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How to prepare for a divorce: An ultimate guide for the entire process

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Can you ever be truly prepared for divorce? While you can’t see the future, there are some key steps you can take to get ready for the process, according to top divorce experts. 

Below, these experts share their best advice on how to prepare for divorce, providing you with a detailed roadmap before the proceedings are underway.

Preparing for divorce: Decide if you are ready

If you’re on the fence about getting a divorce, there are some telltale signs you might be ready.

“Overall, it's a question of personal happiness that includes not only relationship satisfaction, but also child and financial considerations,” says Susan A. Hansen, partner at Hansen & Hildebrand, S.C., based in Milwaukee. Hansen is also the co-founder of the Family Mediation Center, which provides collaborative divorce and mediation services.

In this section, we’ll review the most common signs and causes of divorce:

Should I get a divorce? Signs you might be ready

  • You stop arguing
  • You prefer to spend more time with your friends or family than your husband or wife
  • You stop making future plans
  • You regret getting married
  • You have reason to be secretive about your phone
  • You start worrying about money in the event you find yourself single
  • Your spouse is showing signs he or she is ready for divorce

Hansen recommends anyone contemplating divorce to consider joint therapy with a professional who has experience in marriage discernment counseling. 

“A skilled couples counselor can help couples consider what needs to change to remain married or what is needed to move forward with divorce with dignity and compassion,” Hansen says. 

More in this post if you're thinking about divorce.

Common causes of divorce

Here are common causes of divorce, according to studies and polls, including those published in a 2020 edition of Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, as well as Journal of Divorce & Remarriage and a 2019 edition of Journal of Divorce & Remarriage

  • Money
  • Lack of respect
  • No sex or bad sex
  • You grew apart
  • Cheating
  • Parenting disagreements
  • Addiction
  • Irreconcilable differences

Katherine Eisold Miller, founding attorney at the Miller Law Group in New York, says in a lot of divorces, there is a breakdown in communication, where each person feels misunderstood and maligned by the other.

“That mistrust — whether or not it is based on reality — is malignant, and if left unaddressed for too long will poison the relationship beyond repair,” Eisold Miller says.

Legal separation vs divorce: Which is for you?

Some states require divorcing couples to legally separate for a set period of time. Other states, including Texas, do not offer legal separation as an option at all — you are either married or not married.

If you are 100% ready to end the marriage, you are ready to divorce. However, there are some financial and legal advantages to both being legally separated as well as divorced.

Reasons people stay legally married, but attain a legal separation include:

  • Uncertainty about ending the marriage
  • Health insurance that one spouse can get for free or lower cost through his or her spouse's employer or business
  • Staying married for a certain period longer allows one spouse to be eligible for the other’s pension, Social Security, or other retirement benefits
  • One or both spouses want to avoid divorce for religious reasons
  • Tax reasons

Preparing for divorce: Steps to take if you're ready

Once you’ve decided you want to move forward with divorce, there are some things you should do before filing:

Make a self-care plan

Enlist a trusted therapist for support. “Divorce is emotionally and mentally draining,” says Statesville, NC-based divorce lawyer Dustin S. McCrary, who was recognized by Super Lawyers as a Rising Star in 2019. “You need to be proactive in taking care of yourself.” 

Family and friends can act as sounding boards, but you need an objective professional to confide in, according to divorce and family lawyer Raiford Dalton Palmer, author of the best-selling divorce guide I Just Want This Done.

Affordable therapy options, even free ones, can help reduce the financial burden of counseling. Take care of yourself: take walks outdoors, eat nourishing meals, get proper sleep, and engage in relaxing practices like meditation or yoga.

Set goals

McCrary suggests proactively setting goals for the divorce to help keep you on track. “You must know what you want before you can start on the journey,” he says. Write down what you want from the proceedings and revisit these goals throughout the process to help you stay focused. 

Whether you want to start a business, buy a home, or invest and build wealth, give yourself something to work toward post-divorce.

Lead with your head, not your heart

It takes work and some self control to have an amicable divorce. 

