Once the decision has been made to file for divorce, there are a number of steps that must be taken if you want the process to go as smoothly as possible.
One thing that you should not do in the heat of the moment is to drain the bank accounts and file incomplete or incorrect papers just to "get it in first." Your spouse may take the more considered approach, get it done properly, and have an advantage over you. Of course, you may be in a position to sit down and discuss the process together, which would be ideal under all circumstances. If not, you should check the divorce laws of your state and consider the following steps.
1. File the Divorce Papers
This action is more formally known as the petition for the Dissolution of Marriage. This tends to have a standard form, regardless of which state is involved, and you can familiarize yourself with it in advance. As the person filing, you will be described as the petitioner and your spouse as the respondent. You can enter information including names, addresses, ages of children, a statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, the grounds for divorce, and a request for the divorce to be granted. The papers may also contain requests for orders relating to children, the payment of costs of the divorce, and financial provision.
2. Gather the Financial Documents
You will need to gather all of the documents relating to your family finances, including evidence of income, tax returns, insurance and details of assets—whether cash, investments or property. In addition, you will need to know what debts are outstanding within the family.
3. Decide Whether to Do It Yourself or Hire an Attorney
Filing divorce papers on your own behalf can save you money, but may also end up being too stressful a task. If, after amassing all of your financial documentation, you decide that the job of filing is too overwhelming, you should hire a divorce attorney.
You may choose to do it yourself, but if you have assets and children, and are likely to be in dispute, it is prudent to use a divorce attorney with plenty of experience and knowledge of your state's family and divorce laws.
4. Determine in which State You Need to File
Generally, you must file for divorce in the state in which you or your spouse lives. If you both live apart or own homes in different states, either party may have the ability to choose the state in which to file for divorce. Where you do have options, you need to remember that there are differences in state laws; for example, the time for processing the divorce and payment of alimony. In your state, it may be necessary for you to have been living there for at least a year before you can file for divorce there.
Is your state an equitable distribution state or a community property state? Generally, if your marriage was short and you live in an equitable distribution state, the judge will be reluctant to hand you money or assets earned by your spouse. If you live in a community property state, the judge will divide the couple's joint assets in half without any attempt at fairness.
5. Stay Put... if Possible
When frustrated in the marriage, there may be a temptation to pack your things, walk out and then file for divorce, but this can adversely affect your chances of keeping or regaining possession of the marital home in the divorce. Unless there is a real threat of harm being inflicted upon you or your children, you should remain in the marital home and file your divorce papers from there.
6. Establish Your Own Credit
If you have not done so before, then you should certainly do so now. It is important to have credit in your own name and to use it sparingly. Your goal is to establish a good credit score and to not run up a whole load of debt. This is done by using credit cards only to the degree that you can afford to pay them off monthly, and not being late or missing any payments.
7. Negotiate or Mediate
Communicate with your spouse and do not play the blame game. If there is a chance that you can negotiate a divorce settlement between you two, then you should do so. Your ultimate goal should be the equitable distribution of marital assets and debts, as opposed to getting one over on your spouse.
Alternatively, you could opt for mediation and have an independent third party assist in trying to reach an equitable agreement. If it is not possible to arrange mediation because of physical or mental abuse, you should hire an attorney and inform the attorney of your need for protection. Your attorney may need to seek an order from the court barring your spouse access to you or to the marital home.
8. Prepare Yourself Emotionally
Divorce can be a short and brutal process, or it can be an extremely tedious and drawn-out matter. No matter what form your divorce takes, you are bound to suffer emotional turmoil. Try to prepare yourself by avoiding conflict with your spouse. Be civil to each other even when discussing disputed arrangements, particularly where children are involved. Make it clear to your attorney that you would prefer to avoid the adversarial approach, as it is easier and less expensive if you and your spouse are able to settle all issues without litigation. Stay focused on meeting the needs of your children. Prepare your children for what is about to happen to the family, because inevitably their lives will suffer considerable disruption too.
9. Make a Backup Plan
Before you file for divorce, make sure that you have a Plan B. Do not assume that your case is legally watertight and that the judge is going to rule in your favor. If the judge interprets the facts of the case differently to your attorney, you might need to put your Plan B into action. In particular, you need to think about how you will provide for yourself financially if your income falls drastically.
Divorce can be a complicated matter and you really should consider hiring an attorney, regardless of how straightforward you may think it is. If you do decide to act for yourself, you may wish to seek legal help to complete the petition from a pro bono lawyer in your state.