By: Sarah T. McCain
When the decision to physically separate and dissolve the marital relationship is made, there are some basic steps each party to a Colorado divorce should consider taking to ensure a smooth transition, an ability to appropriately deal with finances in the short-term, and an ability to logistically function as they move on to the initial phases of an actual divorce case. Specifically, there are steps one might initially take to make dealing with bills, expenses, and personal property easier. Regardless of the complexities in your case, some simple preventative measures might go along way.
The initial stages of dividing finances can be a rocky experience for many couples. It’s important to have an understanding of what the financial circumstances are. You will need to know what the overall marital obligations are, such as utilities, mortgage or rent, car payments, insurance, and credit cards. This should include an understanding of due dates and how these items have traditionally been paid. The first step is gathering documents necessary to give you a clear picture, which should be done before either you or your spouse leaves the marital residence. Gathering these documents jointly and creating a plan regarding who-will-pay-what is preferential. If collaboration is not an option, it still makes sense to gather as much documentation as possible so that you can assess not only how best to protect yourself financially, but also for purposes of compiling evidence for your case. Once you leave the home you should presume you’re not likely getting back in. Conversely, once your spouse leaves, presume he or she will take various documents that you may no longer have easy access to. Having a clear understanding of the financial puzzle will help you to figure out what needs to be done throughout the process.
An additional, initial step to consider at separation is protection your cash and/or cash flow. There is nothing prohibiting either party from opening a separate bank account. Opening a separate bank account allows you to have control over your resources and gives you the ability to pay the financial obligations most important to you without fear of interference or depletion of funds at the hands of your spouse. It gives you a modicum of control in an uncertain situation. In conjunction with discussions you may be having regarding who will pay what bills, you should also consider discussing the dividing of joint bank accounts in a manner that makes sense. If actual division of funds is not ripe for discussion, at least attempt to discuss who will control what accounts, how they will be funded for paying bills, etc. The same analysis holds true for joint credit cards.
Again, not all cases come with a willingness to work together and it may become necessary to remove funds from a joint account so as to protect them. For example, in cases in which one party has a gambling problem, substance abuse problem, or is simply just angry and likely to act based on such, you might consider diverting funds from a joint account to a secure account. You will ultimately need to account for any diverted funds, but most courts will have no issue with your unilateral efforts to protect marital property when the likelihood of problems is evident. When initially meeting with your divorce attorney you should discuss any concerns related to joint accounts and your spouse’s behaviors. Once a case is filed you will be under an injunction which could prohibit taking funds from a marital account, other than in the normal course of conduct. As such, taking these steps before filing is preferred. Of course the hope is that the parties can work together on these types of things without issue. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Another area in which I have seen problems tied into separating or the filing of divorce is mail. Regardless of your circumstances, you will want to make sure your mail, such as bills, notices, or communications from your attorney, is secure. When discussions of separation and divorce surface, it may be advisable to go ahead and get a P.O. box or to have your bills and other mail diverted to a secure address, such as a family member’s home. This can easily be accomplished by contacting banks, credit card companies, etc. and giving them a new mailing address. You can also file a change-of-address form with the postal service. Either way, you want to make sure your mail gets to you and cannot presume that your spouse will not tamper with it if given a chance. If possible, this should be done even prior to physical separation, as you would normally have shared access to mail until then.
Finally, when the issues of separation and divorce arise, it’s not a bad idea to start taking an inventory, preferably backed up by photo or video, of the personal property items in the house. This should include furnishings, appliances, media devices, computers, artwork, and anything else which could be contested. Again, once you leave you may not get back into the house. Once your spouse leaves with property it may be difficult to prove it even existed. As indicated above, it would be optimal for there to be discussions and agreements as to who will take what property. Those discussions do not need to initially center around the final division of property or values, but rather can simply center around who will use what property while the case is pending.
The more preparation you can engage in when the issue of separation arises the better off you will be. The more you and your spouse can communicate and work together, the better off you will be. Doing what you can to protect yourself as you move into the uncertainty that comes with divorce just makes sense. Given my years of practice as a divorce attorney in Denver, I’ve seen the results of people failing to strategically plan prior to separation. Obviously, there are other steps one can take that I will save for another post, at a future date.