More and more couples, who had troubles in their relationships prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, are reevaluating whether or not to file for divorce during quarantine. Determining whether to file for divorce before or after pandemic restrictions are lifted can seem like a difficult task, but understanding the divorce process and speaking with an experienced family attorney can help to make that task less daunting. Educating yourself on the divorce process alone can alleviate your fears about filing for divorce.
Couples who planned to divorce before the COVID-19 outbreak, need not delay those plans. Despite the closure of family courts across the states, the New Jersey Judiciary is actively implementing state-wide procedures that allow couples to digitally file their Complaint for Divorce.
The first step in the divorce process, should be speaking to an experienced family attorney for guidance. Not only can that attorney walk you through the divorce process step by step, but they can also provide you with a roadmap that best fits your specific circumstances.
The divorce process does not need to be lengthy. If you and your spouse have already agreed on the terms of the divorce, the best option is having that agreement memorialized by a family attorney. Once that agreement is complete, most courts will accept the agreement so your divorce can be finalized virtually. This means that even though courts are closed to the public, you and your spouse can still finalize your divorce during lockdown.
It is best to remember that not everything always goes according to plan, and some parts of the divorce process can be beyond your control. It is impossible to foresee how your soon to be ex-spouse will respond to the divorce process, or if they will retain competent counsel. Having an experienced attorney by your side to help navigate these unexpected twists and turns is essential. The following tips can help you to prepare for your meeting with a family attorney:
- Some documents are essential for your first meeting with an attorney, as they are needed just to file the Complaint for Divorce. You will need: (1) a marriage certificate, if you cannot remember the date you were married; (2) health insurance information; (3) car insurance information; (4) home insurance information; and (5) life insurance documents. If you do not have certain documents, advise your attorney of same, so they can properly address this in the Complaint for Divorce.
- Because the division of property is a major element of a divorce, make sure you have the following financial documents before meeting with an attorney: (1) three years of tax returns; (2) three years of W-2 statements; (3) three of your most recent paystubs or a disability or unemployment statement if you are disabled or not actively working; (4) mortgage statements; (5) retirement account statements; (6) investment account statements. These documents can help your new attorney get a handle on your finances and make a game plan for the division of assets, so the more information you can provide, the better. While getting these documents are important, try not to invade your spouse’s privacy while doing so. If you are unable to gain access to such information without invading your spouse’s privacy, discuss with your attorney about the best way to proceed.
- Make sure you are emotionally prepared for the divorce process and have both personal and professional support. A divorce is stressful, so working to keep a level head can help make the negotiation process easier. Making emotional decisions will only prolong the divorce process. Therefore, it is important for you to choose an experienced family lawyer who can help you recognize when your decisions are emotional, rather than logical. This alone can speed up the divorce process.
- Open a bank account and credit card in your name as a safety net. Most spouses share a joint bank account, which may pose a problem if the divorce process gets contested. For example, if your spouse decides to inappropriately freeze the joint bank account or cancel the joint credit cards, you could be left with no access to your finances. Setting up your own accounts can protect you in the event something like this happens.
- Start looking at housing options for after the divorce is finalized. If you are unable to afford the former marital residence, you will need to be prepared to move to a new apartment or home once the divorce is finalized or even while the divorce is in progress. Once you can create a post-divorce budget, your attorney will be able to develop the best plan for the division of property based on that budget. Additionally, knowing the type of housing you will be able to afford after the divorce, like a two-bedroom apartment versus three-bedroom home, can influence your decisions regarding custody and parenting time schedules.
- How your investments will be split is also a major part of the divorce process. To determine how these investments will be divided during the divorce, you will need to provide your attorney with records for all of your investments, which include retirement accounts (401(k), IRAs, Pension), brokerage accounts (stocks, mutual funds), and any private investments. While these accounts may have a lower value due to the pandemic, your attorney will still be able to complete a full analysis of these accounts to prepare for the final division of assets.
All in all, there is no need to delay filing for divorce until the pandemic has subsided. You can, and should, start working on all the tips listed above if you think you want to file for divorce, and keep in mind, that an experienced family law attorney can help make the divorce process as seamless as possible from start to finish.
Jose I. Bastarrika, Esq.