“Strong emotions come up, and what you do with those feelings will have a big impact on how amicable a divorce will be,” Eisold Miller says. 

Try not to get too nostalgic about your spouse either. “Don’t underestimate your spouse and don’t trust their threats,” says Jill Spielberg, the matrimonial and family law partner at Abrams Fensterman, LLP in White Plains, NY who specializes in high-net worth cases and high conflict custody litigation.

“Do not let your spouse scare you into staying married. They are likely trying to manipulate you.”

Get familiar with the process

Every state has its own rules and processes for filing for divorce. Familiarize yourself with the divorce process in your state. 

“Before filing, bone up on your state’s laws governing divorce,” advises award-winning financial journalist Margaret Price and financial planner Jill Gianola, co-authors of Single Women and Money: How to Live Well on Your Income. “Find out what legal steps are required to file, and which rules cover distribution of assets and allocation of alimony and child support.”

Also assess the pros and cons of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as mediation or collaborative practice, versus going to court. Although avoiding court may seem tempting, you can’t predict how amicable your spouse will be before proceedings begin.

Change your email, phone, and computer passwords

You will need to be able to privately and confidentially communicate with your lawyer, as well as anyone else you might speak to about your divorce.

Changing these passwords can also protect any electronic evidence you may need for the divorce, Spielberg says. “Spouses often try to delete proof of wrongdoing when they see a divorce is imminent,” she explains. 

According to a Pew Research report, 67% of spouses share passwords. Protect your information and privacy by securing your online accounts. 

Locate and secure important documents and valuables 

Aside from gathering financial documents, put your passport, your children's passports, and any jewelry or valuables you want to ensure possession of in a secure place.

“Spouses can take these items and temporarily hold them as leverage,”  Spielberg says. “This step prevents that from happening.” 

Assemble your divorce team

These are some professionals you may need to hire during the divorce process: 

Focus on low-conflict and equality

“How you start a divorce will have a profound impact on whether it is amicable or high conflict,” Hansen says.

She says it helps to view divorce as a restructuring of family and finances rather than a win-lose battle.

Studies find that when parenting time is shared equally between parents, the kids fare better, there is less conflict in the divorce overall, and both men and women fare better as single parents.

Learn as much as you can about co-parenting, and consider taking a parenting or co-parenting class.

Beware of these 18 sneaky divorce tactics so you can overcome them

Focus on earning more

Often divorcing spouses find ways to lower their incomes, forego promotions or raises, hide money or otherwise make it appear on the books that their income is lower than it actually is — all to angle for paying less alimony or child support — or qualifying for more.

Once exposed this will look bad in court or result in any negotiations breaking down. I advise divorcing women not to fall into the trap of financial dependency — but focus on earning and financial independence.

“The whole point of divorce is to move on into a new and better life — and you can't do that if you spend your energy trying to be financially tied to this man,” says Johnson, who wrote The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), a No. 1 Amazon bestseller.

Check out these posts for ways to make more money: 

Gather your financial records

Molly Ward, a certified financial planner (CFP) and certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) with Equitable Advisors in Houston, says you should gather important documents such as: 

  • Tax returns
  • Pay stubs
  • Employee benefits
  • Current statements for all bank, investment, and retirement accounts
  • Insurance information
  • Pension estimates
  • Credit reports from the three major bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) 

Create a post-divorce budget

You need to know as soon as possible what your new financial situation will look like and you need to be realistic — including if you are a stay-at-home mom, McCrary adds. “There is going to be a change in your standard of living,” he says. “Be prepared for that.” 

How can you best prepare? Price suggests setting up a budget your expected costs of necessities, which includes food, clothing, housing, and transportation for both you and your children, and then compare that cost with your expected post-divorce income.

You should also consult Social Security for details about claiming your entitlements as a divorced spouse and take changing health insurance options into account if you’re on your spouse’s plan.

Evaluate the true value of your assets 

Know what your assets are really worth.

“For example, a traditional $10,000 IRA may be worth only $7,500 after you pay taxes on the withdrawals, while qualified withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax-free,” Gianola explains.

