My biggest pain point at the start of the divorce journey (besides the thought of not being able to see my kids every day, and grappling with the harsh reality of being all on my own again) was how to get started with the process of separation. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what should’ve been my first steps for divorce until I met with a lawyer a few weeks after our split.
I arrived at my lawyer’s office with an empty notepad, a pen and my purse stuffed in the side pocket of a baby bag (oh, and I was carrying my sleeping 4-months-old baby). I was trembling with fear. I was 110% underprepared and had never felt so vulnerable.
I sank down into the depths of a big armchair across from my lawyer and was schooled on what was going to happen. The panic set in as I learned more and more about the things I needed to do, or rather, the things I should have done already.
I started on the back foot with the admin process and felt like I never caught up. I was completely overwhelmed, extremely emotional, fearful, and of course stressed that I’d left myself wide open for possible financial ruin.
If only someone had told me the essential must-do first steps for divorce right back in week one!
Well, you won’t have to make the same mistakes or learn the hard way. Here’s the guide I wished someone had given me on day one of my separation.This is just the first steps for divorce; for protecting yourself, your children and your money. Think of it like a personal insurance policy to help you go in the right direction more quickly, and less painfully.
This guide applies even if your situation is amicable. It is not a complete list of everything that you’ll need to do throughout your separation or divorce – it’s just a good place to start in week one. And, did I mention, the information you gather here will be extremely helpful in your first meeting with a legal professional or mediator.
Firstly, here’s what to do in the first 24-hours:
Tell someone and I don’t mean update your Facebook status!
Think about telling your parents, a best friend, colleague or even the police: someone that will help you to feel supported, safe and loved. Things are real now and your only choice is to move forwards. Today, you need to breathe deep. You’ve got this.
Turn off iCloud sharing on all of the devices
Love it or hate it, you can’t argue: technology enhances and improves our lives in so many amazing ways. But in the wrong hands technology can be used as a tool to control and monitor. From today onwards you don’t need your spouse or ex checking up on your emails, messages or calendar. Stay smart.
Jot down those important details swirling around in your head
The “D” word – documenting – is an extremely daunting-but-vital part of the separation and divorce process. I cover this in more details below. But for today, all you need to do is jot down any important details that spring to mind, and make notes about any incidents that involve you or your children (and stick to the facts).
Stress will impact your ability to remember the finer details – and soon there will be so many things to remember that it’ll become difficult to recall correctly. Get things on the record while they’re fresh in your mind.
Once you’ve managed to take a breath, you feel as safe and supported as you can be, there are some important steps that you should take.
Next, 10 essential steps to help protect yourself, your children & your money:
ONE: Get some advice
I know the first week, especially, is extremely tough as you deal with an onslaught of new emotions. You can be too quick to make decisions (and the wrong ones at that). And your actions can be driven by fear or revenge, or one of the other five hundred emotions you are feeling!
As soon as possible get some professional advice on your situation. You may not be in a position to appoint a lawyer in this first week or even want to – but, you should talk with someone about the legal ramifications of ending your marriage or de facto relationship.
Think about contacting a relationship support line, government support agency (both usually free calls) or a legal firm.
TWO: Take a vacay from social media
Period. Ah-huh… that’s right. Period. NO posting cryptic memes.
THEE: Communication Caution
What you say, write or do could come back to bite you if your split gets messy (or even if it doesn’t). Careful with SMS, emails, social media and all your conversations (on the phone or in person).
Don’t sign or promise anything to your ex while you are in a heightened state of shock, denial or rage etc. Let your ex know that you need a few days to digest what is going on before you make any firm commitments (and use that opportunity to seek legal advice).
Also, be careful with whom you speak to. Your friends may end up choosing sides (and quite possibly not yours!).
FOUR: Change PIN numbers
Firstly, your email account(s). While you’re at it, set up a new email account to be used for correspondence from lawyers etc. Then go for gold: PINS, usernames and password for everything and anything – banks, investment houses, superannuation, apple ID etc.
Keep all records in a single document and in a secure place. And, check who has their fingerprint registered to be able to unlock your phone.
FIVE: Children (a, b & c)
(a) Telling the children:
If your situation is amicable, suggest to your ex that you make an agreement about when and where you will tell the children about what’s going on.
My suggestion is that you first do some research or seek advice on the best way to do this as it varies a great deal by age group. Check out Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way by M Gary Neuman.
And, never discuss your relationship issues in front of the children (even while you are on the phone). You can buy the book here.
(b) Sorting out a temporary visitation schedule:
If your split means that one parent is moving out, you may wish to draw up an interim parenting plan with your ex as to visitation arrangements for the children.
Ensure that both parties recognise that it is an interim plan until formal arrangements have been made. You should always seek legal advice before any agreements are drawn up or signed.
Removing yourself from the picture (i.e. you leaving the family home without the children) is not recommended as this could potentially impact future custody arrangements. Always, seek legal advice about children’s issues as soon as possible.
