A divorce can be one of the most difficult things a woman will ever go through. How do you prepare for divorce when your marriage is falling apart? How do you have one foot in your married life, especially with kids, while preparing financially?
I can’t help unpack the emotional turmoil. But I can offer some thoughts to you ensure your financial security and help you come out of the divorce process in as good a shape as possible.
A Note: MANY women contributed to this post privately. Thank you for keeping it real, you unmarried and remarried Goddesses. Love you all.
What is the divorce process?
Divorces are an emotional process and a legal process, and I see a lot of blogposts kind of wave their hands about the steps.
So first, let’s be real clear:
- Planning – where you prepare for a divorce while your marriage is awful
- The Talk – some women start here with a surprise
- Legal Separation – a date you decide together
- Divorce Proceedings – varies in every state
- Negotiation – mostly done by lawyers or through a divorce mediator, who dig through financial accounts
- Settlement is reached and agreed to by both parties
- Actual divorce is finalized – a court decree
How to Prepare For Divorce – Before You Ask for One
Preparing for divorce is different if you are the one initiating and have time to get your ducks in a row. If your spouse just asked you for a divorce, and you’re trying to figure out what to do, jump to our section on how to prepare for divorce if you just got a surprise.
Build a cash emergency fund aka a “Go Bag”
While many divorces are amicable, many are not. The foundation of financial security is to make money moves that protect you from big risks, like having no access to cash or being physically unsafe, or your spouse’s new girlfriend’s spending habits (not even kidding).
I put the cash emergency fund first on the list, because I know many women who left marriages with unstable men by grabbing the kid and whatever cash they had. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
If you are physically in danger, even $200 goes a long way. More common: your spouse removes you from joint credit cards and drains all the money out of your accounts. (More steps on that below).
A “go bag” is a term for an emergency fund that you can access quickly if you need to. It’s basically a stash of cash that you keep in your purse or in your house, so you can access it easily if you need it.
Freeze your credit
The divorce process can take a year or more. That gives your soon-to-be-ex-spouse has plenty of time to mess up your credit. They could try to take out a business or personal loan with you as a cosigner, refinance the mortgage, or add a joint credit card.
Freezing your credit will prevent your spouse from damaging your credit score by taking out loans or opening new credit cards in your name. However, having a freeze in place won’t impact your credit scores or your ability to use existing credits.
How to freeze your credit
Freezing your credit is easy to do and can be done for free at each of the three credit bureaus. Experian, TransUnion , and Equifax each have a page where you can set up a credit freeze for free and find instructions for requesting freezes by mail. You will need to do all three.
Get a copy of your credit report
You should get a copy of your credit report before you start the divorce process. Regularly reviewing your credit report will help you spot any red flags, like unusual activity on your accounts.
You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year, and each allows you to check monthly for a fee. I am a longtime customer of Transunion monitoring, even tho it’s expensive. You can also use a service like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma to help you keep track of your credit score.
Monitor your accounts
Keep an eye on your bank and credit card statements, so you can spot any unusual activity. You can also set up account alerts with your bank accounts and credit cards to notify you of any large withdrawals or transfers. If you see anything suspicious, make a note of it and ask your spouse for an explanation.
Clean up your credit report
While you don’t want to make any major financial moves, it can take a long time to clean up your credit. And once you are divorced, your credit score will be supremely important.
If you haven’t looked at your credit in a while, now is the time to do it. You want to make sure there are no errors on your credit report, and that you don’t have any old debts hanging around that could hurt your score.
Hold off on financial decisions and moves
It’s tempting to make major changes – but until you are actively in the process of separation with the court involved, early moves could hurt your eventual divorce settlement.
First, don’t leave the home unless you are unsafe. It sucks, but it can complicate ownership calculations as well as restrict your access to your belongings, and possibly your kids.
Similarly, while it is important to envision life after divorce, don’t make major financial moves until the judge’s signature is dry on your settlement agreement. First, divorce is super emotional. So you may not make the best decisions right now. Second, major moves like changing beneficiaries or moving large amounts of money could undermine your ability to negotiate your settlement.
