There has been a lot of talk about the lack of preparedness for last week’s snow storm that left many people stranded in traffic for hours trying to get home. While many have argued, perhaps rightly, that the storm turned out being much worse the forecast, at the end of the day, as with many other things in life, people focus on the end results. In fact, my bet is that most of the people who were complaining when schools called an early dismissal the night before, when the forecast was for much less snow than actually fell, were the same people complaining about the ultimate outcome.
Divorce is very much the same way. While you may not know exactly when the process may start, few people are really, deep down, surprised that it is actually happening because the warning signs are there, whether it is adultery, lack of intimacy, constant fighting, lack of communication, bad communication, lack of agreement regarding parenting, etc. This reminds me of a story that a client told me many many years ago. He and his wife were in marriage counseling for years and he ultimately decided to tell his wife that he intended on pursuing a divorce during a counseling session. The wife responded with epic histrionics suggesting that she was shocked. The therapist ultimately told her that she could express any number of emotions but surprise wasn’t one of them.
The point again is that divorce is seldom a surprise. Moreover, you don’t really know how bad the storm is going to be until it happens. Most people want an “amicable” divorce but seldom agree on what that actually means at the beginning. Very often, emotion takes over and derails what should be an “easy”, legally speaking, divorce. On the other hand, some matters that appear like they can be very complex resolve easily because one or both of the parties are sufficiently motivated to get a deal done.
And because the ultimate divorce is seldom a surprise, if you think that divorce is possibility, you can do two things. One is to put your head in the sand and then be overwhelmed by the storm when it comes. The other is to prepare for the storm, just in case. What are the things you can do to prepare? Here are some things you can do:
- Familiarize yourself with your finances – income, assets, liabilities, budget. Perhaps prepare a balance sheet of your assets and liabilities and start putting together a budget of your historical spending.
- Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s income? How are they paid? Do they receive a base and a bonus? Is the bonus guaranteed? Is there a target bonus? Is there deferred compensation – stock options, restricted stock, RSUs, REUs, and/or any of the other of the alphabet soup of other earned income? Finding out if there what is vested or not, if there is a vesting scheduling, when are these things usually paid, where have they been historically deposited, do they automatically convert to cash or stock when they vest, etc.
- Familiarize yourself with your spouse’s benefits and perquisites, including health insurance, other insurances, retirement plans, and the like? Is there are vehicle that the employer or your spouse’s business (if they are a business owner)? And if they are a business owner, is there a business credit card? What things does the business pay for? If there is a business, is their cash?
- While you are doing all of the above, start assembling historical financial documents. Five years of tax, income, bank, brokerage, retirement and credit card information is a good start but if there are other seemingly important documents in the house, on computer hard drives or online, secure copies of those, as well. And after you go about doing that, don’t leave the documents lying around the house or in the trunk of your car where your spouse can take them. Make copies and secure them off site.
- If you have assets that are premarital, received via a third party gift and/or inherited, it is your burden to prove to a court that those assets are exempt. If you can prove exemption, then they are not divided in equitable distribution typically. It should be of no surprise that when a divorce occurs, these documents disappear, as well. Accordingly, if divorce is a possibility, secure these documents as well.
- If there are valuable items that may “disappear”, you may want to secure them – eg. putting jewelry in a safe deposit box. You would not believe how many times a wife’s engagement ring (which is legally exempt in most cases), disappears on the occurrence of a divorce.
- If custody and/or parenting time could be an issue, familiarize yourself with your children’s teachers, doctors, friends, etc. both at present and in the past. Think about who may be witnesses regarding your involvement with the children.
- Research potential therapists for both yourself and your children. Even if they are not needed at the moment, once the storm comes, they may be a resource that you want to avail yourself of.
- Identify a solid support system. I am not suggesting that you tell the world that your marriage may be coming to an end. Rather, identify for yourself the people that you believe you can rely on when the storm comes.
- Have a consultation with a divorce lawyer – even if you are not ready to proceed. For one, you will get some education about your rights and responsibilities. Fear of the unknown often paralyzes people. Moreover, based upon your specific facts and circumstances, the above list to help you get prepared in case of the storm may expand.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Morristown, New Jersey office though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973) 994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.