This goes for your valuing and selling your house, too. “Don’t request to keep your home unless you can afford to,” Gianola says. “Instead, use cash from your share of the home as a down payment on a more affordable residence.” She adds that by giving up the house, you could receive a larger portion of joint savings and investments.

Jay Mota, a CFP and CDFA based in New York City, says it’s important to understand what all of your assets are worth, even if you don’t necessarily want them. 

“If you know an asset has a value and you have no interest in that asset, you could still use it as leverage in the negotiation,” Mota says.

Separate your income

Once separated, transfer your income into an account that your spouse can't access. Consider withdrawing half, or all, funds from your joint accounts into this one, Spielberg says.

“Angry spouses who are surprised by divorce filings typically drain the bank accounts as a first act of retribution, so get ahead of that possibility,” she advises. 

Preparing for divorce: When to start the divorce process

When you’re finally ready to get divorced, here’s how you should approach it:

When it becomes real: How to start the divorce process

If you are initiating divorce, or just learned that your spouse is ready to separate:

  1. Get money in your own name, in your own account that no one else has access to. However, do NOT take money that is legally both of yours (which may mean that income from your job may be legally your husband or wife’s, too). Open a checking and savings account in your name only, as well as a credit card. Ward also suggests freezing your credit so that your name can’t be added to new loans. 
  2. Make sure your bills are paid, and paid on time. Keep an eye on your credit score.
  3. Call a few attorneys in your area to understand what you can expect. You don’t necessarily need to hire a divorce lawyer, but insight from attorneys in your area will be very helpful.
  4. Do not do anything rash. Do not move out of the house (yet). Do not take the kids away from their other parent. Do not quit your job, spend a bunch of money, or flaunt a new girlfriend or boyfriend publicly. Be an adult.
  5. Be kind and decent at all costs. This is horrible for everyone. Keep the drama as low as possible — at least for now.
  6. Download this free divorce worksheet to help you get started.

12 tips on how to have a happy, friendly divorce

Amicable or friendly divorce does not mean that the spouses are friends, or even friendly — but they are not at war, either.

Eisold Miller says it takes work and some self control to have an amicable divorce. 

“Strong emotions come up, and what you do with those feelings will have a big impact on how amicable a divorce will be,” she says.

  1. Focus on being fair and honest, and aim for compromise.
  2. Be kind — to our ex (this is hard for him, too), yourself, and those around you. This is a loss and change for everyone.
  3. Expect it to be hard. “Amicable” is nice word, and sometimes this process is referred to as a “friendly” divorce — or you may seek mediation or a collaborative process. A positive vernacular, but all very hard and painful.
  4. Commit to full financial disclosure, and no sneaky business to keep your income low.
  5. Do not threaten or aim for majority time with the kids. Studies show equally shared parenting is best for children — and moms' income
  6. Set up a co-parenting plan, and consider parenting classes for divorced families.
  7. Aim for no child support or alimony — women and men can now support themselves financially, and should. Best work-careers for moms
  8. Commit to self-care. Divorce will go down as one of your most difficult and painful experiences.
  9. Find a positive tribe. One study found that when divorcing couples receive negative feedback from their friends and family (“Take him for all he’s worth!” “I always hated that bitch! Make her pay!”) the divorce conflict was higher than in separating couples who had kinder support networks.
  10. Open yourself up to rewriting your ideas about who you are — and who you will be going forward. Let go of your old identity as a married person. 5 limiting beliefs that keep single moms broke, angry and alone.
  11. Work through any guilt you may have about leaving him/her.
  12. Recognize that this process establishes the tone of your new relationship going forward. If you share children, your husband or wife will be in your life for a long time.

Prepare for divorce: Choosing what’s right for your situation

Depending on your relationship with your soon-to-be ex, you may be able to try for an amicable divorce, which will likely save you time, money, and a lot of stress. 

Uncontested or amicable divorce 

Marina Shepelsky, CEO and founding attorney of Shepelsky Law in Brooklyn, N.Y., says an uncontested or amicable divorce is a divorce in which both spouses mutually agree to end their marriage without contesting any issues. 

