As if getting divorced isn’t stressful enough, trying to do so during a pandemic may seem overwhelming. With normal routines disrupted, jobs and income lost, stock markets fluctuating, and real estate markets uncertain, it may seem nearly impossible to move forward once a decision to divorce has been reached. So how do you go about starting a divorce process when so much about the future is unclear?
There may be changes to how a divorce can be accomplished, but it can be done as we find ways to adapt to a new form of “normal.” Courts are adapting and changing how filings and court-ordered mediations are being handled. Meetings may need to be done virtually through video conferencing for the foreseeable future.
While this may be an emotional and unsettling time, focus on what you can control: research the options for the divorce; interview and assemble your team of professionals; gather your financial information; create a budget; review your living arrangements; and, if you can, begin to discuss a parenting plan if there are minor children involved.
1. Research your options for the divorce: The choice of process depends on the complexity of your situation and how well you and your spouse can communicate during the divorce process. Reviewing this list will help you to understand your options:
• Pro Se — Parties agree to a settlement between themselves and file all paperwork on their own. This is typically recommended only for very simple situations.
• Mediation — A mutually agreed-upon neutral third party guides the discussions to reach a settlement. This may or may not include each party retaining an attorney to provide guidance throughout the process and review the divorce document.
• Collaborative process — A collaboratively-trained team consisting of attorneys for each spouse, a financial “neutral”, such as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), a counselor, coach or child specialist (as needed) who meet as a team with the spouses to reach a settlement. The attorneys agree not to litigate, even if no settlement can be reached.
• Traditional attorney-to-attorney — The attorneys work between themselves to structure the settlement for the parties and frequently discourage the spouses from communicating with each other regarding the issues being addressed during the process.
• Litigation — A judge makes the final decisions on issues that cannot be agreed upon otherwise.
You can begin to determine which process may be best suited for you through online research and through phone or video calls. If you have not received recommendations, you can search for local or statewide mediation organizations to find a divorce mediator or the family law section of your state bar association to obtain a listing of divorce attorneys. Consult with a few of these individuals to discuss your situation. Additional information on the collaborative process can be researched through the International Association of Collaborative Professionals.
2. Interview and assemble your team of professionals: In most cases, each spouse should retain an attorney experienced in family law. The attorneys’ involvement can be limited to periodic consultations if mediation is the chosen route and cost is an issue. You want to be sure you are comfortable with your attorney, so spend enough time talking with them to understand if their approach to a divorce is consistent with your ideas. Your team of divorce professionals may also include a financial professional who specializes in divorce, such as a CDFA®, for assistance with the financial decisions, and a counselor or coach to deal with the emotional and behavioral aspects of going through a divorce.
3. Gather your financial information: Gather information on your income, assets and liabilities, including pay statements, tax returns, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, pensions, business interests, real estate, and liabilities (such as mortgages, student loans, car loans, credit card debt, etc.). Again, much of this work can be done online and information can be shared through secure online portals to eliminate in-person contact. It will be helpful to have this information readily available to work with your team on developing potential settlement options. Agreement on a valuation date for your assets and available income may be contentious, especially if you have seen recent significant changes, so be prepared to update information as you go through negotiations.
4. Create a budget: One of the most important steps is determining a budget to understand how much money you will need to cover essential and discretionary living expenses. Taking time while you are sequestered at home to review recent credit card bills or checking account transactions to understand your current expenses will be time well spent. This information will be important to help you understand how much income you will need post-divorce and often is helpful to determine child support and spousal support amounts, should these will be part of your agreement. Your expenses may have changed during this time. For example, it is likely that you are spending more on groceries and less on gas, restaurants, and childcare. You will need to update your expenses as time goes on as you want your expenses to accurately reflect your lifestyle and needs.
5. Review your living arrangements: Consider how your living arrangements may change and what options are available within your budget. Real estate transactions are moving forward during this time; you may want to begin researching your options if moving is necessary. Real estate may lose value during this time, so be sure to use current data in your search.
6. Discuss a parenting plan: It can be difficult even in the most amicable divorce cases to come up with a co-parenting plan that works for the kids and the parents. This pandemic requires parents to carefully consider and plan for travel and living arrangements for their children, if they are living separately. Start discussing parenting plans during this time and remember that logistics such as travel between households and sharing home schooling duties also need to be considered. Some jurisdictions require parenting classes or a mediation session to discuss co-parenting. The availability and format of these sessions may be limited for the foreseeable future.
7. Negotiate logistics: During this uncertain period, you and your spouse will need to decide if you will be comfortable beginning a divorce process primarily through video or phone meetings. Dealing with privacy while navigating the process, especially with children, might be an issue. With everyone spending most of their time at home, it may be challenging to have calls or video conferences that go uninterrupted. However, you will need to consider the trade-offs to waiting to begin a divorce.
Once in-person meetings can occur, you may need to decide whether you would rather participate in a face-to-face meeting with everyone wearing face masks or participate in a video conference call. Many videoconferencing applications have the ability for ‘break-out’ rooms, allowing private consultations during a video conference negotiation.
The “new normal” may be here for awhile. If you decide to move ahead with a divorce, expect to make a few adjustments to the usual process. With the right team advising you, you will get through the uncertainty and upheaval and hopefully move on to better times ahead.
Janet Tighe is a vice president and senior wealth advisor at The Colony Group. Susan Miller is a managing director and senior wealth advisor at The Colony Group