Like any Grownup decision, divorce can be scary. But with a cool head and proper planning, it can be approached like any major milestone.

Deciding whether you should get a divorce is very personal and emotional. If you think a divorce may be in your future, it’s important to educate yourself before starting the process. Any choices you make today can have significant financial implications for your (and your family’s) future, and require careful consideration and expert advice.

Of course, you’ll have many questions: Should you move out of your home or ask your spouse to leave? Should you start to separate your finances or keep depositing your paycheck into your joint account? Should you have a trial separation or file in court right away? If children are involved, when do you tell them and what do you say? Are you allowed to move out of state or are you stuck living near your spouse forever?

Don’t panic! Before you let your spouse know that a divorce is on the horizon, it’s wise to get your questions answered and come up with a game plan for moving forward.

1. Meet with a matrimonial attorney in your area. The law varies from state to state, so it’s important that you actually meet with an attorney who specializes in matrimonial law in your area, as opposed to trusting the information you find on the Internet.

While divorce websites can be helpful, unfortunately, they don’t always get the law right. For example, in some states, there is a mandatory separation period before you can file for divorce, while in other states there is not. I just did a quick Internet search on the separation requirements in the state I am licensed to practice, and the first three websites completely misstated the law. Think of it this way: If you were suffering from a medical condition, you could research your symptoms online, but this wouldn’t replace a doctor’s examination and diagnosis. Similarly, searching for answers to your legal questions online will not replace having an experienced attorney analyze the facts of your particular case.

Many qualified attorneys will offer an initial consultation for a reduced rate or even for free, depending on where you live. Take the following steps to get the most out of your initial consultation:

  • Bring documentation of your income, assets, and debts. The more information and documentation you provide during your initial consultation, the better equipped your attorney will be to advise you on your legal rights and the possible outcomes in your case. If possible, bring income information for yourself and your spouse (e.g., tax returns and pay stubs, an itemization of your assets and debts, and any other relevant financial documents).
  • Come prepared with a list of questions and take notes when getting the answers. Meeting with an attorney can be overwhelming and intimidating. Organizing your thoughts ahead of time will make your conference much more productive. Here are just a few questions I routinely get during my initial conferences:

– Who will get custody of our children? How is parenting time/visitation decided? If you have children, this may be your most important issue. Come prepared to discuss what you think is in your children’s best interest.

– Should I mediate or litigate? Depending on the particular issues in your case and your relationship with your spouse, your case may require litigation in court or be better suited for mediation. 

– Does my state recognize legal separation? In many states, there is no such thing as legal separation, so even if you and your spouse are already living apart, you could be on the hook for half of your husband’s credit card debt, or he could be entitled to half your 401k contributions. It’s better to know where you stand sooner rather than later!

Am I entitled to (or will I have to pay) alimony/spousal support?

– How does my state treat inherited assets? Premarital assets? Businesses?

2. Meet with an accountant. I am a lawyer, but not a tax expert. When you get divorced, there can be many tax implications involved. Who will claim the children on next year’s tax returns (and the daycare or college costs that will go with them)? How will your net income change if you are filing single instead of married? How will your net income or liability change if you are paying or receiving alimony? If you sell the house (or one spouse keeps the house), and you no longer have a mortgage and property tax deduction, how will this impact your bottom line? Accountants can help answer these questions so you can make informed decisions throughout the divorce process.

3. Meet with a therapist or family counselor. In a divorce, you sometimes have to confide in your attorney about very personal and private topics that you may have not even shared with your closest family members or friends. But your lawyer is not your friend. Your lawyer is there to guide you through the legal aspects of your divorce, not the emotional challenges you (and your children) may be facing. Having a therapist can help you through this often-difficult transition.

Like any Grownup decision, divorce can be scary. But with a cool head and proper planning, it can be approached like any major milestone. And once the process is complete, you can move forward toward reaching your goals and building the life you want.

 Kristin M. Capalbo is a family law attorney based in New Jersey.

 This post is not legal advice and does not create a confidential attorney-client relationship. It is being offered for informational purposes only. For personalized advice, consult a family law attorney in your area.

Read more in our Grownup Divorce series:

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