Wait until your date of legal separation, which is the date a couple begins living “separate and apart” from one another. Once that date hits and you are considered separate households, you can start making decisions about how to move forward financially.
Gather all your financial records
I would just like to acknowledge that you are about to embark on some shitty homework in the next few sections. I’m sorry you have to do this. I hope you find some empowerment in it. In the sensible words of one divorced woman, “Divorce is extremely emotional, but it is also a division of a household economy and therefore a business deal.”
Pull electronic and/or paper copies of all financial records:
- Bank account statements (checking and savings)
- Retirement account statements (401k, 403b, IRA, etc.)
- Any pension documentation
- Investment accounts (statements that show holdings, everything from Coinbase to Fidelity)
- Loan statements (mortgage, auto, personal, 401k loans)
- Insurance information (policies, premiums, if the benefit is carried with an employer)
- Credit card statements and balances
- Recent pay stubs
- Lists of assets and debts brought into the marriage and those accumulated since marriage
- Income tax returns (past three years)
- Employment information (who, title, how long, benefits carried)
- Social Security Statements
- Credit report from all three agencies (great moment to freeze your credit!)
You’ll want these for all marital assets and accounts, so both sets of pay stubs, for instance. This is also an easy time to mark if the accounts are jointly owned or individual.
For assets and debts, Amy Adler, a CPA and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst recommends, “gather statements that show the values of assets and debts as of the date of your marriage in addition to the most current information.” She says this is important “particularly if you live in a community property state.”
Track and document expenses
Tracking your actual spending now is useful for two reasons.
First, when it comes to your settlement, some of it will be based on a division of assets, but your cash flow will impact it. Cash flow is a fancy way to say, “your budget”. If you have kids, this will help determine child support payments. If your spouse contributes substantially more to the bills, this could help you make a case for spousal support.
Second, your budget post-divorce is going to change, especially if you have kids or very different incomes. Knowing where you are now, will help you prepare for your next step.
Read our in-depth post on how to document childcare costs for taxes and divorce.
Build a post-divorce budget
In most divorce cases, the income will drop while expenses will remain relatively unchanged. You may need to make some substantial adjustments to continue living within your means.
For example, one of the biggest mistakes in divorce settlements is that people keep a house they can’t afford for sentimental reasons. Knowing you can’t afford the mortgage payment, in advance, will help you get accustomed to the idea.
It’s worth doing your research. One single mom reported, “be prepared for some of your expenses to more than double- especially if you have a child. Groceries, housing and transportation are the ones that shot up for me.”
Determine your priorities for your divorce
Once you have a sense of where your family finances stand now and your needs post-divorce, you can start thinking about what you want to leave the divorce process with.
For some women, it’s custody. For others, it is their savings and investments. And for others, it’s their business. There is no right answer, but it’s worth the internal and emotional work to choose your priorities, if you have the time.
Once you know what matters to you, you can assemble a team and put the wheels in motion for divorce proceedings.
Consult with a lawyer or legal aid group in your state
Women are often nervous about engaging with a divorce lawyer for two reasons: first, they worry it will be expensive. Second, it makes the whole thing feel official. And third, they worry it will get back to their spouse.
I understand these concerns, but I still think it’s important to at least consult with a lawyer, and initial consultations are generally free. Why? Divorce law varies widely from state to state, this is fundamentally a legal proceeding and lawyers know a lot you don’t.
Also, they have seen everything, so they can give you a lot of insight into what this will look like. I mean everything. You need to understand how the process works where you live, what your rights are and what moves will best protect you given your state law.
You might be able to get some help from a lawyer or legal aid group even if you can’t afford to pay for representation. Many lawyers take a few pro bono cases for free, so ask. Search for “family legal aid” and add the name of your town or county to find a legal aid group. More ideas below.
One note: your lawyer will not judge you. They are your advocate. Share everything with them.
Consult with an accountant
A lot of women overlook tax advice, but they could save you A TON of money in the long run. This is particularly important if you own a business or your spouse does, but also helpful if you don’t.
