As domestic relations attorneys, one of the questions that we hear most often from those contemplating ending their marriage to their spouse via divorce, dissolution or otherwise is some version of the following: “What can I do now in order to get ready for and protect myself during this process?” It’s a great question. And the answer, in many ways, depends on the individual circumstances of each person asking that question. Nevertheless, this article endeavors to provide 10 tips that are applicable to most people who are contemplating ending their marriage. While these tips are certainly not all-encompassing or universally applicable, they do, hopefully, provide a rough framework of issues to consider and early actions to take for those considering terminating their marriage.
1. Compile Your Financial Statements and Other Supporting Documentation
One of the most beneficial, tangible steps you can take at the very outset of the process is to gather and compile all of your relevant personal documents. Typically, this includes recent financial account and debt statements, tax returns (including all forms), documents demonstrating your income and benefits (including pay stubs and health insurance summaries), as well as any other materials that you believe may be helpful in connection with your case, including but not limited to text messages, videos and recordings. To the extent you have lawful access to similar materials for your spouse, gathering the same at this early juncture might also be prudent.
While compiling all of these items may sound like a significant undertaking, doing the legwork up front in order to have them easily accessible when needed during your divorce or dissolution action will likely pay dividends to you down the road, including by potentially saving you time and money. Not only will the same aid your ability to disclose all of your assets, liabilities and finances to your spouse—which is required in connection with the termination of any marriage in Ohio—but the same will also assist your attorney and the court in quickly identifying the relevant issues in your matter.
2. Envision Your Desired Future Life
For many people, the termination of a marriage operates as a significant life inflection point: there’s life before the divorce or dissolution process, and then there’s a “new normal” after the process has concluded. So, for those who have not yet started the process to end their marriage but are otherwise standing at the precipice of that inflection point, what specific steps need to be taken in order to reach that post-process “new normal”?
This is, understandably, an extremely overwhelming question with no clear answer. However, adding insult to injury, this question, in various forms, is one that will need to be answered throughout the process itself. During the process, this question will often be phrased in more subtle ways like: Do you want to keep the house? If so, are you going to be able to pay for the house? How long will you need to refinance the mortgage for the house? What expenses are you going to have when this is all over? What amount of spousal support can you afford to pay / receive? What parenting time schedule do you want to have with your soon-to-be-former spouse? These can clearly be challenging questions, especially when you’re already going through a transitional time and don’t yet have a clear picture of the other side.
As a starting point, however, it may help to think about what you want that “new normal” to look like. Starting to formulate pieces and parts of that vision at the outset of the divorce or dissolution process—as opposed to when you’re in the trenches of the process—may help inform how to best get from Point A to Point B. That’s not to say that this vision won’t necessarily need to adjust or change as you work through the process, especially as new information and circumstances arise. But, most likely, you’ll be in a better position to navigate any adjustments and changes that you encounter during the process if you already have a picture of where you’re headed.
3. Determine Your Priorities
Oftentimes, determining and distilling your priorities in connection with a divorce or dissolution action goes hand-in-hand with envisioning life after the termination of the marriage. However, there can be subtle differences between these two tasks that may prove to be critical as you navigate the process. Accordingly, being able to envision your life after divorce or dissolution, while also being able to articulate which components of that vision are most important to you, will be extremely helpful to both you and your attorney.
To be sure, at the outset of the process, these priorities do not need to be fully formed. Instead, simply having a rough idea of the outcomes which are most important to you (for example, wanting to retain a jointly owned house, having financial stability or exercising a specific parenting time schedule with your children, etc.) is often sufficient to get you going in the right direction. Moreover, bear in mind that your priorities may have less to do with what you tangibly want or need at the end of the divorce or dissolution process, and instead, more to do with how you want the divorce or dissolution process to go (for example, expeditiously, peacefully, etc.). Ultimately, identifying your priorities early on will best enable you and your counsel to, in effect, work backwards to get you as close as possible to your most desired outcome.
4. Be Realistic
As a practical matter, life during and after the termination of a marriage is going to look different than life before the process. For example, it’s a simple fact of life that, all things being equal, financially maintaining one household is easier than financially maintaining two households. As a result, it’s important to be realistic with yourself both before and during the process about the challenges—and the changes—that you may need to face in post-marriage life. Unfortunately, while the legal system can assist people with accomplishing many things, it’s often the case that ensuring an inherently smooth and quick transition for each party to a divorce or dissolution case, especially on a financial and parenting front, is not something that the process is always best equipped to achieve. Nor is the legal system necessarily equipped to right every wrong that a spouse may have experienced in connection with a marriage. While understandably scary and frustrating for many, having a knowledge of and appreciation for these realities at the outset of the process may help parties best prepare themselves to weather the same.
5. Identify Your Support System
Immediately before commencing a divorce or dissolution action is the ideal time to identify or find those people or things that will best be able to provide you with the support that you may or may not need throughout the process of terminating your marriage. For some, this support system might be made up of close adult friends, family members or even a third-party professional, like a therapist or counselor. For others, this support system may take the form of healthy activities or hobbies, such as journaling, cooking, reading, music or exercise. In certain circumstances, for minor children of the marriage, it may also help early in the process to identify similar support mechanisms for them, outside of the parties with a direct interest in the case or the marriage. While often easier said than done, surrounding yourself with people you trust and things that help make you the best version of yourself can, for some, make a challenging process slightly more bearable.
