In our last post, I talked about the 5 stages of divorce (as I see them). Today, I want to focus on stage number 2, “decision”. This is the stage when you personally have decided that you are 99.99% sure your marriage is over.
You have no doubt.
You and your spouse are just not compatible.
But how do you know for sure?
This article is written for people who have decided that they want to leave their marriage, but haven’t physically separated yet. What do you do next?
There are 3 main items that you need to figure out before you leave, depending on your personal situation, and there are 3 big conversations that might need to happen as well.
Let’s begin with the main items:
Get a Grip on Your Finances
The first thing you absolutely must do before you leave is get a grip on your finances. You need to know what bank accounts you have, both personally and as a couple. You need to know what debts you have. You need to know whether you and your spouse have retirement funds and if so, how much. You want to start making a list of all the other assets you might have that need to be divided.
If you were the spouse that handled the finances during the marriage, then this should be a fairly quick exercise. If you weren’t, then it might take you some time to gather this information.
Figure Out Your Cash Flow
Once you have a grip on your finances, you need to figure out your monthly cash flow. In other words, you must have a firm understanding of how much money is coming into your household and how it is being spent. If your spouse has always paid the bills, now is the time for you to dig in and figure out what is going on.
If you are going to live on your own, you will need to figure out some basic concepts in regards to personal finance. If you handled the money during the years, you may already know this information.
Over the years, I’ve had clients who have kept detailed spreadsheets that show the flow of every single penny that comes into their home, and I’ve also seen clients that have no earthly clue how the money is spent. Everyone is different and has their own system.
You don’t need a detailed spreadsheet, (although this is something we provide to premium members) but you do need to have a basic understanding of how money flows into and out of your household.
If you are working for a paycheck, then you should know how much money you earn and whether you can support yourself on those funds. If you are not working and are still in your prime earning years, then you may need to start looking for a job.
Conversely, if you have been the supporting spouse and your spouse is not working – will you be able to pay for two households on your income alone?
And what about the house? Who will keep it or will you sell it? Do you have equity to be divided? Will one of your refinance to buy out the other?
You need to be able to answer these questions.
Map Out a Custody Schedule
Do you have kids? Now is the time to start thinking about what life will look like after you separate.
Will you be the primary custodial parent? Will your spouse? Will you have joint custody? What will the schedule look like? If you or your spouse previously stayed at home and now is going back to work, who will watch the kids after school?
Do your kids have any special needs? Will you need to take them to a therapist? Are you going to switch schools? What will holiday’s look like? What about travel plans?
These are all questions that will need to be answered, preferably before you leave the house.
Conversations You May Want to Have
I mentioned before that there are 3 main conversations you will need to have. The first two are not mandatory, but they are recommended. The final conversation is the one you will have with your spouse. As much as I would like to find a way to avoid this (I’ve seen people leave notes on the counter in a ½ empty house when a spouse returned from a work trip), I don’t recommend leaving without talking to your spouse. But more on that in a minute.
The first two conversations you should have are with a therapist and a lawyer, preferably in that order. You will meet with the therapist to air your grievances about your spouse. They are paid to listen to you, mirror back what you are saying, and ask you the tough questions. They will challenge you and help you decide whether leaving is the right decision or not.
A lawyer will help you to map out what a separation will look like, both financially and with regards to the children. But you need to do your homework before you meet with a lawyer. At my law firm, we offer “pre-separation consulting”. The purpose of this service is not to negotiate a separation agreement, but rather to help you understand what you should and shouldn’t be doing prior to leaving your spouse. We will help you work through tough decisions such as how and when to pay down debt, whether you should sell or keep the house, what will happen with your retirement, and also brainstorm ideas about your kids.
And then there is the last step of this process, and that’s to talk to your spouse. How and when to do this will be discussed in a future post but for now, what is most important is that you have this conversation in person. (There is an exception in the case of domestic violence – if you are a victim, for your safety you need to leave or get a protective order ASAP).
You can have this conversation in public or at home. You can do it with your couples therapist on on your own. But at some point, you need to have this conversation.
So there you have it – what to do when you have made the decision to leave. Keep in mind that this process can take anywhere from a month to 6 months or longer. It all really depends on you and your personal situation. Don’t rush this process just because you want to leave. Take your time, make a plan, and move through this process slowly. Separating from your spouse is a big deal. If you do it the wrong way, you probably won’t get a second chance.