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Prepare financially for a divorce

If you are considering a divorce, it is vital to plan how to divide the financial assets you have accumulated during the years of marriage. Further, if children are involved, the future support given to the custodial parent must be planned for.

The time taken to prepare and plan for eventualities will pay off later on. Here are some steps towards that end.

Take Stock Of Your Situation
Make an inventory of your financial situation. This  will help you to prepare in two ways:

  • It will provide you with preliminary information for an eventual division of the property.
  • It will help you to plan how the debts incurred in the marriage are to be paid off. (Although the best way of dealing with joint debt, such as credit card debt, is to get it all paid off before the divorce. Since this strategy is often impossible, compiling a list of your debts will help you to come to some agreement as to how they will be paid off.)

To take stock of your situation, here are the steps you might follow:

  1. Make a list of all of your assets, joint or separate, including:
    • The current balance in all bank accounts
    • The value of any brokerage accounts
    • The value of investments, including any IRAs
    • Your residence(s)
    • Your vehicles
    • Your valuables
  2. Make sure you have copies of the past two or three years' tax returns
  3. Make sure you know the exact amounts of salary and other income earned by both yourself and your spouse
  4. Find the papers relating to insurance-life, health, auto, and homeowner's-and pension or other retirement benefits
  5. List all debts you both owe, separately or jointly. Include auto loans, mortgage, credit card debt, and any other liabilities

Estimate post-divorce living expenses
Figure out how much it will cost you to live after the divorce. This figure is especially important for the spouse who is planning to remain in the family home with the children; it may be determined that the estimated living expenses are not manageable.

To estimate these expenses, add together all of your monthly debts and living expenses, including rent or mortgage. Then total your after-tax monthly income from all sources. The remaining amount is your disposable income.

Cancel all joint accounts
First, it is important to cancel all joint accounts immediately once you know you are going to obtain a divorce.

Creditors have the right to seek payment from either party on a joint credit card or other credit account, no matter which party actually incurred the bill. If you allow your name to remain on joint accounts with your ex-spouse, you are also responsible for the bills.

Your divorce agreement may specify which one of you pays the bills. As far as the creditor is concerned, however, both you and your spouse remain responsible if the joint accounts remain open. The creditor will try to collect the bill from whoever it thinks may be able to pay, and at the same time report the late payments to the credit bureaus under both names. Your credit history could be damaged because of the co-signer's irresponsibility.

Some credit contracts require that you immediately pay the outstanding balance in full if you close an account. If so, try to get the creditor to have the balance transferred to separate accounts.

Get credit if you need it
Maintaining credit in your own name during the marriage avoids this inconvenience if you get a divorce. It can also make it easier to preserve your own, separate, credit history. Further, should you need credit in an emergency, it will be available.

If you have been sharing your husband's accounts, building your own credit history in your name should be fairly easy. Call a major credit bureau and request a copy of your file. Contact the issuers of the cards you share with your husband and ask them to report the accounts in your name as well.

If you used the accounts, but never co-signed for them, ask to be added on as jointly liable for some of the major credit cards. Once you have several accounts listed as references on your credit record, apply for a department store card, or even a Visa or MasterCard, in your own name.

If you held accounts jointly and they were opened before 1977 (in which case they may have been reported only in your husband's name), point them out and tell the creditor to consider them as your credit history also. The creditor cannot require your spouse's or former spouse's signature to access his credit file if you are using his information to qualify for credit.

Consider the legal issues
The best way to plan for the legal issues that must be faced in a divorce-child custody, division of property, and alimony or child support payments-is to come to an agreement with your spouse. This can significantly reduce the time and expense of coming up with a legal solution.

Here are some general tips for handling the legal aspects of a divorce:

  • Get your own attorney if there are significant issues dealing with assets, child custody, or alimony.
  • Some ways of finding a good matrimonial attorney include referrals from another professional, referrals from trusted friends, or lists obtained from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. (The address of the latter organization is listed in the last section of this Guide.)
  • Make sure the divorce decree or agreement covers all types of insurance coverage-life, health, and auto.
  • Be sure to change the beneficiaries on life insurance policies, IRA accounts, 401(k) plans, other retirement accounts, and pension plans.
  • Don't forget to update your will.
Division of property
The laws governing division of property between ex-spouses vary from state to state. Further, matrimonial judges have a great deal of latitude in applying those laws.

Here is a list of items you should be sure to take care of, regardless of whether you are represented by an attorney.

  1. Gain an understanding of how your state's laws on property division work
  2. If you owned property separately during the marriage, be sure you have the papers to prove that it has been kept separate
  3. Be ready to document any non-financial contributions to the marriage, e.g., your support of a spouse while he or she attended school, or your non-financial contributions to his or her financial success
  4. If you need alimony or child support, be ready to document your need for it
  5. If you have not worked outside the home during the marriage, consider having the divorce decree provide for money for you to be trained or educated
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