By: Stephen J. Plog
With nearly two decades of family law practice under my belt, I have seen and heard almost anything and everything imaginable related to divorce and custody cases. This includes stories from cases or clients concerning various bad behaviors on the part of the other party, and sometimes my own clients. Those bad behaviors might be financial in nature, such as canceling an insurance policy or draining an account. They might be child-related, such as one spouse neglecting the kids or failing to assist with school work. Of course, I have also heard things much worse. Often times, the stories I hear stem from the time period prior to a divorce case being filed. In some instances, the damage can be undone. In some, it cannot.
Not all divorce cases contain sinister allegations or behaviors and some can be fairly routine. A fair amount of cases settle relatively easily. A fair amount do not. In either scenario, it’s important to keep in mind that approaching the divorce process strategically and with self interest in mind matters. This includes not only while the case is pending, but in the months or weeks prior to filing.
In most cases, the proverbial trail of bread crumbs indicating to one or both spouses that a divorce is looming is there. Signs that there is trouble ahead can materialize months before hand, yet few people really start taking steps to protect themselves or ready themselves for the process until they are in it. From a legal strategy standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense to be ahead of the game? Below are some pre-divorce and early-process tips to help you throughout your case in terms of day to day functionality, for your protection, and when it comes time to either settle or go to court.
1. DOCUMENTATION: I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep, maintain, and obtain records. This includes not only financial records, but also records of communications, such as emails or text messages. This relates to both financial and custody issues. If you know a divorce is coming, it makes sense to start saving your bank statements, credit card statements, monthly bills, and income records. They will be needed at some point and your life will be easier if you have things on hand. Likewise, if you are in a situation in which your spouse controls the household finances, maintains separate finances, or gives of the air of being someone with something to hide, the more documentation you can obtain on your own, the better.
For starters, if there are any joint accounts controlled by the other person, do what you can to obtain statements for there last year, or more, on your own. Optimally, you should attempt to do this before the case is filed. Often times, despite an account being joint, one party may change passwords and lock the other out as soon as they know the legal process has started. Additionally, there is nothing wrong with looking at your spouses financial documents, or even copying them, so long as they are not destroyed or altered, and are returned. In this instance, I am referring to paper documents, such as those which stack up on the desk in my family study, or sit in drawers and file cabinets around the room or house. If those items are just sitting around, or are not locked up, there is nothing wrong with you looking at them or making copies. If you can’t copy a document, pull out your i-Phone and take a photo. Additionally, if there are accounting or other financial records on a family computer to which you have access, you have every right to access and print them, so long as they are not password protected. I have seen plenty of instances in which a client might copy documents from the other side which the other side might conveniently have forgotten to disclose.
It should be noted that I am in no way suggesting that you access your spouses financial records or sites online, even using a known password, as this could bring criminal trouble. However, joint accounts are fair game for online access. That being said, if it’s in plain sight or not under lock and key, have at it. Make copies. Secure those copies somewhere safe. Save them for if, and when, they might be needed.
Not all people are honest when it comes time to disclose income and assets. The more you can do to help yourself preemptively, the better off you will be. Moreover, if you are able to provide your Denver divorce lawyer with documentary evidence on your own, you may be able to save on costs and steps your attorney may expend getting information from your spouse.
2. PASSWORDS: Today’s world is digital. Bank accounts, email accounts, text accounts, social media accounts, Amazon accounts, Netflix accounts, and pretty much everything else is online and accessed with a password. Change all of your passwords the minute you see trouble coming. I have seen too many instances in which the other side has secretly accessed someone’s email, Facebook, or bank accounts. In one case, a client’s spouse was actually sharing emails between client and counsel with his/her attorney. I have also seen instances in which bank accounts have been accessed and funds removed. Divorce can bring out the worst in people, including a penchant for snooping wherever they can. When relationships are going well, spouses share all sorts of information and freely live in a world of transparency. This transparency can be harmless when a marriage is going well. However, when divorce is on the horizon it can be a detriment. If you are contemplating divorce, make sure to change each and every password possible. Protecting your data and privacy is important. Passwords are used to block out strangers or identity thieves. At the risk of sounding cynical, when facing divorce, your spouse, to an extent, becomes a stranger. Aside from online or financial accounts, you should also change passwords on simple things, such as your phone. Where better for a snooping spouse to look for personal information than on your text messages? For further financial protection, you should even consider changing, or adding passwords to things such as utility or cable accounts. Better safe than sorry. Finally, keep in mind that after years of marriage, your spouse knows your patterns and how you think. He or she may be able to guess alternate passwords with relative ease. Be creative with new passwords and don’t use kid names, dog names, or birth dates.
These are a couple of quick tips. There are more to come. When I initially started this post, my intent was to provide a few, brief bullet point tips on things to do to protect yourself and interests when facing a divorce. While writing, I discovered I had a lot more to say than originally anticipated. Divorce is serious business which, in light of the lasting financial and other ramifications for you and your children should not be taken lightly. As such, bullet points just won’t do. In my next post, or posting, I will provide other helpful pointers to assist with the divorce process and things to do, or not do, to assist with your case and protection of your interests.