You’ve Got to Know What You’ve Got to Get What You Deserve
Whether you are contemplating divorce or in the midst of one, when it comes to claiming what is rightfully yours financially, you must look out for yourself from the very beginning. The information you do, or do not have, will affect how financially secure you will be when the smoke has cleared and you are ready to start your new life.
In dividing marital assets, the court will look at both marital assets and marital debts. Any assets accumulated by either of you during the marriage are liable for division. Any debts incurred by either you or your spouse will be considered accrued by both of you, and will also be divided. In Pennsylvania the courts will divide these “equitably.” This means the financial assets and liabilities of the marriage, based upon the information both parties have presented to the court, will be divided fairly, but not necessarily equally.
When served with a complaint for divorce, your spouse should receive an automatic restraining order pertaining to finances and debts, which will preclude him from drastically changing your financial situation as a couple. However, in order to protect your assets, you need to have all your important documentation and financial information ahead of time. In order to protect what you have—you need to know what you have.
Collecting all the important documents mentioned below, will be a time-consuming project; but you will find it well worth the effort. The earlier in the divorce process this work is done, the less stressful it will be. And you will come to discover that this knowledge is power.
A Divorce Tip for Women: You should do everything possible to collect the following information:
- Any documents identifying any inheritance you may have received during the marriage, and evidence of how it was maintained. It should have been put in a separate account, but if it was not, take the current statement of the account it is in. This will be considered a separate asset and not divisible, so you want to be sure you have documentary evidence of what you inherited.
- Photograph and document and physical possessions (art, furniture, jewelry, etc.), that you brought to the marriage.
- Life insurance policies and numbers. As a marital asset, you want to know the status of the policies at the time of the divorce and make sure that the policy remains in place during divorce proceedings. While your spouse is precluded from drawing against a life insurance policy during the divorce, you want to maintain proof of the status of that account.
- Investment account balances. You should have a current copy of any stock investment portfolio that you and your husband may have established over the course of your marriage. It will be important to see where the investments are and what their market value was at the time of the divorce petition, to ensure that the securities are not improperly traded or cashed in during the course of the divorce proceedings.
- Joint account balances. These accounts are important in determining the current cash on hand. It is also important to be able to monitor that these funds are not being depleted without your knowledge during the course of the divorce proceedings.
- Credit card statements. Although the court prohibits your spouse from incurring any more marital debt, and therefore prohibits him from added new charges to joint credit cards, you will want to monitor the accounts during the divorce. You should also have a snapshot of the account balances at the time the divorce was filed. This way, if the balance suddenly escalates, you have proof.
A Divorce Tip for Women: Other important documents that you need to collect before starting the divorce process:
- Your pre-marital agreement, if you have one. This document will have already laid out what you and your spouse have agreed to regarding division of the assets before you got married. It’s important that you and your attorney are able to refer to this document as the divorce moves forward.
- Health and dental insurance information. Life will move on as the divorce winds its way through the courts. It is essential that you maintain your access to health and dental providers. This is especially important if there are children involved in the divorce or you are treating an on-going medical condition.
- Accounts held solely in your spouse’s name. If you know of any such accounts, it is advantageous to have a snapshot of the account balance at the time the divorce was filed. It will also give the court an idea of separation of marital funds.
- Accounting pertaining to your or your spouse’s business. If the business was developed during the course of the marriage, this becomes an asset of the marriage, especially if you have stayed home to raise the children. Have as much information as possible about any past or ongoing businesses. Not having this knowledge may ultimately require you to hire a forensic accountant to find out how much his company is worth and how much it grew over the course of the marriage.
- Retirement account statements. The court will want to see who has contributed to the retirement accounts and what the value of them is at the time of the divorce filing.
- Tax returns for the prior three years. Tax returns are helpful not only for the court to understand what the family finances (and income sources) have been for the past three years, but as your life moves forward, you will often need these returns for other financial transactions. For instance, if you require (or will require) financial aid for your children to attend private school or college, you will need to produce these returns. You want to make sure you have these tax returns available without having to rely on your (ex) spouse to hand them over. For similar documentation reasons, you will also want to have copies of the past several months’ paystubs for both of you, if you are both working.
- Documents relating to any real estate you bought during the course of the marriage, including any refinancing that was done on those properties or lines of credit that were opened.
- Documents relating to the cars—title, car loan documentation, lease paperwork, etc.
- Documents relating to student loans. These are often a significant part of a person’s debt load and need to be considered by the court in the debt allocation.
If you are preparing to tell your husband you want a divorce, start collecting and securing all your financial information now. Given your circumstances, this may be a difficult feat to accomplish. However, getting the documents collected now will save you much frustration in the future. There are several alternatives you may have.
If the documents are already on your computer, copy them and put them on a flash drive for easy portability. If scanning isn’t possible, but you have a copier at home, methodically start making copies of these documents. Keep these copies in a safe place. One solution would be to obtain a safe deposit box in your name alone and use it as storage for these documents. Another possibility would be to take pictures of current statements with your cell phone camera. Set up a separate email account and send them to that account so you can print them at a later time. Once you have sent them, don’t forget to erase them from your phone! Things such as credit card statements are available on line these days, so all you need to do is “print” from the statement page of the credit card’s website.
In the meantime, open and fund a bank account that is solely in your name. Similarly, make sure you have at least one credit card that is in your name only. By having these documents secured and ready, your attorney will have a clearer picture of your situation and the marital assets at the beginning of your divorce.