It is common for a couple who is thinking about ending their marriage to stay together for the holiday season before separating. Often a couple wants to have one last Christmas together as a family for their children to remember as a happy time. If you are contemplating divorce, you should talk with an experienced family lawyer to find out your rights and responsibilities and learn how to protect your interests. Proactive divorce planning can help you make the transition to a new life in a way that causes the least amount of pain and turmoil for everyone involved.
If you and your spouse can communicate rationally, you should try to work out as much as possible privately and fairly. Nobody knows the specifics of your life more than the two of you. It is often better to try to work out your differences together, rather than have “a stranger in a black robe” decide your fate. The more you can work out, the less both of you may have to pay to attorneys. If you and your spouse can agree to a distribution of the property and debt, how to share time with the children, and how to allocate your income to pay the bills for two households, then you can both save a bundle of money on legal fees. An attorney can draft a separation and property settlement agreement that memorializes the terms of your agreement to avoid the financial and emotional cost of going to court.
If your spouse cannot or will not act reasonably, you may have to move forward with litigation. You will make the most of your initial consultation with a family lawyer if you are prepared to answer the types of questions your lawyer will ask. Clients often want to talk about what went wrong in the marriage and how the other spouse is responsible for the demise of the relationship. While you should tell your lawyer about the major issues that caused the marriage to end, such as infidelity, domestic violence and substance abuse, the lawyer will be more interested in exploring the financial issues.
Before meeting with an attorney, you should gather the most recent income tax returns and pay stubs, and compile a list of your household monthly expenses. Gather bank statements and credit card statements for the last 12 months to give you and your lawyer a more accurate picture of your finances. Get a free copy of your credit report at annualcreditreport.com and your social security earnings record at ssa.gov. Make a list of all of the property you and your spouse own along with an estimate of the value or current account balance. When you meet with the attorney, bring these documents, any separation agreement or premarital agreement, summons and complaint, and any other document that may be relevant to the financial issues. Gathering these records will help you understand the financial issues so your initial consultation with an attorney will be more efficient.
If you and your spouse have children, you should think carefully about what type of custody and visitation schedule best suits their needs. Visitation may be as little as every other weekend and half the holidays, or as much as a 50/50 shared custody arrangement. Typically the pattern of a parent’s interaction with the children before separation carries over to determine the custody arrangement after separation. If you cannot figure out how to share time with the children on your own, the custody mediation process may help you come up with a parenting plan.
Additionally, you should bring information about your children’s health and dental insurance premiums, childcare costs, and other expenses your children may have. With this information, the attorney can probably give you a good estimate of how much child support is appropriate in your case.
Everything you discuss during a consultation with a family law attorney remains confidential. If you are not comfortable with the first attorney you meet, continue looking until you find an attorney who suits your needs.