6. Do Your Research
In many ways, this tip goes hand-in-hand with Tips #3 and #4, as it’s difficult to determine your priorities in a divorce or dissolution process and also be realistic with respect to the same if you haven’t already done your research. While your attorney (should you choose to hire one) will certainly help walk you through the process, both on a legal and procedural front, doing some of your own independent research as to the available processes and the particulars—for example, the difference between divorce and dissolution—can be helpful for several reasons. Not only can such upfront research offer some semblance of peace of mind, but the same will also enable you to have a solid basis from which to ask of your attorney your most pressing questions, as well as answer the questions that they will likely have of you in return.
7. Determine How and When to Approach Your Spouse
For many people who are initiating the divorce or dissolution process, communicating to their spouse that they want to end the marriage is, understandably, one of the most nerve-wracking initial hurdles in the process. For others, these difficult conversations may have already been had, and a mutual decision made by the parties to terminate the marriage. However, for those in the first boat, there’s clearly no one-size-fits-all—or even one-size-fits-most—way to go about having or initiating this type of difficult conversation. Some people feel most comfortable having this conversation directly with their spouse themselves or in the presence of a third party while in a therapeutic setting. Still others prefer that this type of decision be communicated through correspondence from an attorney or directly through a divorce filing. For some, depending on the circumstances, especially when abuse or domestic violence may be involved in the marriage, approaching a spouse directly with this type of decision may not even be advisable, left alone safe. While your attorney (if you choose to retain one) will discuss the various options with you, having already given consideration to this point will likely help guide and inform those conversations with your counsel.
8. Choose Your Words Carefully, Both Publicly and Privately
Once you have made the difficult decision to move forward with terminating your marriage, choosing your words carefully—both in terms of your private communications with your spouse and others, as well as in your public communications via social media, etc.—takes on a whole new level of importance. Especially in highly contested divorce cases, these types of communications, whether they be text messages, recordings, videos or social media posts, may end up being offered as evidence at trial. While no one initiates the divorce or dissolution process hoping that the matter becomes extremely contested, in terms of your communications, it’s often best to preemptively assume at the outset of the process that that may very well become the case, and proceed accordingly. To this end, while calling your spouse names or making social media posts documenting your wild night on the town may seem or feel fine in the moment, these types of things may hurt your case down the road. As a result, if you weren’t already doing so, now is the time to start thinking very critically before you press post or send.
9. Consider and Plan for Potential Immediate Ramifications (Or Lack Thereof)
One of the practical difficulties of initiating the process to terminate a marriage is that it’s impossible to predict what will transpire once the proverbial wheels are in motion. As a result, considering and planning proactively for potential immediate ramifications (or lack thereof) of initiating the divorce or dissolution process may prove to be critical in some situations.
Especially upon initiating a divorce action, it’s possible that, immediately thereafter, things may change quickly. For example, in Ohio, upon filing a divorce action, restraining orders are usually issued by a court, which prevent one or both parties from taking certain actions while the divorce lawsuit remains pending. Depending on the court and circumstances of the case, those restraining orders may take the form of certain financial or insurance-related restraints, as well as those restraining the school and/or residence of the minor children of the marriage. In some cases, at the outset of a pending divorce case, a court may even order one of the spouses to leave the marital home—and thus, live elsewhere—while the lawsuit is ongoing.
That said—and especially depending on what side of the issue a party is on—it’s also possible that, immediately upon initiating a divorce or dissolution lawsuit, things might not change quickly enough in the desired direction. Sometimes, parties grow understandably frustrated that courts are not in a position to take instantaneous action upon the filing of a divorce action—for example, by immediately removing a spouse from the marital residence or immediately issuing temporary custody or support orders.
Ultimately, regardless of the immediate consequences (or lack thereof) that you are presented with, you will likely be in the best position to handle the same if you are already mentally and literally prepared for the possibilities.
10. Find an Advocate Who Matches Your Goals and Objectives
Don’t let the placement of this tip as last in the list fool you: finding an attorney who understands and shares your goals and objectives is one of the most important initial actions you can take in order to prepare for the process of terminating a marriage. In fact, in many ways, it may even set the tone for how the case will proceed. Especially in domestic relations matters, similarly qualified attorneys can have extremely different styles in how they approach a dispute. For example, depending on the circumstances of a case, some attorneys are strong proponents of using out-of-court methods, such as mediation or agreement-based processes, in order to try to resolve matters without the need for litigation, whereas other attorneys prefer to simply litigate those same types of disputes. Many other attorneys fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, as litigation and out-of-court processes are not inherently mutually exclusive. While there’s not necessarily a right way or a wrong way to approach these matters, it is important to know and understand the style of your selected advocate, in order to ensure that it matches your own desired approach. Doing so will not only help you and your counsel get on the same page from day one, but it will also go a long way to ensuring that you have a trusted advocate on which you can rely throughout the entirety of the process.