If you believe your marriage is over and want to get divorced, it's important to understand what to do before you file and during the initial phases of the process. Making mistakes before you file or early in the process can make your case much more challenging.
Before you file a divorce petition, you might be worried about the impact it might have on your finances, children, lifestyle, and your future. By taking proactive steps, you can place yourself in a better position and minimize some of the strife that might otherwise occur. While your initial urge might be to file a divorce petition as soon as possible, that might not be the best approach. Instead, take the time to ensure that you have everything in order and have retained a competent and knowledgeable divorce attorney before you file. Here's what you should do when you are planning to file a petition for divorce from your spouse.
1. Gather Relevant Documents
During your divorce, you and your attorney will need access to certain financial documents to ensure you receive a fair share of the assets you and your spouse have accumulated during your marriage and that any debts are divided fairly. Unlike community property states like California or Texas, New Jersey is an equitable distribution state under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.1. This means that if you can't reach an agreement with your estranged spouse about how to divide your assets and debts, the court will divide them in the way that the judge believes is the fairest.
Having all of your financial documents gathered before filing for divorce can make it easier for your attorney to analyze your assets and debts and explain how the court might divide them if you can't reach a settlement agreement. It can also help you and your lawyer to draft a proposed agreement through which you can propose a division that will best protect your interests.
While your spouse will be required to exchange financial information with you after you file your petition, it can be more difficult to convince them to give you all of the necessary documents when emotions are high. Gathering them beforehand can help you to avoid additional expenses involved with trying to force your spouse to turn over records after your case is already pending.
Gather the following documents before you file for divorce:
- Income tax statements for the last two to three years
- W-2s or 1099s for you and your spouse for the last two to three years
- Last six months of paystubs for you and your spouse
- Bank account statements, including checking and savings
- Investment account statements
- Most recent statement from any IRAs, 401(k)s, or other retirement accounts for you and your spouse
- Copies of titles to all motor vehicles, boats, and RVs
- Copies of deeds to real property owned by you and your spouse
- List of other assets, including art collections, jewelry, etc.
- Articles of incorporation for a business owned by you, your spouse, or both
- Most recent bill statements for credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, and others
- List of all debts owed by you or your spouse and whether the accounts are joint or separate
It might also be a good idea to get copies of your credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. This might help you to identify any debts your spouse might have opened in your name or both of your names that you are unaware of but that will need to be addressed in your divorce case. You are entitled to one free copy of your credit reports per year from each agency and can get them by going to annualcreditreport.com.
2. Speak to a Financial Advisor
If you and your spouse already have a financial advisor, you should go to a new advisor working at a different firm instead of the one you and your spouse have shared in the past. Bring your financial and income documents with you. The advisor can help you understand how your divorce might impact your finances and help you to establish a budget for your life as a single person. Once you retain a lawyer, your attorney can work with your financial advisor to ensure your finances and your ability to retire on time will be protected in your divorce.
3. Separate Your Accounts
It is a good idea to separate your jointly-held accounts as much as possible before you file for divorce. Open a separate bank account in your name alone, and change your direct deposit information with your employer so that your paychecks will be routed to your new account instead of the joint one you share with your spouse.
Take a look at any accounts that are in both of your names. If you can pay off jointly-owned credit card accounts before you file, that might be best. Even though debts can be divided in your divorce, the creditors for jointly owned credit card accounts and other debts can come after you for repayment if your spouse fails to pay what they are ordered to or agree to pay in your divorce orders. While you can come back later to seek a contempt order if your spouse fails to pay debts as agreed or ordered, it can also harm your credit.
You can also contact credit card companies and others to ask for your name to be taken off of certain accounts. This might be possible in some cases such as if you are a secondary card user on a credit card in your spouse's name.
3. Open a P.O. Box
To avoid your spouse finding mail for you from your divorce lawyer, you should open a post office box in your name and use it for all divorce-related correspondence. Similarly, make sure to store any correspondence you receive and sensitive documents somewhere safe outside of your home.
4. Think About Your Divorce Goals
You next need to think about what you want to get out of your divorce. This can include how you would like your property and debts to be divided, custody and visitation arrangements, and whether you might receive alimony. Once you meet with your attorney, they can help you understand whether your wish list is feasible or if you should make some adjustments.
For example, many people want to keep their marital home in a divorce. However, it might not be the smartest choice if you do not have enough income to make the payments and properly maintain it. Even if you do, keeping the house while being able to afford other important things in your life might not be a good strategy. Depending on your finances and whether there are children involved, it might make more sense for you and your spouse to sell your home and downsize to separate, smaller spaces.
5. Pick the Right Divorce Lawyer
While you are not required to retain a lawyer to get divorced in New Jersey, having the right attorney can make all the difference in the outcome of your case. An attorney might be able to secure a much more favorable resolution to the outstanding issues in your divorce and help you understand your case from a more objective perspective.
When you are searching for a lawyer, you need to make sure you choose the one with whom you feel most comfortable. A good lawyer should focus exclusively on family law and be experienced in handling divorce matters and complex property division issues. A good divorce lawyer should listen to you and provide honest and objective feedback. You should avoid hiring an overly aggressive lawyer. An attorney who is too combative might be less able to secure a settlement agreement for you, and litigating your case through a divorce trial instead of reaching an agreement can make your case much more expensive. You can read online reviews and check out a prospective attorney's website to gather more information.
6. Consult the Attorney
Once you have narrowed down your list of potential attorneys, schedule a consultation with the firm that is your top choice. Make sure that you will be meeting with a lawyer and not a paralegal so that you can evaluate the person who will be handling your case.
Recognize that during your consultation, you will be interviewing a prospective lawyer to determine whether to hire them. This means that you should come prepared with a list of questions to ask and also be prepared to answer the lawyer's questions.
Some questions you might want to ask a divorce lawyer include the following:
- How long have you been licensed to practice law?
- Do you focus on family law or have a general law practice?
- What percentage of divorce cases do you take to trial?
- Have you handled other divorces that are similar to my case?
- Do you have references from past clients who I can contact?
Pay attention to the attorney's communication style and the general feel of their office. A good attorney should have good communication skills, listen to you, and explain the law in easy-to-understand terms. You should also feel confident that the attorney you choose will competently represent you and be available when or if you have questions about your case.
Contact a Compassionate and Knowledgeable Divorce Lawyer in New Jersey
If you want to get divorced, your choice of an attorney is critical. At the Ziegler Law Group LLC, our lawyers carefully analyze each case to craft tailored solutions that meet the needs of our clients. Contact us today to schedule a consultation by calling (973) 878-4373 or by filling out our contact form.
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