In an uncontested divorce, couples may be able to get divorced without a lawyer.

Collaborative divorce

In a collaborative divorce, both parties work together to create a settlement agreement by addressing common divorce issues like child custody and support, equitable distribution of property, and alimony. Collaborative divorce can be handled with or without attorneys. 

“Uncontested divorces are private, focused on the couple's unique circumstances, and can be settled out of court, making it a more cost-effective and convenient way to divorce,” Shepelsky says.

Divorce mediation

Divorce mediation is a process where divorcing spouses meet with a trained, neutral professional to work through dissolving their marriage and drafting a divorce agreement.

Contested divorce or divorcing with a lawyer

If you’ve made up your mind and there’s no alternative but divorce, talking to at least a few lawyers is always a good idea. The first consultation is sometimes free, so you’ve got nothing to lose. And you can gain a lot of information during divorce attorney interviews if you head into the conversation armed with the right questions.

These are some reasons to hire a divorce lawyer:

  • You have a very high-conflict divorce with someone who is abusive, addicted, suffers extreme mental health issues.
  • You have a very complicated financial picture that requires an expert to untangle.
  • You and your ex are committed to a low-conflict uncontested divorce, but want an attorney to look over your final divorce settlement.

Preparing for divorce: Understanding the financial side

“Divorce is a difficult season to prepare for, and I have seen so many clients positively change the course of their life and their family's life when they are financially prepared,” Ward says.

Mota says assets should be divided based on: 

  • What makes the most sense for the future
  • How the asset will play into your lifestyle post-divorce
  • How the assets being divided in conjunction with other benefits such as social security in retirement will benefit you

He adds that taxes should always be considered when dividing assets, as well as the timing of when the assets may be of use to you.

Property and assets division guide

These are some answers to common questions about dividing assets in divorce: 

Who gets the house in a divorce?

The marital home is most commonly considered an asset that is divided equally in divorce. Aside from situations where one spouse pays for the house before marriage and keeps it after, specific marital circumstances, including children and finances, usually dictate the fate of the couple’s home. 

Who owns the engagement and wedding rings in a divorce?

Jewelry is marital property if purchased during the marriage. If the jewelry in question was a gift or a form of inheritance, it’s separate property and not divisible. Jewelry acquired before marriage is also separate property. This can include a watch given as an engagement or anniversary gift to a man, or fine jewelry given to the wife as a gift.

Who gets everything else in a divorce?

Divorce law varies by state, and every divorce differs. If you wonder who will get what when you and your spouse break up, the answer will depend on many factors, including where you live, how long you were married, and what each of you brought to the marriage in terms of property.

What is the difference between community property and equitable distribution?

Community property states split any assets or debts acquired during the marriage 50/50, while equitable distribution states divide the assets and debt equitably — but not necessarily equally.

For example, in a community property state like Arizona, any assets in the house would be split 50/50. In an equitable distribution state like Illinois, the equity in a home would be split according to various factors, including:

  • How much money each spouse put towards the downpayment, mortgage payments, or renovations.
  • Whether either spouse’s family contributed to the downpayment
  • Etc.

Marital property vs separate property—what is the difference?

Marital property is anything that is owned jointly by both spouses. This can include real estate, cars, savings, checking and investment accounts, jewelry, furniture or businesses. Marital property can also include debt that was acquired during the marriage, including credit cards, mortgages, business and personal loans, and sometimes student debt.

Separate property is typically not subject to division during divorce. This means that any property or debt acquired by each spouse before the marriage, as well any inheritance and gifts acquired by a spouse during the marriage, will most likely remain their own after the divorce is finalized. 

Are assets always split 50-50?

In community property states, theoretically, the answer is yes—assets acquired during the term of the marriage are split 50-50. 

In practice, marital property cannot always be divided exactly 50/50. Typically, spouses and attorneys and sometimes judges work together to divide the property in a way that complies with standard practices in that jurisdiction, as well as — hopefully — is fair and reasonable. Spouses may still also maintain some personal property.

