Over the years, one of the most frequently asked questions is always, what is the first thing I should do to get ready to begin a divorce process? In answer to that question, I always like to begin with establishing a healthy mindset so that all action and behaviors are consistent with one question: what is a framework for how to think about divorce?
You are currently living life in partnership and now you will be living life independently, so begin thinking about what you will need to be completely independent. It is a little like traveling alone when you have to think about everything that you need to carry with you. When you travel with a partner, they might carry the extra cash, or they might have the credit card with a higher limit, or the cell phone charger, and you don’t have to think about those things. But, when you are traveling alone, you have to be sure you have absolutely everything you need. It is the same thing with divorce. Stop and think what the partnership has that you don’t have on your own.
1. Cash and Credit
Do you, alone, have access to and control over cash and credit? If every dollar you have is tied to your spouse, or if every credit card is a card on your spouse’s account over which they have the control to change limits, or worse, cancel, then you are not as independent as you need to be. Every individual should have their own checking account and their own credit card. To be clear, your own checking account, your own credit card, cash stashed in your own safety deposit box- those are all fully discoverable items. This is not instruction to hide or obscure anything from the marriage, this is instruction to prepare to be independent. It is not just a good idea; it is the responsible thing to do.
2. Linked Devices/Passwords
Often spouses share everything including voice mail and email passwords, computers, cell phone plans, etc. Preparing to be independent means requiring privacy. It is always advisable to set-up new email accounts, re-set passwords, and anything else that will allow you to behave and act independently. If all your devices are connected, pay special attention to what emails and texts appear on what devices. The “Find my Friends” app should be disabled to protect yourself and to eliminate the temptation to track your spouse. If you have children, and they use a family device, be sure that your texts and emails are not linked to that device.
All joint accounts and joint credit cards password should remain the same as both spouses have an equal right to the information, and if you do not have access to the passwords for those joint holdings, you are entitled to and should make every effort to obtain them. Make copies of any financial statements or other paperwork that pertains to assets and debts of the partnership. It is important to remember that the process to divorce will require the collection, review and analysis of all financial documents, and any efforts to prevent complete transparency may appear to be advantageous, but in truth that obstruction only costs you and your spouse. We always want to make every effort to help people keep their own money in the family.
3. Financial Protection
If you are in a situation in which you have legitimate concerns about your spouse making foolish or punishing financial decisions, there are other short-term protections you can put into place. For example, you can ask the bank to require that joint accounts require a joint signature on certain checks and transactions to prevent one spouse from acting unilaterally. The act of filing for divorce can impose restrictions on activity with what are called “Atros” Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders. In very general terms this “freezes” the financials to protect the status quo while the divorce process takes over and a complete review and analysis can be completed. As with so many aspects of family law, this is not universal in all states, and doesn’t always provide the protection it is intended to do, so please seek legal advice and confirm if it is a part of your filing and helpful to your situation.
Preparing for the process often includes a lot of mixed emotions, but I always try to bring humanity and civility to each step of the process with rational thought and behavior. There are, however, many unhealthy situations in which one spouse has never been allowed to have financial independence and in those cases there is often shame. Do not allow the shame to prevent you from discussing the situation with anyone or from moving forward. Take my word for it, you would be truly stunned if you knew how many spouses are in this position. In these situations, there is usually no perceived ability to obtain a credit card, set up a new checking account, or withdraw more than $20 at the ATM, so even those simple steps feel impossible. If this is the case, the only short-term answer is to be creative, ask friends and family to help, use a temporary PO box or a friend’s home address for bank statements, and remember, you are doing nothing wrong. It is your right to have financial independence and the good news is that once you move into this process, you will never allow anyone to control you again.
Divorce is a major life transition, but it is not the only one. It is never a good idea for one spouse to be completely dependent on another for all of the above – cash, credit, access to joint online accounts, etc. At dtour.life we hope these discussions will help divorcing families and other partnerships and couples think a little smarter about how they operate so that everyone is protected and able to cope with any situation that might arise.
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