How to Prepare Financially for a Divorce

By Julia Califano · November 28, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How to Prepare Financially for a Divorce

Going through a divorce can be an overwhelming experience. There’s already the emotional pain of divorce, and then partners must also divide up money and assets and break down the financial structure that they’ve built together.

Piled on top of the logistics of divorce, some people may find themselves managing money on their own for the first time in their lives. These added financial stressors can make a difficult situation even more challenging.

Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do prior to getting a divorce that can take some of the stress out of the process. While every couple’s situation is different, what follows is a basic roadmap for how to prepare for a divorce financially.

7 Steps to Financially Prepare for a Divorce

Divorces can range from being hard-fought battles in court to peaceful mediation that happen outside of the courtroom. Either way, when it comes to divorce and finances, the money eventually needs to be split up. Here’s how to make the process of dividing up assets go as seamlessly as possible.

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Step 1: Gather Your Financial Statements

A good first step to preparing for a divorce is to gather current and past financial statements so you can get a full picture of your shared and individual accounts. Having quick access to all this information can also save time (and, in turn, money) when you consult a lawyer. Here’s what you may need:

•   Checking, savings and investment account statements (past year)

•   Current statements for retirement plans (IRAs, 401k plans, or pensions)

•   List of assets acquired before and during your marriage (real estate, vehicles, boats, etc.)

•   Debt statements and balances (mortgages, auto loans, personal loans, credit cards, and credit lines)

•   Credit card statements (past year).

•   Recent pay stubs

•   Income tax returns (past three years)

Step 2: Document Your Assets

Since you’ll be dividing up all of your assets, it’s a good idea to take inventory of all of the assets you own (both individually and jointly), such as your home, car, and anything items with a high value. Collect receipts, photos or videos of each item, and note whether the asset is owned by you, owned by your spouse, or shared. You’ll also want to assign a value to each asset (if you own valuable antiques or collectibles, you might need to hire a professional appraiser).

Step 3: Track Your Finances

You’ll also want to begin tracking how much you’ve been spending each month — and on what. This will not only help you build a budget post-divorce, but it is also critical for your attorney (and later the judge) in deciding how to split assets and debts, and whether to award spousal or child support.

You can use your bank and credit card statements to come up with average spending from the past couple of years, including household bills, food, clothing, entertainment, home maintenance, transportation, child care, and anything else that you spend money on. Once you have a sense of what you’ve been spending, do your best to project future expenses. You can use previous years as a guide but also factor in potential future expenses (like a child’s school tuition and extracurricular activities).

Recommended: How to Track Your Monthly Expenses: Step-by-Step Guide

Step 4: Prepare to Make Some Difficult Choices

Splitting financial accounts tends to be relatively straightforward, but dividing up “real” assets like your home and any other treasured joint possessions, can be more complicated, So it’s a good idea to think of anything that falls into that category and what will make the most sense for you and your spouse moving forward.

If you own your home, that is likely going to be the largest asset you’ll need to make a decision about. If the home is being supported by two incomes, neither you nor your spouse may be able to afford to stay there on your own. Often, the simplest choice is to sell the home and split the proceeds. However, if children are involved, and it’s financially feasible, one parent might opt to buy out the other to maintain some normalcy. What will work best for you and your spouse will depend on your unique personal and financial situation.

Step 5: Be Frugal

No doubt you’re aware that divorce can be expensive. The average cost of a divorce in the U.S. is $12,900. You could spend significantly less if there are no major contested issues, or it could run a lot more should you end up going to trial over several issues.

Either way, now is probably not a good time to run up large expenses, either individually, or as a unit. If you and your spouse don’t have money set aside for hiring a divorce attorney and other related expenses, try to agree about each spending a conservative and comparable amount, while continuing to use your joint and individual accounts.

This can be a good time to eliminate or pare back your expenses where possible. For example, you might cancel unused subscriptions and memberships, attempt to dine out less, and use the clothes that you own. There are tons of creative ways to be frugal — so you can do it in a way that aligns with your values.

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Step 6: Seek Out the Right Professional Help

If you and your spouse want to minimize legal expenses and think you can amicably split your assets, you might consider consulting a mediator. A mediator acts as a neutral third party to help you negotiate an agreement on the splitting of assets and making other arrangements (in some cases, custody of children) and could save you significant time and money.

If mediation is not an option, you’ll need to find a divorce attorney to handle your legal affairs and represent your respective sides in the negotiations (you’ll each need your own attorney). You might also consider getting help from a qualified financial adviser to make sure that all assets are divided, transferred successfully into new accounts, and reinvested, if necessary (again, you’ll likely each want your own financial adviser).

Step 7: Separate Your Finances

As you move towards divorce, you’ll want to set up your own checking and savings accounts and get your paycheck automatically deposited there. You’ll also need to redirect any direct deposits and update any automatic payment information. You can then start using the new accounts for all your own personal future deposits and expenses. The old joint accounts will need to be split between you and your spouse.

You may also want to consider opening your own retirement account (if you don’t have one). This is especially important if you are expecting to get money from your spouse’s retirement account as part of your divorce. Transferring the funds directly into your retirement account can help you avoid paying taxes on the money now.

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How much money should I save for a divorce?

The average cost of a divorce is $12,900. However, you could spend significantly less. A divorce with no major contested issues runs, on average, $4,100. Or you might end up spending more. Divorces that go to trial on two or more issues can cost as much as $23,300.

Should you separate finances before a divorce?

If you know divorce is inevitable, it can be a good idea to start the financial separation process as soon as possible. If your money is in a joint account, you can begin by opening a new individual checking account and savings account. Next, you’ll need to redirect any direct deposits and update any automatic payment information. Use the new account for all your own personal future deposits and expenses. You might opt to keep one joint account open, however, to pay for household expenses until you are officially divorced.

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