And, of course, if you have any concerns about your safety or that of your children be sure to seek support, remove yourself and the children from danger and contact authorities immediately.
(c) Inform the children’s school:
It’s a good idea (in any case), especially if you have concerns, to inform your child’s school (extra-curricular co-ordinators etc) that you are going through a separation.
Ask that they inform you immediately of any odd behaviour by the child or other parent.
Ensure that teachers and carers are aware of which parent is to collect the child from school on which days.
SIX: Close off your joint accounts
Consider closing your joint account. Talk to your bank to establish your own account with your own pool of money, and make sure the other joint account holder can’t access it.
Check that your pay is going into this new account.
If you don’t close the joint account ask about a dual signature requirement for withdrawal.
SEVEN: Cancel your redraw facility
Talk to your bank to cancel any redraw facility on your home loan to make sure your debts don’t grow. This only applies to some markets.
EIGHT: Do a financial stocktake (a & b)
(a) Assets & Debts:
Make a quick list of all personal and joint assets and debts (and those for your ex if you have access to the statements). This information will be useful when you seek legal advice. Here is a sample template for assessing a Household Balance Sheet.
(b) Bills & Expenses:
Depending on your situation, you may need to sit down with your ex and look over the upcoming bills, repayments and standard household costs. Make a list of who agrees to pay for what, if there is a need to make changes. But, as always, seek advice from a legal professional or financial advisor as soon as possible.
You should never be pressured into making a decision or agreement that you are not 100% OK with.
NINE: Do a household items stocktake
Go room to room and list down anything of value that you feel needs to be on record (don’t forget to visit the garage!).
Take photos of each item of value and make sure the geo-stamp and location tracker are turned on.
Unfortunately, things do go missing during a separation and divorce. If you have something of personal value, consider moving it to a safer location if necessary.
Remember to list the removed item in your property settlement if advised to do so.
TEN: Start documenting vital information
There are a few ways to do this:
(1) you can grab yourself a notepad and pen, or
(2) allow your lawyer to do the work for you, or
(3) you can download Hello Mojo’s FREE ebook which runs you through exactly how to do it.
Either way, here’s what you need to know about documenting:
First things first, make a decision on how you wish to document.
If you choose to use a WORD doc ensure that the track changes function is turned ON, and always have a backup copy. You will need a hard copy folder for printouts and other evidence.
Start documenting from today onwards. Don’t worry if you have missed documenting vital information, communication and evidence already – you will get to this in time (just don’t delete the SMS and email messages until you have copies on file). Make a few bullet points of past events if you think you will forget.
What to document?
(a) Note down important dates (like your separation date), and the details leading up to your separation (use only facts and non-emotive language).
(b) Do a personal profile for the adults and children in your family (i.e. names, DOB, address, employment, salary etc.).
(c) Keep copies of important communication both in and out (i.e. email, SMS, phone logs etc.), vital information, monies in and out, serious incidents (i.e. domestic abuse etc.), commitments made (i.e. a promise by one parent to take the children to the park and then that parent doesn’t show etc), and all matters relating to the children.
(d) It also a good idea to note down what assets and debts you and your ex brought to the relationship and what contributions either party made to them throughout the relationship.
(e) Lastly, make a quick list of your personal contributions (think: income, household admin, taking care of children etc) during the relationship and also right now.
Make documenting a daily ritual from here on in. Record by date and time. Attempt to link any conversations had over multiple communication channels. Always keep your documents in a safe location. I know this sounds overwhelming — but, you’ve got this!
If you’re on a roll, here are a few extras first steps for divorce to add to your list:
ELEVEN: Seek legal advice
It’s a good idea to research your options for legal representation as well as a number of firms before signing up. For a list of interview questions you should ask legal firms, check out my ebook, 5 Separation and Divorce Hacks.
If you have property held in joint names, or just in your ex’s name it’s advised that you get some advice about what needs to happen, if property is held in your partner’s name, to prevent it being sold before the property settlement.
On the subject of legal advice – start thinking about updating your will, POA, healthcare directives, superannuation beneficiary nominations and life insurance policy.
FOURTEEN: Sorting out your living arrangements (a, b & c)
(a) Discuss what is going to happen with regards to your living arrangements or seek alternative accommodation, if necessary. Always make your safety the top priority and contact authorities if you have any concerns about domestic violence.
(b) Update your rental agreement: if your name is on the lease then you can be liable for any unpaid rent or damage caused by your spouse or ex.
(c) Update your utility bills: if your name is on the account then you can be liable for any unpaid bill.
IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR EXPATS:
If you live abroad, immediately seek advice on how The Hague Convention Treaty may affect what you can and can’t do.
With these first steps for divorce in hand, hopefully you’re feeling a little less overwhelmed. Hello Mojo’s blog is another great place to start and will give you helpful tips and foster a positive mental attitude for your separation journey.