One of the greatest mistakes an individual can make at this point is to push forward without a plan. And I highly recommend you start by spending a bit of time contemplating what a worst case scenario might look like. Not because that will be the outcome necessarily, but because being prepared for the worst prevents panic later. And if you are prepared for the worst then your actual divorce is likely to be somewhat better than what you had anticipated.
So what is the worst that can happen? That truly depends on your situation and your spouse. I know one young woman who spent six years in a long drawn out court battle as her spouse hid marital assets, attempted to have her deemed an unfit mother, and finally filed foreclosure on their home to ensure she wouldn’t get it. That’s a pretty extreme example, and yet divorce can bring out the worst in some people.
A more realistic and common scenario might look like one spouse becoming unreasonable, possibly even angry, and then attempting to deny the other spouse any rights to marital property. If you are prepared for this potential reaction, you may be able to work through the issues with appropriate guidance and ultimately reach an acceptable agreement.
So what do you need to do to prepare? First and foremost, become educated about the divorce process and the options available to you. There are many ways to get a divorce and there are pros and cons to each approach. On one end of the spectrum is a Pro Se divorce (also known as Do It Yourself) and on the other end of the spectrum is a litigated divorce where both parties hire expensive attorneys and battle it out in court. While the latter is sometimes necessary, I’ve seen many people hire and pay for litigation attorneys that their situation didn’t warrant.
The next step is to take care of unfinished business while your assets are still marital - meaning before you announce that you intend to pursue a divorce. If you’ve been procrastinating about maintenance items, now is the time. Does the car need new tires? Do you need to have dental work done? Do you have deferred maintenance on the home? The intent is not to be underhanded here, but to be aware that it is going to cost more to support two households and the money necessary to take care these things may no longer be available after the divorce.
Additionally, I’m sure you have heard by now that divorce can be very expensive. This is a great time to seriously consider how much you might to need to spend and how you might pay for it (particularly if it turns out to be your worst case scenario). While an average litigated divorce in Washington costs around $15,000-$20,000, Mediation can run between $5,000-$10,000, and a Pro Se (DIY) divorce is likely to come in under $5,000. And then there are the other expenses to consider, such as therapists, financial consultants, and possibly moving expenses.
While you may want to make sure you have access to some cash, DO NOT HIDE MONEY from your spouse! It may be acceptable to move some money into a protected account that you can access to manage your upcoming expenses, but know that that money is still considered a marital asset and must be accounted for in your settlement.
Lastly, take the time to develop a game plan for your divorce. Your plan may not be exectly the way things work out, but it gives you a path that you can begin to work towards and a back up strategy if that plan gets derailed. As you devise your plan, be sure that it includes the following elements:
(a) identify your financial and family related priorities, as well as where and how you will be willing to make concessions during the negotiation phase;
(b) determine your preferred method for pursuing divorce, such as pro se, mediation, collaborative, or litigation;
(c) and then figure out what your plan B approach will be in case your preferred approach doesn't work out with your spouse;
(d) and finally, identify who will you need on your team to pursue this divorce according to your plan.
Now that you have a plan, you might want to start getting your financial documents in order. Trust me. This will save you a bunch of money in the long run if you do this before you start hiring your divorce team.