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Experienced civil and family attorney Areva Martin offers her tips for how to protect yourself if you're getting a divorce. Know your rights when it comes to spousal support, child support and marital assets — you're not as powerless as you may feel.
- Divorce proceedings are like war in most cases. You need to be prepared for the battle.
- Before you even consider filing, consult with at least three attorneys in your area to find out upfront fees, etc. Seek good advice early on. Most cities have legal aid societies, and many lawyers offer free 30-minute consultations. Also, meet with your accountant to understand tax consequences and other issues related to valuation of property, retirement plans, stocks, etc.
- Consider the timing of your divorce. If your spouse is due a bonus or raise, wait until it is paid out before filing, to avoid any claim that its not marital property. If you have been in long-term marriage, stick it out to the 10-year mark. This will help you get more of your spouse's social security. Once you decide to get a divorce, file first. There are some advantages in a divorce proceeding for the person who files first.
- Make yourself indispensible. Make sure your name is on all bank accounts, investment accounts, deeds of trust, utilities, etc. and that joint signatures are needed. This will prevent your spouse from raiding your bank accounts.
- Make copies of all documents (tax returns, bank statements, credit card bills, W-2 forms, mortgage statements, loan agreements, etc.)
- Track down the assets. You need to know where every penny is. This includes bank accounts, stocks, bonds, jewelry, etc. In a divorce, each spouse has to disclose all assets, but often individuals are less than forthcoming. Know what is out there as half, or some portion of it, is yours.
- Protect your credit. You will need your credit to start your new lifestyle. Don't co-sign for your spouse.
- Stash some cash. You need to start saving your money well before you file. Your spouse probably already has money tucked away.
- Try to negotiate temporary support payments. If you and your spouse are able to talk, try to negotiate temporary alimony and child support payments that will tide you over until divorce is final.
- Separate your money. Take half of the money out of your accounts so that you will have some money to live on and so that your spouse won't beat you to it.
- Dust off your resume. Even though you may be entitled to alimony, it's discretionary, and it won't last forever.
- Custody is decided by the courts when contested. It's better to try to work something out before getting the courts involved. The courts have an obligation to determine who is in the best position to care for the children and what is in the best interest of the children. In most cases, assuming both parents are fit, the court will award joint custody, as law assumes children need both parents.
- Don't put the kids in the middle. Keep your kids out of it. Don't involve them in the decision to get a divorce or any of the particulars. It's bad for the kids, and it makes you look bad in a custody battle.
- Don't alienate your children from your spouse. Judges hate this, and it's bad for the children.
- Child support is mandated by law " don't worry. If your spouse has a job, and you have the kids, he or she will pay child support, and it can be garnished from his or her wages.
- Document any type of abuse.
- Decide who to confide in. During this planning stage, keep your discussions limited to one or two people you can trust and who you know won't talk to your spouse.
- Don't fall for the hype. Don't let your spouse convince you that you will end up with nothing, or you will be kicked out of the house. Your spouse doesn't make these decisions, the judge does. Half of everything your spouse owns belongs to you.
Areva Martin is the founding and managing partner of Martin & Martin, LLP.