By Robert M. Going, Attorney
Divorce can be stressful, messy, and full of complications for everyone involved. Anyone considering divorce or separation in Lancaster County should seek the advice of an experienced divorce lawyer and take these important steps in advance to protect their finances, their possessions, their personal information, their children, and their peace of mind.
Gather Documents Before Filing for Divorce
Dividing up property, assets, and debt is often one of the most contentious aspects of divorce, and it requires thorough financial and legal documentation. A clear picture of marital finances not only helps a judge determine who gets what, but also whether to award spousal and child support. Gathering documentation early makes it harder for a disgruntled spouse to block requests for information, which will slow the process and increase costs. Make two copies of all important legal and financial documents – one for the divorce attorney and the other in a location inaccessible to the spouse, such as a safe deposit box or trusted relative’s home.
Among the key documents to collect:
- Federal, state, and local tax returns from the past five years for both spouses
- Proof of current income, such as pay stubs or employment contracts, for both spouses
- Bank statements, including certificates of deposit and money market accounts
- Pension and retirement account statements
- Detailed employer benefit statements for both spouses, including health and dental insurance, life insurance, retirement funds, dividends, profit-sharing, stock options, and use of company vehicle
- Documentation of investments
- Mortgage documentation and property tax statements
- Credit card statements
- Documentation for all loans
- Utility bill statements
- Documentation for recurring bills, such as tuition, daycare, dues, etc.
- Life insurance policies
- Detailed monthly budget
While organizing documents, take note of items such as wills, retirement accounts, and life insurance policies that will require a change in beneficiary and take care of that as well.
Document Personal Property Before Divorce
Pennsylvania is an equitable distribution state, meaning the courts will divide marital property in a way that is fair but not necessarily equal. Marital property is any property acquired during the marriage, including everything from real estate, businesses, and collectibles to life insurance policies, retirement plans, and bank accounts. Among the factors that may influence that distribution are the age and health of each party, their earning power, whether one spouse contributed to the training and education of the other, and who will care for minor children.
In Pennsylvania, however, the division of assets does not include personal, or separate, property acquired before the marriage or after the separation. Each party may keep their personal property, including an inheritance, sentimental family gifts, or any other items acquired outside the marriage, including a woman’s engagement ring.
Before filing for divorce, it is important to protect all personal property and take account of all marital property in the event it mysteriously disappears during the heated divorce process. Take an inventory of all property, with photos and video, before filing for divorce. This will provide proof of the property’s existence and ownership should it go missing. In the case of irreplaceable items with sentimental value, such as photos and family heirlooms, consider removing them from the home and storing them in a safe location. Just remember that if any of those items were acquired during the marriage they must be declared as part of the divorce process.
Separation Means Separate Bank Accounts
The divorce process is financially risky when both spouses still have access to joint credit cards and bank accounts. Be proactive about future financial security by opening a new bank account at a new bank. Try to save enough money to cover a few months of expenses and have some cash on hand should an angry spouse decide to cancel a credit card or empty a bank account. Pulling a credit report is also an important first step in getting finances in order and protecting credit before and after a divorce. The report will show all unpaid bills and paint a complete picture of all credit cards, mortgages, and loans made in both names.
Once the divorce is final, check the credit report again to ensure no joint accounts remain. A forgotten and rarely used joint credit card could mean unwanted debt and a bad credit score if an ex-spouse decides to maliciously or accidentally run up a bill.
Protect Passwords During a Divorce
While it is convenient and sometimes even necessary for married couples to know each other’s passwords for email, bank accounts, online retail accounts like Amazon, and even cloud-based devices like Alexa and Echo, the same is not true for couples headed for separation and divorce. It is never a good idea to give a spouse the ability to sabotage social media accounts, track browser history, or access any kind of information that they could use in their favor during divorce proceedings.
Now is the time to install passwords and PINs for personal bank accounts, computers, smartphones, tablets, social media accounts, apps that show location, and voice-activated phone, text, and email functions in vehicles. Where passwords already exist, take the time to change all of them. If possible, change them from a computer or smartphone that a spouse can’t access. Don’t forget to also change security questions using information that a spouse will not easily guess. Change the email account password first, especially if the account is used to correspond with a divorce attorney. Blocking email will also help ensure that a spouse cannot log in and access newly changed passwords and credentials to other accounts.
In cases of shared computers or other devices, transfer any important information to a new personal device and permanently delete it from the shared device. One caveat: Always consult a divorce lawyer first before changing passwords and log-in credentials to joint bank accounts.
Remember to guard the privacy of snail mail, too. While a spouse is entitled to open mail addressed to both parties, they should not have access to correspondence from divorce lawyers and creditors or bank statements for private accounts. No password will stop a spouse from opening a confidential letter, so now is the time to open a P.O Box and redirect mail delivery.
Avoid Social Media During Separation and Divorce
Social media may seem innocent, but it frequently turns into ammunition in divorce proceedings. A spouse can easily take a post about a night out with friends, a new purchase, or a recent vacation and turn it into evidence of inappropriate behavior or poor parenting. Likewise, posting disparaging remarks about a spouse or an ex will reflect poorly in court. As divorce proceedings begin, it’s best to refrain from posting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and consult with an experienced divorce attorney about the possibility of deactivating or deleting social media accounts. At a minimum, those preparing for divorce or separation should unfollow or unfriend their spouse and their spouse’s friends on social media and change the privacy settings on all accounts to restrict public access to posts, photos, and contacts.
Explore Health Care Options Prior to Divorce
For those covered under a spouse’s health insurance policy, divorce presents an added challenge: finding an adequate alternative for health care. Before filing for divorce, research health care options, whether it means accessing an employer’s health plan, changing jobs, or entering the healthcare marketplace. In the meantime, take care of any health needs before filing or finalizing a divorce, including routine checkups and shots, dental visits, prescriptions, and any other medical procedures that were put on the back burner.
Start Mapping Out a Custody Agreement Before Separation
Divorce is particularly stressful for children, which is why it is important to think through shared custody arrangements early, even while both parents are still living under the same roof. A child custody agreement outlines which parent will have primary physical and legal custody of the children and whether parents will split custody equally. If it is not, the agreement also will map out a visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent.
However, parenting is about more than simply handling the normal routine. Now is the time to consider how both parties will deal with exceptions to the routine, such as holidays, birthdays, special family dates, school vacations, babysitting needs, and family emergencies. An experienced divorce attorney can serve as a mediator to help negotiate and finalize a custody agreement that is fair to both parties and serves the best interests of the children. As a mediator, a divorce lawyer also can also diffuse emotional and unbiased reactions and offer advice on the best options for managing shared custody and child support.
Create a Divorce Support Network
Going through a divorce often feels lonely and emotionally challenging, so it’s important to connect with friends and family who can offer support. Also seek out those who have had similar experiences, whether it is a divorced friend or a Lancaster County support group. Professional therapists can help, too, and many insurance plans will cover the expense.
Don’t forget the important support of an experienced divorce attorney. At the Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster, we handle the divorce process with compassion, take the time to find out what’s important to each client, and fight for a fair settlement. Call us today to schedule a consultation.
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