have a list of account numbers, for everything from student loans to cable companies.

If there's a family business, get copies of tax returns, financial statements and loan applications because, Wilson says earnestly but mischievously, "the loan application says one thing to the bank, the tax return says a totally different thing and the truth is somewhere in between."

Budget for the new you
OK, the car's suspension is groaning from the weight of all those papers. What next? Make a budget, advises R. Stuart Phillips, a lawyer who went through a divorce with hideous financial consequences.

"You're going to have a significant change in your income and your expenses," Phillips says. "Generally, the expenses aren't going to go down at the same rate that the income does. I tell clients to do a budget so they're not left hanging when it's time to find the money to pay for a rental deposit, for example."

He adds: "If they don't have a lot of cash money, they should consider doing things to get back on their feet, things like renting furniture, leasing a car -- it's not as substantial as buying but you can ease yourself back into the flow of having to live within a budget."

About those hideous financial consequences: Phillips had been listed as an authorized user -- not a co-signer -- of his wife's credit card. She declared bankruptcy before they got divorced. -- and his ex's bankruptcy damaged his credit rating so much that Phillips and his new wife couldn't get a mortgage to buy their dream house.

The lesson: Make sure that you and your ex-to-be divide your accounts. If you have joint credit cards (in which both of you are responsible for payments), call the issuer and get separate cards. If you're an authorized user of your spouse's card, get the issuer to remove you. Do the same if your spouse is an authorized user of your card.

Then it's time to ponder death. Not your spouse's, yours. Revise, if you want, your will, powers of attorney, trusts, and designated beneficiaries for Social Security and life insurance. And review tax withholding "because, potentially, you're going to get stuck with fewer dependents," Phillips says.

All of these suggestions might seem obvious, but they aren't to people going through the emotional maelstrom of impending divorce.

"Unfortunately," Phillips says, "divorce isn't usually the time when people are most clearheaded. It's incumbent on their attorneys or CPAs or whoever's advising them to steer them in the right direction."

-- Updated: Aug. 7, 2001

See Also
Divorce finances: You may need a planner
Common divorce mistakes
The do's and don'ts of getting divorced
Savings glossary
More savings stories



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