If you’ve never been through a divorce before then the entire process may seem extremely confusing. So it’s no surprise the question we get most often is: “Where do I start?”

Here are the steps we recommend each of our clients take.

Gather paperwork as soon as you know you’re getting a divorce.

In divorce, one spouse is usually blindsided by the other, who may have been planning the divorce for some time. 

Still, the first step is the same, regardless of whether you’re the one taking your spouse by surprise or not. You need to gather and organize your documents.

That means getting copies of all the financial documents related to your debts and assets. This can include:

  • Titles to property such as homes, cars, or boats.
  • Bank statements.
  • Retirement account statements.
  • Insurance policies.
  • Credit card statements.
  • Other bills.
  • Tax returns.
  • Check stubs. 

You’re going to want to go back years: three years at least. If you’ve been married a long time you might have to go ten years.

Do this before you do anything else, while you still have full access to the material. Spouses have been known to block access to financial data so that they may attempt to hide assets. 

Find an attorney.

DIY divorce is a terrible idea. Even if you and your soon-to-be-ex agree on every single one of the divorce issues (which is rare), failing to set up your divorce correctly can have severe long-term consequences which will effect you financially. In some cases, mistakes can even impact your ability to spend time with your children, or the amount of say you get in raising them.

Evaluate the websites of reviews of several candidates, then meet with one that suits you. You’ll want to find one who you feel comfortable being honest with. You also want one who will respect what you want out of the divorce process. You don’t want, for example, an attorney who will push you into litigation if you’re happy to settle.

If you’re worried about the cost there are ways to reduce the cost of a divorce, even with an attorney.

Once you find an attorney you will either send a Summons and Complaint to file the divorce, or you’ll send an answer to the complaint to begin the process of dealing with the divorce your spouse filed. You’ll also want to consult with your attorney on next steps, such as how to handle joint bank accounts.

Document time spent with the children.

Often custody is determined by figuring out who routinely feeds the children, gets them ready for school, takes them to school, deals with instructors, and takes them to medical appointments. Time spent playing with the children or taking them on outings also comes under consideration. In other words, who is doing the most parenting?

Don’t assume your gender will sway the courts one way or the other. In truth, most courts like to give both parents as much time with the children as possible, so document attempts to co-parent and cooperate with your spouse as well.

Don’t leave the house unless you’re in imminent danger.

It’s not always wise to fight for the house, but it can be even more unwise to leave it during your divorce. While your spouse may be insufferable, it can be a terrible tactical move.

For one thing, it can give the courts the impression you’re just fine with your spouse taking primary physical custody of the children, because you walked out and left them in the family home.

Stay calm and rational.

It won’t be easy, but the more you let the process get under your skin, the less trustworthy your decision-making process will be. If at all possible you want to negotiate a fair settlement and get out.

If you dig your heels in and start fighting just because you are angry or hurt, you may end up making the entire process more expensive and harder than it has to be. Divorce can be overwhelming, but taking things step-by-step can make all the difference.

See also:

Is Your Spouse Hiding Assets? 

How to Protect Your Finances During Your CA Divorce

How to Handle Joint Accounts in Your CA Divorce


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