Divorce can have all sorts of tax impacts:
- Filing status issues in the year of your divorce
- Who gets to declare the kids and take the head of household status
- How estimated taxes are paid during separation and for the final year of filing together
All of these issues can impact your settlement, so having an accountant on your team is like having a good defensive coach.
Open a PO Box
If you live in the same house as your spouse, I recommend getting a post office box for all your mail. This way, you can control what information he has access to and protect yourself from identity theft and fraud.
How to open a PO Box privately
PO Boxes cost less than $5 a month, so you can keep it private by paying cash for a year upfront (~$60). You will also need to provide two forms of ID, such as your driver’s license, registration, or insurance policy. Once you have the key, you can check it 24/7 in most locations and maintain your privacy.
Bulk up your Venmo or Paypal account
While these accounts would be subject to your settlement agreement, they are pretty damn impossible for your spouse to get to or even see, which can be very beneficial during the process of separation.
In advance of initiating a divorce, accept cash into the account, but don’t pay out of it. Let the balance grow and give you a little protection for making payments privately, or just giving you a little safety.
How do I know this move? An old friend shared this story, “Late in the divorce process, I figured out that he was using his personal Venmo and PayPal like a checking account with a balance. I had no clue what was coming in and out of those accounts bc by holding a balance he was bypassing the bank statements. My attorney was able to get a few months of transactional data, but I wish I had known earlier. (How many Venmo transfers to the girlfriend did I not see?)”
Establish your own credit card and checking accounts
Having accounts in your own name will give you some financial independence and allow you to make moves quickly when the divorce process starts. They are subject to your settlement agreement, but accessible only by you.
You may not want to build up a balance in these accounts, but opening them early so you can move your direct deposit and move split funds immediately, will take some pressure off the process. (Divorce courts do not like big money moves – looks shady.)
If you lose access to your joint financial accounts, friends and family can easily transfer cash to you as a loan if they have somewhere secure to send it. Venmo and Paypal work too!
This is a difficult one, because it’s hard to know how long your divorce proceedings will take. If you can spend less and save more in the months before you file, it will give you some flexibility and options later on.
I know this isn’t easy, but if at all possible, try to avoid racking up new debt or dipping into savings. This is a time to be as financially stable as possible.
Why? Because pre-divorce separation is expensive and risky. You will want to have as much cash on hand as possible to pay for attorney fees, a new place to live, and other expenses that may pop up.
What if you are the breadwinner?
If you are the breadwinner, be mindful of how your spending affects child support and alimony payments. It’s best to speak with an attorney about how these payments may be impacted by your spending habits.
What if you are a Stay At Home Mom?
If you are a stay-at-home mom, be mindful of how your spending may affect your ability to get alimony or child support. It’s best to speak with an attorney about how these payments may be impacted by your spending habits.
In short, spend wisely and consult with an attorney before making any big financial decisions.
Don’t make any changes to accounts, policies or beneficiaries
On that note, courts do not look kindly on major money moves. Until you have hashed out a settlement agreement, do not make any changes without consulting with an attorney first.
This includes things like:
- Closing joint credit cards
- Transferring money out of joint accounts
- Changing the beneficiaries on your life insurance policies or retirement accounts
- Selling property (like a house or car)
All of these changes can have a big impact on your divorce settlement, and the courts may not be willing to give you credit for them. So it’s best to avoid making any changes until you have reached an agreement with your spouse.
Take the high road
Finally, try to take the high road. I know this is easier said than done, but it will pay off in the long run.
Getting wrapped up in divorce nasty is only going to drain you emotionally and financially. So do your best to avoid it. This means holding your ground on your priorities, being willing to compromise on some things, and giving up the fight on others.
One single mom, who has over a decade to look back on her divorce was grateful she took the long view of co-parenting. “Not asking for alimony hurt me in the short term, but laid a better foundation for relations between the two households in the long term. It was a cleaner break to split everything down the middle and let it go.”
Taking the high road also means not acting on the feeling every single time you feel outrage, despair, or anger. Try to take a step back and think about what’s really important to you, and how you want to be remembered – by yourself – when this is all over.