What to ask for in a divorce settlement agreement

  • The house, or proceeds of a sale
  • A co-parenting plan
  • Relationship building
  • Documentation
  • Money

Learn more about things to ask for in a divorce.

How to get through divorce without going bankrupt

Fact: Divorce is one of the leading predictors of both bankruptcy and home foreclosure.

Women are especially prone to a long-term financial fallout from divorce, according to the Institute for Financial Literacy.

Mota says the easiest way not to go bankrupt during divorce is to minimize the expenses of divorce. 

“I call it the price of peace,” he says. “All too often, couples will argue over something in the divorce and spend more money paying their attorneys or mediators than what the item being disputed is worth.”

Mota offers these tips to avoid going bankrupt during divorce: 

  • Remove the emotions when negotiating a settlement
  • Work with a financial professional to help understand what assets are worth and understanding what you are reasonably entitled to
  • Take time to itemize your income, expenses, and debt

He says before divorcing, you should consider whether you can pay back your debts as a single person. 

“If you cannot, perhaps you work on paying down the debts before you divorce or find a higher paying job that will allow you to afford your lifestyle and debts post-divorce,” Mota says.

Insurance after divorce: How to handle life, health and auto policies

Ward says you need to know what types of financial protection you have in the form of life insurance, disability, and long-term care insurance and what coverages are on your soon-to-be ex-spouse, especially if you are going to be depending on child support or spousal support.

Life insurance after divorce

There are two types of life insurance: term and permanent. Term life insurance has no cash value and simply pays out a tax-free death benefit to a named beneficiary upon the passing of the insured person.

This means that until and unless the insured person passes away, there is no financial value in the policy. As such, term policies will not be considered a financial asset subject to division in divorce.

Read our roundup of top term life insurance policies.

Health insurance after divorce

Health insurance is one reasons unhappy couples stay together — and some platonic friends get married in the first place! That said, if one spouse has enjoyed being on the other’s health insurance, or you have a lower rate of insurance bought on the marketplace as a married couple, then you have to make some adjustments. 

If your ex-husband or ex-wife maintains a health insurance plan through their employer that covers you, it is likely that you will no longer be eligible to stay on their plan.

If you maintain the health insurance plan that covers your spouse, it is likely that they will no longer be eligible to stay on your plan. However, children will be able to stay on your (or your spouse’s) plan until they reach the age of 26.

Car insurance after divorce

Car insurance is an often overlooked component of a divorce and because the consequences can be so costly, it is important to know the risk of not doing it correctly. 

Driving a vehicle without car insurance is illegal, so removing your ex-spouse or their vehicle from your insurance policy is not allowed without their consent, and they cannot remove you from their policy.

How much does divorce really cost?

For many years, the figure $15,000 per spouse has been tossed around as a general rule of thumb for how much it costs to get divorced in the United States. However, as a journalist who has covered divorce for more than a decade, I believe this number is misleading and inflated. Here are some things to consider:

  • The cost of divorce varies greatly by geography — attorneys in coastal cities charge more per hour than other parts of the country, but people in those areas also earn more.
  • Expensive divorces are usually had by people more likely to afford them. Keep in mind that your attorney will have access to all of your financial information — the more money you and your spouse have, the more likely your attorney is incentivized to drag out your divorce.
  • The more money you have, the more you have to fight over — both in terms of assets to divide, and child support and alimony.
  • Overall, the trend of divorce is moving away from high-conflict, lawyered up battles, to more collaborative, amicable, mediated and uncontested divorce — as it should.

Fewer young people are marrying and more moms are unmarried when they have babies. These families tend to be younger, with less education and lower incomes than families that stay married, so even if they do go through family court and/or use an attorney, there is less to fight over and usually a simpler legal process that costs less.

What is the cheapest you can get a divorce for in 2022?

The cheapest divorce you can get is a $70 filing fee (average throughout the state) in Wyoming — assuming you and your spouse agree to the terms and file yourself without any outside counsel or support. 

The cost of divorce can quickly go up as hourly attorney fees can average $300 or more in costal cities, bringing even an average divorce bill to $20,000 or more per spouse. 

