chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
August 01, 2018 Divorce

On Being an Active Participant in Your Divorce: Tips from Thirty Years' Experience as a Divorce Attorney

By: Stacy D. Phillips

Whether you are contemplating separation or in the midst of separating, in the early stages or in the thick of divorce proceedings, you are navigating a major life transition. After more than thirty years working with clients in the family law trenches, I can say with certainty that divorce is all about control. And a key component to getting and keeping control during this stressful time is being an active participant with your attorney.

The first step is being prepared: putting your financial house in order, understanding your monthly expenses, safekeeping copies of important files and documents, keeping abreast of important dates and deadlines as your case progresses, and, if custody is an aspect of your divorce, keeping a diary of the time that you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse each spend with your children. Your attorney will appreciate your preparedness.

Tip 1: Put Your Financial House in Order

You wouldbe surprised at the numberof clients who have come into my office from all walks of life—captains of industry included—with inadequate knowledge of their true financial situation. To reallybe in control during your divorce, be knowledgeable about both your and your spouse’s finances. Summarize income from all sources. Identify assets and liabilities (in your name, your spouse’s name, and jointly held), including when and how these assets were acquired. Make a list your family’s insurance coverage (medical, dental, property, auto, and life). And if you and your spouse signed a prenuptial agreement, post-nuptial agreement, or a transmutation agreement, make sure your attorney has a copy. Similarly, give your counsel copies of all your estate planning documents. Once armed with this vital information, your counsel will begin the process of being able to give you a real assessment of your case.


Tip 2: Understand Your Monthly Expenses

Be able to articulate how much you realistically spend on a monthly basis on both basic needs and discretionary items. List all your expenses, including those of your children. If you wish to maintain your standard of living, do not sell yourself short by underestimating your expenses. If you pay your bills with online banking or bill-pay software, your life just got a lot easier—the information you need is right there. This fluency with regard to your expenses will enable you to better understand your needs on both a temporary and permanent basis and determine what is open for compromise, should that be necessary.

Tip 3: Obtain All Financial Records

At the earliest date possible, locate deeds to real property, title to vehicles, bank statements, canceled checks, tax returns (personal, corporate/partnership) for the past five years, life insurance policies, credit card statements, closing records/binders, loan documents, etc. Make copies of those records, and keep them in a safe place, which might be outside of your primary residence—perhaps in a bank safety deposit box, or with a trusted friend or family member. The same goes for safeguarding your important personal belongings, which could go missing or be destroyed.

Tip 4: Open Your Own Bank Account

It is important to have funds in your own name in case of an emergency and in the event that your spouse attempts to reduce your access to money and credit cards. This will also enable you to hire an attorney when you are ready.

Tip 5: Pay Attention to Your Credit

If you do not have credit cards in your name, apply for them so that you can build up good credit. Use the cards and pay the entire balance each month. This not only establishes your own credit, but it enables you to document your expenses.

Tip 6: Keep a Dedicated Diary

If you have been co-parenting your children without much incident, this may not seem necessary. In my experience, however, it almost always is. Keep a separate diary that reflects the time and dates that you and your spouse each spend with your children, including details about their activities while they were with each of you.   If any questions ever arise, you will have an historical log that will back up your recollection.

Tip 7: Consult a Family Law Attorney

An attorney who is an expert in the domestic relations/family laws of the state in which you reside will be able to provide you with essential information and guidance about what you can expect regarding child support, spousal maintenance, the division of assets, child custody, and parental access. Do not consult someone who dabbles in family law—hire a specialist in the field.

Tip 8: Assemble Your Team

Your attorney may recommend that you retain different experts to assist in your case—perhaps a forensic accountant, an estate planning attorney, and a child therapist. Retaining experts who can provide the guidance and support you need will go a long way to feeling and being in control during your divorce. In concert with your attorney, your support team should keep you fully informed, enabling you to protect your rights and those of your children.

Tip 9: Consult a Child Therapist

To ensure that your children are shielded from the stress and tension that has led you to make this decision, consult with a child therapist in your area. He or she can make suggestions as to the best way to advise your children about the divorce. These experts can also provide you with the tools and strategies to deal with many of the questions and issues that will arise once your children have been told, as the divorce unfolds, and as the “new normal” of your life and their life emerges.

Tip 10: Ensure You Have a Support Network

Surround yourself with people you trust to provide you with the emotional support that will be essential, and those who will also tell you the truth throughout the divorce process—even when it is difficult to hear. Whether that support network is made up of family, friends, and/or mental health professionals, make sure they are in place before you embark on this journey. A note of caution: do not indiscriminately discuss the details of your case with family or friends, no matter how well-meaning. Everyone is a potential witness who can be called to state under oath what you shared with them. Keep things private from people other than those on your “team,” but make sure your family and friends are there to give you love and support. fa

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Stacy D. Phillips

Stacy D. Phillips ([email protected]), a partner at Blank Rome LLP in Los Angeles, California, is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of  Legal Specialization who primarily  handles  high-net-worth  and  high-profile  divorce  cases.  She  has guided clients through critical transitions in their lives for more than thirty years, and she is a sought-after author, editor, and commentator for select legal and consumer publications. She has appeared as a guest commentator on numerous local and national radio and television shows, including NBC The Today Show, ABC News 20/20, ABC Good Morning America, CBS News Sunday Morning, BBC News, CNN Headline News, and many others.