It’s not going to be easy, but you will come out of this process in a much better place. And that’s what ultimately matters.
How to Prepare For Divorce – If your husband surprised you
If your husband surprised you by asking for a divorce, you’re probably feeling scared, overwhelmed and uncertain of what the future holds – even if you saw it coming. Those feelings are normal and you are not alone.
Many women have gone through what you’re going through right now and come out the other side stronger and happier than they ever thought possible. I don’t know a single woman who was happier in her marriage than she was after the divorce.
You can do this. Here are some “surprise edition” tips on how to prepare for divorce:
Get your financial snapshot together immediately
I would bet my house that your soon-to-be ex-husband has already done the math on your divorce. You have some catching up to do.
One surprise divorcee nailed this in her advice, “Don’t wait for the prompt from your attorney. Make a list of all known accounts, debts, and assets immediately. Even back of the napkin math will give you a better picture of what you are facing.” I guarantee you your husband has already done this.
Talk to a divorce lawyer now – even if you can’t afford one
So, secret tip. You can get a lot of free information about what first steps to take to protect you, as well as a quick read on your situation from a few early. This information is incredibly valuable and can help you quickly start planning how to protect yourself, your kids, and your priorities.
Tell your Bestie right away
You might be feeling embarrassed, like you failed or that this is a black mark on your life. You didn’t. All the divorced women I know are awesome. But the next year will suck, and it’s really important to have someone in your corner who will listen (without judgment), support you, and help you navigate until you get to the other side.
Pick someone you could talk to about anything, whose spouse is firmly on your team, and who will support you on your terms but otherwise stay out of it.
Freeze your credit and change your passwords
Like right now.
I covered the credit issue above. Why change your passwords? He might know them. He might have them stored on his phone or laptop.
If you share a laptop, get your own
Ask your friends if they have an old one you can borrow for an extended period. The important thing isn’t how fancy or modern it is. The important thing is how private it is.
Divorce Assistance for Women on Low Incomes
Unfortunately, many women can’t afford a lawyer. Fortunately, legal aid offices offer free assistance, including for child custody and divorce cases. Having served at a legal aid group, unless they don’t do it at all, a large portion of their cases are oriented to family law and they love helping women. Some have dedicated family law attorneys.
Other ways to get free legal help
If you do not qualify for legal aid check with your area bar association’s lawyer referral service to find a lawyer who can take your case for a reduced fee. To find the bar association in your area, visit www.americanbar.org.
If there is a law school where you live, ask if it provides legal clinics in which law students provide free help while supervised by law professors. Many of the people who work in administrative roles are lawyers or they know a lot of them. Many large law firms circulate pro-bono opportunities, so ask ask ask.
Financial Abuse In Divorce
We can’t talk about divorce without talking about financial abuse. If you are in a situation where your spouse controls all the money, and you have no idea how much is coming in or going out, that is financial abuse. If he refuses to give you any money for groceries or clothes or insists on knowing how every penny is spent, that’s financial abuse.
Abuse comes in many forms, and often in clusters. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says more than 94% of domestic violence victims suffer financial abuse and feel they can’t escape for fear of being homeless.
Abusers know this and keep tight control over money, restricting access to things like checking or savings accounts, making demands that prevent the victim from getting a job; forcing the victim to participate in financial transactions or sign financial documents, or opening credit accounts in the victim’s name, without the victim’s knowledge.
Financial abuse can continue during and after divorce
Financial abuse can include taking steps to hide assets from the victim, delaying court proceedings to avoid paying spousal support or child support, and failing to disclose property to the judge in a divorce case.
If you experienced financial abuse or even just plain old weirdness in your marriage, expect it to escalate during the divorce. If you have any concerns, please reach out to a support group or domestic violence hotline in your area.
Finally, take care of yourself first…
…is bullshit advice. Women with responsibilities are not the first to don their oxygen masks, we’re the LAST ones. Divorce is hell. And as Winston Churchill said, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” Try to survive it with your dignity, your kids and critical relationships intact. You have the rest of your life to rebound financially and heal later. I have faith in you.