By Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois and Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire
There is a huge distance between ‘I am thinking about getting a divorce’ to ‘I am thinking about getting a divorce attorney’. Many of our clients take years to consider if ending their marriages is the right call, and land in our offices still wrestling with the enormity of the legal logistics and financial commitment that come with divorce proceedings.
An initial consultation with a lawyer often helps clear up some of the insecurity and fear that come with contemplating a split. It’s amazing – and deeply rewarding for us divorce professionals – to see the transformation that comes from being empowered with information about the road ahead.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about what moving forward with a divorce will entail, meeting with an attorney can move you from a place of existential angst to clarity and courage. Here’s what to bring to ensure you get the most out of your meeting:
1. Your Goal (If You Have One)
For many women, the ‘goal’ of hiring an attorney may simply be “get me outta this marriage!” But honing in on what you want your life to look like after the divorce dust has settled can be a useful tool for identifying how you want to work through the process of ending your marriage.
Depending on your circumstances, your goals may be big safety factors. For instance, if you’re going to have to co-parent with an ex whose drinking contributed to the end of your marriage, you may want a provision limiting your ex’s driving while he has custody incorporated into your divorce decree. But most clients’ goals often have more to do with long-term financial and emotional stability. If you spent a decade of your career helping your partner build a successful business, walking away with a cut of the equity should be on the table. For Elizabeth, timeline surpassed all else; her overarching goal was to get through the legalities before her then-toddler could develop long-term memories of the split. Having this goal in mind helped keep things moving, and as a result, her divorce took 364 days between her initial filing and final judgment.
Think about what’s most important to you, financially, logistically, and emotionally. Jot your thoughts down on paper and roll up to your prospective attorney’s office with your list in hand. Having a rough starting point for what you want life to look like during and after the divorce will help your attorney strategize how best to extricate you from the matrimonial quagmire, and help you determine if the attorney you consult with is a good fit for your goals.
2. Your Prenuptial Agreement or any Agreement You Have With Your Spouse (if you have one)
If you took the time to put together a prenuptial agreement, you better use it! More than one potential client has come into Christy’s office for a consultation who had a prenuptial agreement and didn’t bring it with them. This baffles us! To quote the cheesy cliche, help us help you! Your potential attorney can best advise you about how your settlement agreement may shape up by taking a good, long look at your prenuptial agreement. If you want to get your money’s worth from a consultation, make sure you bring all of the documents associated with your prenup. The same goes if you and your spouse have started working out a separation agreement (or other agreement related to your pending split) in writing. Because your agreement may impact your case, it’s important that your potential attorney gets the chance to take a look.
3. A Brief Financial Picture
Take the time to prepare a quick financial snapshot before you go for your divorce consultation. This doesn’t have to be thorough— chicken scratch on the back of a cocktail napkin is fine. You should make one list all of your financial accounts (including, but not limited to checkings, savings, money market, investment accounts, and retirement accounts) both jointly with your spouse and individually. That list should include how the account is titled— ie: whose is the primary account holder— and the current balance. On a second list you should put all of your credit accounts (including, but not limited to credit cards, student debt, personal loans, mortgage, car loan, etc.). That list should include the name of the debtor(s), the current balance on the debt, and the monthly payment. Finally, a third list should include any additional assets you and/or your spouse may have and its current value. Think your house, your vehicles, your boat (if you are so lucky!), and any other high-dollar value items you may have.
For Christy, receiving this information allows her to give the most bang for a potential client’s buck in terms of an initial consultation. She can give a prospective client a pretty good idea of what will happen to each of those assets and liabilities in a divorce and help a potential client understand what their financial picture will look like post divorce.
An important aspect to highlight to the attorney you meet with is if you don’t have access to your accounts because your spouse is withholding it. If this is the case, absolutely bring this to your attorney’s attention! Financial control and manipulation is a big red flag for abuse. If you’re intentionally being locked out of accounts and your attorney doesn’t flag this as an abusive tactic, consider meeting with an attorney that specializes in domestic violence.
4. Your Paystubs (Or Self-Employment Documents) and Tax Returns
If you (or your spouse) are seeking spousal support (aka alimony) or child support, then bringing your current paystubs and at least a couple of years of tax returns is critical. Attorneys can’t give you anything approximating a realistic ballpark of support without this information, because most states have plug-and-play formulas they use to determine support. Without paystubs or tax documents, we can’t run child support guidelines or give you accurate information about the likelihood that you’ll receive spousal support. Knowing the probability of being awarded support will help you navigate The Worst Year Of Your Life and find your New Normal.
5. An Open Mind
You may have a solid idea about what you want your divorce to look like. Your Husband moves out, the kids see him every-other-weekend, you stay in the house, etc. After all, that’s how your sister/neighbor/best friend’s divorce went. Why shouldn’t yours?
Because every divorce is as unique as the people splitting, that’s why. Before you pull into the attorney’s parking lot, repeat this mantra: No two divorces are alike! No two divorces are alike! Having an open mind about the hard things – possible custody schedules, whether or not you need to sell the house, whether or not your family can continue to go on two weeks of vacation each summer— will help your prospective attorney come up with a strategy that meets your long term goals and makes sense for your unique circumstances.
This is so hard and can be a bitter pill to swallow, we know. But keeping an open mind at the beginning of your divorce process (i.e. at the initial consultation) will help prevent you from getting so firmly entrenched in a particular position that you are unable to move forward and think creatively when it comes time to talk settlement. There are as many ways to get divorced as there are to get married, so don’t get stuck in cookie-cutter thinking that may prevent you from finding a solution that works for your unique circumstances.
6. A List of Your Questions
If you’ve been questioning whether or not to pull the plug on a dying marriage, you’ve likely developed a rather long list of existential, emotional and financial questions. Remembering to ask them all in a consultation is as difficult as remembering to ask your doctor all of your questions in an appointment. It’s hard!! A lot of new information is being thrown in your direction about very important topics such as your housing, your finances, and your children. Bring a written list to make sure you don’t forget the things you want to ask.
Regardless of what you bring to your divorce consultation don’t forget why you are in a divorce attorney’s office in the first place: (1) to get information about divorce in your jurisdiction– we firmly believe that knowledge is power!, (2) to get an idea about what your life could look like post-divorce, and (3) to evaluate whether the attorney you are meeting with is a great match for you. Armed with this information, you’ll know more about the best path forward towards your New Normal.
About the Author
Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire and Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD, are a former attorney/client duo who managed to have fun together while navigating Elizabeth’s particularly icky divorce. The pair were casual friends for over a decade while Christy built her family law career and Elizabeth ran several NGOs. When Elizabeth filed for divorce, Christy helped her keep her emotional equilibrium through the process. Their say-anything friendship dynamic partnered with Christy’s no-nonsense advice had a profound impact on the outcome of Elizabeth’s case, and the two decided to join forces to reach more women with tangible, compassionate advice for surviving and thriving in the midst of divorce and custody matters. Christy founded Z Family Law, LLC, a boutique family law firm that seeks to empower its clients through their family law matter. Elizabeth was a natural fit to serve as Client Relations Director to help Z Family Law, LLC provide compassionate advocacy. In addition to their legal work together, Elizabeth and Christy co-founded the Eos Initiative, a legislative advocacy group committed to making family law proceedings safer for people fleeing domestic violence. You can follow their work on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.