If your divorce is uncontested, you can get an affordable divorce online through a service that fills in your divorce papers based on your answers to a questionnaire, like these. Check out our reviews of the best online divorce services.

However, you do not need to pay for divorce papers because you can find free divorce papers at your local courthouse.

Preparing for divorce: Time required

The length of time it takes to get your final divorce decree after filing for a divorce depends on your state laws, how backed up your local courts are, and whether you filled out all the paperwork properly.

In most states, it takes at least 30 days from the date you file to finalize your divorce.

Divorce: Moving on after you’ve filed

There is no one-size-fits-all path you’re supposed to take after divorce. The post-divorce period is all about discovering what you want and need from your future. These are some tips for moving on after divorce:

  • Get therapy — or at least try some self-help books and courses
  • Get a physical, and maybe a makeover
  • Co-parent like a Paltrow
  • Make new friends
  • Date, when you’re ready
  • Get your finances together, and make sure your kids are protected

Divorcing a cheater? How to get over your cheating husband

“A breach of trust makes the divorce process more challenging, but, depending on state law, it may not carry weight in determining the legal outcome,” Mota says.

These are some tips for getting over a cheating spouse: 

  • Put your spouse’s cheating into perspective with therapy
  • Make it your goal to forgive the infidelity, heal and thrive
  • Take responsibility for the dissolution of the marriage and forgive yourself
  • Realize that worse things have happened to people (no matter how much this hurts)
  • Invest time, self-care and perhaps therapy to rebuild your self-confidence, and remember that you are a lovable woman
  • Recognize that repeating and focusing on the story of his unfaithful acts ultimately hurts you, and holds you back
  • Focus on rebuilding your own incredible life post-divorce

Change your name

Changing your name officially can take a lot of steps if you want to do so with the state and federal governments. Here's how:

Name change with Social Security Administration

To change your name on your Social Security Card, download all the documents and follow the steps on this SSA name change page, which include:

Show original or certified documents proving your legal name change and identity. If you are a U.S. citizen, you also must show us a document proving your U.S. citizenship.

To prove your legal name change, you must show one of the following:

  • Marriage document
  • Divorce decree
  • Certificate of naturalization showing a new name
  • Court order for a name change

To prove your identity, you must show an unexpired document showing your name, identifying information, and photograph, such as one of the following:

  • U.S. driver’s license
  • State-issued non-driver’s identification card
  • U.S. passport

If you don’t have one of those documents available, we may be able to accept your:

  • Employer identification card
  • School identification card
  • Health insurance card
  • U.S. military identification card

To prove your U.S. citizenship, you must show one of the following:

  • U.S. birth certificate
  • U.S. Consular Report of Birth Abroad
  • U.S. passport (unexpired)
  • Certificate of Naturalization
  • Certificate of Citizenship

Name change with DMV

Each state has its own process for changing your name officially with its motor vehicle department, and on your driver's license. Typically, you will need:

  • Application
  • Your most recent driver's license or learner's permit
  • Divorce degree, marriage license, or court order reflecting the name change

Name change for passport

To change your name on a U.S. passport, this State Department page has all the information and forms you need, including:

  • Your original passport
  • An original or certified name change document, such as a marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order
  • Color passport photo

There may be a fee associated with your name change on your passport, depending on your situation.

Name change services

  • LegalZoom

Bottom line: Preparing for divorce does not have to be overwhelming

Here are five steps for a quick divorce:

  1. Agree to settle out of court, without lawyers
  2. File your own divorce papers 
  3. Share custody equally
  4. Go to divorce / co-parenting counseling
  5. Do not fight over child support

Although you may never be fully prepared for divorce, being as ready as possible allows you to go into the process more confident and less worried about the outcome. Take care of yourself as best as you can, McCrary says.

“The legal process is the easy process,” he explains. “The hard part is the emotional and mental drain that it can take on person. You need to be proactive in taking care of yourself so that you can be a better person each day.” 

Putting yourself and your financial health first will help you get through the divorce process.

Start your divorce online now for $84 at >> founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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