Divorce is not sudden, it is really a process that happens over several months – or in some cases, several years. Like any major life transition, it requires time and energy – and, let’s face it … money. There are really 3 different stages of the process.
1) The Decision stage
This is where you and your ex determine important matters regarding your new lives. Very few divorce cases actually go to trial – they are almost always settled, at some point. So during this stage, you and your ex are almost always actually making the decisions – with the assistance of a mediator, collaborative or litigating attorneys.
There are 4 things to be determined:
a) your parenting plan (time with and decision making about the children)
b) how you will each support yourselves (whether there will be alimony or spousal support)
c) how you will each support the children (child support)
d) how you will divide up any property you own together (this involves determining what is separate property and what is marital or joint property).
It is a good idea to start by going down this list and figuring out which things need to be addressed and which do not. Some decisions may be easily determined or obvious to both of you. Some may be sticking points which require more attention. In a mediation or collaborative process, you and your ex can work together to decide which items you wish to address first.
Information Gathering. In order to have the information you need to make these decisions, you will need to gather some important information. For instance, it is important to create a realistic budget so you know how much you will need in the months and years going forward. Make sure you are not shortchanging yourself or your ex.
It is also a good idea to make a list of all of your assets and debts on one sheet, and to calculate your net worth. A big discrepancy in the net worth of two parties may influence the decisions you make. Divorcing couples often employ the skills and expertise of others during this phase. If you are working in a cooperative process, these experts may work in a neutral capacity, or you may consult with such a person on your own behalf. For instance, it may be advisable to speak to an accountant or a tax lawyer for tax advice. Or you may need to get a business appraised. Some people find it to be helpful to consult with a divorce financial planner, who can help you create a post-divorce budget.
Generating Options. Once you have gathered all of the information you need to make an informed decision, you can start generating options for how to solve the problems that are creating sticking points. If you are meeting together, it may be helpful to have a brainstorming session, thinking of all kinds of options, no matter how outlandish they may be. It is often better to focus on the goal you want to achieve, rather than to be wed to a particular solution. For instance, one party often wants to keep the children in the house. But if that is not affordable, it may create a sticking point. What is the real goal here? Is it to keep the kids in the same school district? To provide stability? Are there other ways to attain that goal?
Think About your Values. During the process, you can and should think about what is important to you during the process. What do you want your life to look like in one year? 5 years? What do you want for your children? What would feel like a successful outcome? Some people may want to protect the children as much as possible. Some people focus on creating a fair outcome. Some, honestly, want revenge. Try to focus on outcomes that are positive, and that will enable you to transition to a new and healthy future. This part may take some insightful work. And your values may change over time, as you grow into your new reality, and as you and your ex grow accustomed to your new relationship with each other.
2.Writing it Down
Once you have made decisions, the terms of the agreement need to be put in writing, often called a Stipulation of Settlement or a Separation Agreement. Non-attorney mediators can write up the terms as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), but only an attorney can write the legal document that complies with your state laws. Sometimes people try to write their own agreements – but that may end up being more expensive because you may miss something an experienced lawyer wouldn’t have missed.
The Separation Agreement is really a contract, spelling out the terms of your divorce in great detail. The ones I draft for divorcing couples with children, for instance, are often about 50 pages long!
3. Filing Papers
The third stage is to incorporate the Agreement into the divorce papers that are filed with the court. This requires documents to be formatted in a particular manner – you can often find sample documents on the court’s website. Again, a divorce attorney can prepare the court papers and file them with the court on your behalf. In many states, if you file an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse will not even have to appear in person.
The divorce process can be an emotionally charged time for both spouses. An experienced professional can help guide you through the process of coming to an agreement, writing it down, and incorporating it into the legal documents that get submitted to the courts.