It is January, which is affectionately known by family law lawyers as divorce season. More than any other month, internet search engines experience a surge of people searching for information relating to divorce. Divorce is a life changing and often traumatic event in one’s life; the very thought of leaving behind the life you’ve known can be overwhelming. How are you supposed to make a decision that will substantially impact you, your spouse, children and even extended family members without first consulting the internet? As a compulsive googler myself, I understand the lure of a free and anonymous internet search, especially when you are desperate for answers about something. But I can tell you that the internet does not have all of the answers you need to make informed decisions. Only an experienced and capable family law lawyer can do that after meeting with you and learning the facts of your unique circumstances.
When I first meet with a client who is considering leaving an unhappy marriage, they often don’t know where to start for fear of unknown consequences. This is especially true of the financially dependent spouse. They don’t know if they can afford to go out on their own, especially with young children. They fear giving up their rights, or financial or custody-related retaliation by their spouse. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, nothing eases my anxiety better than coming up with a well-thought out plan to attack the problems I’m facing, and that is what I help my clients do. If you are in an unhappy marriage, but have no idea where to start, this quick and general guide to taking those first steps is for you:
Divorce – to file or not to file? In some cases, however, it does make sense to file for divorce right away. It depends on the circumstances. Make sure to talk to your lawyer about your options.
When I meet with a client for the first time, one of the first things I decide is whether to file for divorce right away. For a financially dependent spouse, it is generally better not to file for divorce right away, and this can be for several reasons. For instance, once you are divorced, you cannot be covered under your spouse’s health insurance any longer. Finding affordable healthcare, even through employment, is a common problem. In those cases, if makes sense to delay the divorce for as long as possible to keep health insurance coverage.
Money – If you are not working outside of the home, do you have education or skills that will enable you to get a self-supporting job? If not, will child and spousal support (if applicable) be enough for you to live on, maybe with a part or full-time minimum wage job, on a temporary basis? Come up with a budget and stick with it as best you can. If you do not have the skills or education to support yourself, now is the time to come up with a plan to become self-supporting. Child support doesn’t last forever, and alimony usually doesn’t either. Think about what you are interested in. Look into the programs offered at the local community college. See what job training is available in your area, or even look into that graduate program you put on the backburner to start a family.The next thing I talk to my clients about is their income situation. If you want to leave your marriage, you must first take a long and hard look at your finances as this will determine where you (and your children if you have any) will be able to live when you and your spouse separate. Do you want to stay in the marital residence? Can you afford the mortgage, taxes, insurances, rent, etc. based on what you earn? If not, will you be able to afford to live in the house, with spousal and child support (if you are entitled to receive them) to supplement your income or lack thereof? In many cases, both incomes of the parties are needed to make the monthly mortgage payment.
Decide where to live – If remaining in the marital residence is not an option, either financially or legally, you should strongly consider staying with family or friends. Moving out of the marital residence does not mean you give up your legal rights to the marital residence. Whether you live there or not, you still have an interest in the property meaning any equity will be distributed in some way once the marital assets are divided later on through the divorce process. This is a question I get asked all of the time.
The children’s school district is also a major factor to take into consideration for most cases where shared custody is going to be an issue. If you can’t afford to live anywhere else but with family, and your family lives so far away that it would be difficult for your spouse to exercise custody rights, do not make any moves without consulting a lawyer first.
Once I help my client analyze their income and budget, I help them decide where they should live. Once you’ve done the same analysis, can you afford to reside in the marital residence? If so, is your spouse willing to leave? If not and the deed to the house is in both names, you can’t just kick your spouse out. There are ways to gain exclusive possession of the marital residence (a topic for another day), but it is usually easier and cheaper to move out of the marital residence yourself.
The move If this is not an amicable separation, or domestic violence is an issue, then I suggest moving out without telling the other spouse. You should still schedule the moving date, and have people to help you, but wait to move until your spouse is at work or out of town. Take whatever furniture, household goods, Christmas decorations, heirlooms, etc. that is important to you and/or will be necessary to set up a new home for yourself and/or your children. You may feel guilty pulling a surprise move like this, but if it will avoid a major conflict, or someone getting hurt, it’s worth it. If reaching an amicable custody agreement is not possible, and you are the primary caretaker of the children, take them with you when you leave.
This may induce your spouse to file a complaint for custody, but don’t be alarmed by that. If that happens, the courts won’t automatically hand your children over to your spouse, assuming that the children are not in danger in your custody. It just means that you and your spouse will go through the court process to establish a custody order, whether by agreement or court order, that is hopefully best for your children.
Once you figured out your finances, and have decided where you are going to live, the next step is to plan the move. Schedule a move-in date and enlist family and friends to help you. Is this an amicable, mutually-agreed upon separation? If so, try to reach an agreement with your spouse ahead of time as far as how the furniture and household goods are going to be divided. If you have children, it would be ideal if you and your spouse could come up with a custody arrangement prior to moving.
File for child and spousal support Right before you move out of the marital residence, see if you can withdraw funds from joint bank accounts, CD’s investments, etc. Don’t feel bad about it; you have to support yourself, you are entitled to joint funds; besides, and any funds you take will just be considered as an advance to you later. While anyone can file a complaint for support at the Domestic Relations Section of the court in their county, you should not go to the support conference/hearing alone. Hire an attorney to represent you.
Immediately after you move out of the house, file for child and spousal support if you are entitled to it. In Allegheny and Washington counties of PA where I practice, it generally takes 4-6 weeks after a complaint in support is filed for a support conference/hearing to be scheduled, and then up to another 30 days after the court date for the wage attachment to take effect. For that reason, plan to not have any support monies for about 2 months.
Help your childrenIf your children are struggling, seek counseling for them or reach out to the guidance counselor at school for support. Be patient. While the adjustment to their changed lives may take some time, it’s worth it for the children to come home from school to a happy, tension-free home each day.
Once you separate from your spouse, help your children with the transition. Talk to your children, help them understand what is happening and encourage them to confide in you about their feelings. Never speak badly about your spouse to the children; it will make them feel awful. Instead, assure them that they are loved by both parents and that the separation is not their fault. It is true that children are resilient, but the transition will be a lot easier for them if their parents can be civil.
Decisions on when to file for divorce (if you and your attorney decide to wait), how to split assets/debts, permanent custody arrangements, etc., will come later. For now, I hope this general guide helps you to come up with a sound, logical plan towards making that huge decision to leave an unhappy marriage. When you are ready, or you are feeling overwhelmed, meet with a family law attorney. He or she will help you come up with a plan so that you can be prepared to take those first steps.