You plan your wedding, you take your vows … and then life happens. If you’re contemplating divorce, you’re likely already feeling a mix of emotions from shock to grief.
Deciding to end your marriage doesn’t mean you’ve failed, though. Often, the best decision you can make is also the hardest one. Trust yourself to handle this transition wisely, and use these tips to protect your finances throughout the process.
Document who owns what
Before you do anything else, take inventory of your and your spouse’s assets and liabilities. Whose name is on the mortgage? What about the car? Go beyond the obvious here. You also need to think about retirement accounts, insurance policies, and even jewelry and furniture.
Start by making a list of everything you two own. Then, gather documentation that shows who legally owns and has access to these assets, any relevant account numbers, and the value of each asset. This can be a daunting process during an already stressful time, so go easy on yourself. Break this down into smaller chunks, and start early to prevent burnout and overwhelm.
Make a post-divorce budget
An overlooked part of preparing for a divorce is prepping for life after divorce. It’s hard to think about, but your standard of living could change dramatically once those divorce papers are signed.
Consider where you might live, what bills you’ll be responsible for, and if you’ll need to adjust your retirement and savings strategies. Be sure to include the cost of the divorce itself, too. Once you have those figures, determine if you need to cut your spending or find ways to make money.
This is also an ideal time to seek out personal financial education. Learn how to manage your money now to minimize stress later on.
Tip: Budgeting apps can help you get a handle on your finances pre- and post-divorce.
Talk to a lawyer
Your next step is consulting a lawyer. While you might be able to DIY your divorce, things can get messy fast if you and your partner aren’t on good terms. The same is true if you’re splitting major assets or anticipate a custody dispute. A divorce attorney can navigate those processes with you and advocate on your behalf.
Even in the simplest, most amicable of situations, it’s still worth seeking legal advice prior to asking for the divorce.
Open new bank accounts
If you don’t already have your own checking and savings accounts, bump this up on your to-do list. You need a secure space for your money that belongs to you and you alone. Once you have your new account and routing numbers, update your direct deposit and autopay information to avoid paycheck issues or late fees.
Exercise caution with how you fund these accounts, however. You don’t want to give the appearance of hiding assets, which is not only illegal but could also irreparably hurt your image during divorce proceedings.
Close joint accounts
Along those lines, it’s imperative that you remove your spouse’s name from your accounts and vice versa. You may trust your partner completely, but carefully weigh the risks of allowing them continued access to your finances. You’ll still be on the hook for joint debts after divorce.
If your spouse is listed as an authorized user on your accounts, you can simply remove their name from the account. Ask them to follow the same process for any accounts where you’re listed as an authorized user. If you’re both listed as joint account holders, the process might be more involved. In that case, it’s best to contact your financial institution so they can guide you.
Tip: If you anticipate your divorce being less than amicable, discuss the timing of when to close joint accounts with your attorney.
Open new credit cards
Another priority task? New credit cards. You can’t afford to skip this step, especially if your credit history is linked to your partner’s.
Imagine that your spouse maxes out your joint credit cards or falls behind on payments. That’s going to hurt your credit, too. Similarly, the divorce might impact your credit score. Depending on how assets and liabilities are divided, you may end up with extra debt or a reduced income, both of which could make it harder to qualify for credit on your own. Do yourself a favor, and build a credit safety net now.
Get a P.O. box
Before you officially begin the divorce process, consider getting a P.O. box. This might seem unnecessary, but having a separate mailing address can give you an added layer of privacy and security.
Have your attorney and your new bank use your P.O. box instead of your home mailing address. Start rerouting your regular mail here, as well, so you’ll have one less thing to worry about in the wake of your divorce. Be careful about updating joint accounts with this address, however, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with your partner knowing about the P.O. box just yet.
Update your beneficiaries
Did you list your spouse as the beneficiary on your will, life insurance policy, or retirement account? Now’s the time to change that. You can usually update your beneficiaries online or over the phone, though some institutions require these changes to be made in writing. If you live in a community property state, you’ll likely need your spouse’s consent, as well.
Talk to a certified divorce financial analyst
There is so much to think about and plan for during a divorce, and the ways divorce can impact your finances can easily become overwhelming. Prioritize your mental health and simplify the split by enlisting the help of a financial planner, such as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA).
Different from general accountants or financial planners, CDFAs have specialized knowledge of divorce law, tax law, and asset valuation. As such, they can help you navigate everything on this list, and work with you and your attorney to come up with an equitable settlement.
In addition to securing legal and financial counsel ahead of your divorce, it’s worth building an emotional support team, too. Protecting your assets starts with protecting yourself, and that includes looking after your mental wellbeing. Start interviewing therapists, rally friends and family, and be willing to lean on them when the going gets tough. You’ll have an easier time thinking rationally and acting strategically if you’re not carrying the burden alone.