1. Cancel all joint credit accounts.
While debt incurred by a spouse post-separation will generally not be considered a marital debt by a Pennsylvania divorce court, you may still be individually liable to the creditor for the debt if you are a signer or co-signer on the debt. This is typically the case with joint credit card accounts, individual credit card accounts where your spouse is a cardholder, and home equity lines of credit. Often, if a credit account is left open, an estranged spouse will draw down on the line of credit to finance his or her post-separation living expenses, including legal fees. It is also often difficult to parse out separate versus marital credit card transactions at equitable distribution, making the assignment of non-marital credit card debt to a spouse difficult. Further, there may be insufficient marital assets to satisfy the credit card debt at equitable distribution and/or a spouse may not pay the debt assigned to him or her at equitable distribution in a timely manner, impairing your credit rating. However, if you need access to funds post-separation to finance your living or legal expenses, you may consider taking an advance against one or more joint lines of credit before closing the accounts.
2. Close joint bank and investment accounts.
You should consider closing joint bank and investment accounts and moving the funds in such accounts to individually titled accounts. The purpose of this step is to secure the funds from being dissipated by your spouse. As with lines of credit, your estranged spouse may attempt to take the money in those accounts or use the money to finance his or her post-separation living and legal expenses. This step will also provide you with access to funds while the divorce is pending. You might consider leaving a portion of the funds in the account for your spouse. For example, often our clients will effectively “split” an account by removing 50% of the funds in the account and leaving the remainder for their spouse. Whether you should remove all or some of the funds from any given account will depend on the particular situation.
3. Change your direct deposit and cancel automatic deductions from bank accounts.
If you have a recurring direct deposit of your paycheck or other funds, you should change it to an individually titled account. You will also need to cancel any bills and other automatic deductions that are paid out of bank accounts that you are closing or in which you are ceasing to deposit money.
4. Secure important and/or valuable personal property.
Divorce has a way of making personal property disappear or become damaged. You should promptly secure any personal property that is important to you or particularly valuable by removing it from the marital residence or other residence to which your spouse has access. This includes furniture, antiques, jewelry, gifts, photographs, memorabilia, work projects, computers, etc. You do not need to and should not “clean out the house.” Just secure items that are irreplaceable, particularly valuable, or to which you need access during the divorce. One of our clients had many of his work tools tied up for an extensive period of time during a divorce. Another client had much of his valuable wine collection consumed by his spouse. You might consider renting a storage locker to store the personal property during the divorce. You might also consider inventorying the contents of the marital residence by photography or video at the outset of the divorce.
5. Secure all important financial documentation
Having access to both your and your spouse’s financial documentation is important for both support and equitable distribution in a divorce. It is much easier to get copies of these documents if and when you have direct access to them, rather than through the discovery process in divorce. If possible, you should take all of your personal financial documentation (account statements, tax returns, etc.) and make copies of all of your spouse’s financial documentation and secure those documents at a location, such as your attorney’s office, to which your spouse does not have access. Do not forget about computer files that include financial information, such as QuickBooks files.
6. Change your mailing address.
Once you are involved in the divorce process, you will not want your spouse to have access to your mail, including your financial documents and correspondence from your attorney. If you have moved out of the marital residence, change your address to your new residence. If you are going to continue to live in the marital residence, secure a post office box or ask a friend or relative if you can have your mail forwarded to their address temporarily.
7. Change your passwords.
You spouse probably knows your passwords to all of your on-line accounts (e-mail, facebook, twitter, bank accounts, etc.). Change all of these passwords immediately.
8. Forget what your friends, relatives, neighbors and coworkers have told you about divorce.
“I know that a divorce is going to cost me $100,000.” “My sister said that I’m guaranteed to get full custody.” “I moved out of the house because my wife told me that I had to.” These are the types of statements we frequently hear from our prospective clients. Most often they are incorrect. Every situation is unique. Just because your co-worker has to do something does not mean the court will require you to do the same thing. Don’t let your acquaintances’ free “legal advice” affect your judgment or actions. You would do best ignoring their advice and seeing a competent attorney.
9. Consult with a divorce lawyer.
There really is no more important step in the divorce process than consulting with a divorce lawyer. Only a divorce lawyer can properly analyze your particular situation, advise you how the law and courts will affect your particular situation, and give you advice on how to best proceed in your case. This is true even if you want to work things out amicably with your spouse. It is incredibly easy to make a mistake that will negatively impact your case in a significant way, either financially or otherwise. Too often parties involved in divorces seek legal advice only after they have made a significant mistake representing themselves. Frequently it is too late to correct the mistake. Consult with a knowledgeable attorney at the outset of your case.
10. Let your spouse and children know what is going on.
Even in the best of cases divorce is difficult for all involved, especially children. It becomes even more stressful when your spouse and children don’t know what is going on. You should make a plan to discuss the situation with your spouse and children as soon as possible after you have taken the necessary steps to protect your financial and legal interests. You might consider securing the assistance of a family counselor or therapist to assist with this discussion. While the conversations may be difficult, they will almost certainly lead to a less adversarial and stressful divorce process.