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What to Do When You Are Caught Off Guard by Divorce

by Paula Bennett | Contributor

Few things can leave you feeling as emotionally blindsided as hearing your spouse, the person you once trusted above all others, say that your marriage is over. It is a natural reaction. According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, only the death of a spouse is a more stressful life event than divorce or separation.

If the divorce filing is unexpected and unwanted, your stress will be compounded by a wave of confusion, uncertainty and raw emotion. Allow yourself a good cry or some other catharsis, then pick yourself up and start looking for a good family law attorney because even though it may not seem like it now, it is possible to regain a sense of control over your future.

This may be the first and only time you will ever need to hire an attorney, so it is understandable if you don’t know which way to turn. If friends or family members have been through a divorce, you may want to ask if they would recommend their attorney. However, your circumstances may be very different from theirs, and you may need to find someone better suited to your needs. There are a number of reputable websites that provide helpful client reviews. The most important thing is that you find someone you trust.

Nearly every decision made in a divorce will be related in one way or another to finances, so whether you have been the family bookkeeper or you barely glance at the bank balance, you need to have a clear picture of your “financial household.”

If you don’t already have a clear picture of your family’s customary monthly expenses, it will also be very important to devote time to preparing a realistic budget. Once that is completed, your attorney will be able to help determine if temporary support will be needed during divorce proceedings.

Before the first meeting with your attorney, you should also put together a file of basic financial information that will help both of you prepare for the oncoming negotiations and possible litigation:

A list of your assets and liabilities, including any documentation showing the value of assets.

Recent statements for all accounts in each spouse’s name, whether held individually or jointly. This includes bank accounts, investment and retirement accounts, credit card accounts, mortgages, and loans.

• If you don’t have access to account statements, write down as much information as you have on each asset and debt. 

Personal and business tax returns.

Any estate planning instruments signed by either you or your spouse.

Recent pay statements for each spouse.

Once the basic details are determined, you will need to prepare for a deeper examination of your financial picture. No matter how long they may have been together, most couples will accumulate personal property (such as jewelry, pets or income and benefits) as well as real property (such as your home) during a marriage. Your attorney will be able to explain how this marital property is typically divided and

help to establish who will be responsible for the payment of shared debts during and after the divorce.

Although Texas courts lack the authority to strip you of any separate property (property that you acquired prior to marriage or by individual gift or inheritance during the marriage) you should make sure your attorney is aware of this property in order to ensure it is protected from the court.

Most importantly, if you have minor children, make sure to ask the attorney these important questions:

• What factors will the court consider in determining conservatorship (custody)?

• How are parental rights and duties determined?

• How and when will custody be decided?

• What goes into factoring child support and when can it be expected?

Make sure to explain any emotional, educational, or physical special needs your child might have to help ensure your attorney is able to properly address these needs with the court.

You should never underestimate the emotional toll that pending divorce litigation can have on you and on your children. While you may initially find comfort in talking with your friends and family members, if it becomes overwhelming for you or your children, please do not hesitate to consult with a mental health professional.

Editor’s Note:  Paula Bennett is a Partner with Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson, LLP.  She can be reached at www.ondafamilylaw.com or by calling 214.273.2400.

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