The decision to move forward with a divorce is never easy. Regardless of the length of the marriage, the reason for the divorce, or whether children were born or are expected of the marriage, you married that person for a reason and created a life with that person. To then decide to divorce that person, which will likely drastically change both of your lives and the lives of any children born of the marriage, is not a decision made lightly. The uncertainty of what to expect in divorce proceedings and what steps to take (or not take) are often equally paralyzing. Divorces are not just a breakdown of a relationship and partnership; they are often also a financial uncoupling. Making the wrong decisions may cause you not only additional emotional stress but financial loss.
If you ultimately decide you want a divorce, you may ask yourself, “What’s next? Where do I start?” Consider the following steps:
- Consult with an experienced divorce attorney.
Divorce is complicated. Knowing your rights and obligations under the statutes and case law for divorces in Massachusetts is critical to making a fully informed decision and getting the best deal possible. An experienced divorce attorney can guide you through the complex divorce process, advise you on your rights and obligations, and discuss various options on how best to resolve your divorce. While speaking with a friend or family member who has gone through a divorce to get advice may be helpful, it is not enough and should not be your sole form of guidance. Many divorce decisions are based upon specific facts that are unique to you. What happened with a friend or family member’s divorce may not be what will happen in your divorce. An experienced divorce attorney can discuss the specific circumstances of your divorce and how those specific circumstances will impact the ultimate resolution of your case.
- Start putting together your financial documents.
One of the first things you need to do is get a complete understanding of the financial circumstances of your marriage. This includes having a full understanding of your and your spouse’s income, expenses, assets, and liabilities, as well as the future financial needs of your family (including any children). The Probate and Family Court requires that each divorcing party file a Financial Statement form with the Court. Completing and exchanging this financial form with your spouse is an important first step in getting a complete understanding of the financial circumstances of your marriage. The Financial Statement is a vital document throughout the divorce process and must be completed accurately and truthfully, as the document is signed under the penalties of perjury.
Upon filing for divorce, each party is also required to exchange basic financial documents for the last three (3) years: tax returns; documentation regarding the cost and nature of available health insurance; bank, security/stock/brokerage, and retirement account statements; and any financial statement and/or statement of assets. Parties are also required to exchange their four most recent paystubs. As gathering these documents for a period of three (3) years is time consuming, it’s a great idea to start gathering these documents sooner rather than later so you have them ready when you need them. Additional documents may be exchanged in your divorce, but gathering these basic disclosures in the first instance will be helpful. Looking through these documents may assist you in completing your Financial Statement. Your divorce attorney will also want to see these documents, and your Financial Statement, to better advise you as to rights and obligations in a divorce.
- Have a conversation about whether alternative dispute resolution may work for you and your spouse.
While most people think that a divorce usually starts with one spouse filing a Complaint for Divorce in the Probate and Family Court and is resolved through litigation, there are other options. You and your spouse could come to an agreement between yourselves before anything is filed with the Court. This is obviously the least expensive way to handle your divorce but requires both parties to be willing and able to actively participate and negotiate in good faith. Even if you are able to reach an agreement with your spouse, consulting with an attorney during the negotiation process ensures that any agreement reached is in your best interest and in accordance with the divorce laws of Massachusetts.
If you are unable to work directly with your spouse on reaching an agreement, you may need the assistance of a neutral, qualified professional. These qualified professionals are available to work with you in many different forms/formats of what is called “alternative dispute resolution.” This includes mediation, conciliation, or arbitration. Typically, the cost of alternative dispute resolution is shared between the parties in some manner (often equally), or payment is made from a marital asset. Given the backlog in the Court system, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, many divorcing spouses are turning to alternative dispute resolution as a quicker and less expensive means to finalize their divorce. You should speak with your experienced divorce lawyer about this option to see if it would be a good fit for you and your spouse.
- Seek support from mental health professionals, if needed.
There is no doubt that going through a divorce is emotionally difficult. Many divorcing spouses (and children of divorcing parents) suffer severe stress, anxiety, and/or depression. Recognizing that you or your children are struggling mentally with the divorce and then seeking support from appropriate mental health professionals is incredibly important.
While your lawyer can guide you through the divorce process by giving you legal advice, attorneys are not qualified to provide you with mental health support. Attorneys are also not covered by health insurance, so finding a mental health professional who is will save you money. Getting help for yourself will not only help you personally; it will help your family and perhaps ultimately result in a more positive outcome in the divorce. There is no shame in speaking with a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist to assist you in coping with the divorce; in fact, Probate and Family Court Judges often applaud it.
If your children are struggling mentally with the divorce, you and your spouse should discuss getting them the help they need. If you share legal custody, that decision needs to be made by agreement between the two of you. Children often feel helpless and alone in the divorce of their parents. They may not feel comfortable speaking with either parent regarding what they are feeling. Allowing them to speak with and get the support of a qualified mental health professional may help ease some of their anxieties and fears and help them adjust to their parents living separately.
- File for divorce.
If you and your spouse are unable to reach an agreement before filing for divorce, or reaching an agreement before filing a Complaint for Divorce is not practical or possible given the specific facts or circumstances of your situation, you may need to file a Complaint for Divorce in the Probate and Family Court to get the process started. Your attorney can discuss the pros and cons of doing so and advise you on whether or when to file. Once the Complaint for Divorce is filed and your spouse is served with the Summons, you and your spouse will be able to address any issues that arise in your divorce with the judge assigned to your case.
After you file for divorce, you and your spouse can still participate in alternative dispute resolution and reach an agreement resolving your divorce or any issues that come up during the pendency of the divorce. The act of filing for divorce does not mean that you have to litigate the matter. However, if you and your spouse are unable to reach an agreement, the judge assigned to your case will enter orders and judgments, as the case may be, on issues in dispute.
At the end of the day, going through a divorce may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. However, having an experienced divorce attorney in your corner, who can advise and guide you through the process, will make the process as smooth as it can be.