When Divorce Comes as a Shock

Follow these tips if your spouse has surprised you by asking for a divorce.

When Divorce Comes as a Shock

No matter what your circumstances, if your spouse's desire for divorce takes you by surprise, you will probably feel as if the bottom has dropped out from under you. You're likely to need months to lick your emotional wounds, restore your self-esteem, and start to heal. Nonetheless, as raw and beaten as you might feel, you will need to follow a plan of action if you want to protect your legal rights, financial assets, and access to your children. We know you'll have plenty of time to think the details through, but for now, when the pain is so enormous you can hardly think at all, the actions detailed below will shore up your strategic position for later.

Red Alert

Alberto was so furious at Sarah for divorcing him, and then suing for 90 percent of the estate, that he sent her a cockroach in the mail. Aware of her fear of insects, he chuckled to think of her reaction upon opening the clever “gift.” But at trial, the so-called antic served merely to enrage the judge. He found the “trick” so reprehensible and Alberto's character and sense of justice so skewed that all discretionary decisions were made in favor of Sarah. Please keep your anger in check. Angry or aggressive acts can be used against you once the legal system is involved.

The second you're told you will be involved in divorce, hire a lawyer. Be sure to tell your lawyer about any problems that might require relief from the court: the need for money for yourself or your children; the need to decide, at least on a temporary basis, where the children will live and what the visitation arrangements will be; and in some cases, the need for protection from the other spouse.

If you are a parent, the most important thing to do is to consult your lawyer to make sure that you are doing everything possible to protect your rights with regard to your children.

You must also avoid trampling on the rights of your spouse, no matter how you feel about him or her. You may be furious, but don't make the fatal mistake of locking your spouse out of the house or abandoning your marital residence with or without the children. If you do so, you stand to damage your position with regard to custody and assets. If you leave, the judge could order that your spouse remain inthe residence—with the kids—until things are settled. If you lock your spouse out, the judge could order you to let him or her back in. With emotions at peak levels, this situation would be uncomfortable at best.

Never act out of revenge. Do not put the children in a loyalty bind. Resist any urge to do “revenge spending.” It might be used against you later if your case goes to court.

It goes without saying, of course, that if your spouse has asked for a divorce, you will also need to follow the 21 strategic tips. First, protect your financial position by learning all you can about your family's finances. Be sure to photocopy all relevant documents and photograph your valuables, including those in the safe deposit box.

You must protect yourself against any preemptive moves your spouse may have taken without your knowledge. Directly ask your spouse for any papers that are suddenly missing. Make sure that the safe deposit box or family safe has not been raided. With your lawyer's help, you can get restraining orders against the use of specific bank accounts.

Now is the time for some financial strikes of your own. If it's not too late, collect any diaries, calendars, or other items and remove them from the house. If your spouse hasn't yet raided the bank accounts, withdraw half of the savings accounts and opena new account. Do not spend that money if at all possible. If the credit cards are in your name, or if you pay the credit card bills, cancel them. Tell your spouse you've cancelled the cards. Since he or she has announced plans to divorce, this should not come as a surprise. On the other hand, if you have not yet established credit in your own name, now is the time to do so; use your spouse's credit lines to build some credit of your own. Obtain and complete applications immediately.

If the two of you are going to live together until the divorce is final, decide where you'll sleep. Note that because your spouse told you that he or she wants the divorce, you have the upper hand and can probably successfully demand use of the bedroom. If you and your spouse can still have a civil conversation, decide how and what the two of you will tell the children.

Finally, consider therapy if you feel it might help. There are going to be many stresses in the future, emotional as well as financial, and the better you can cope with them, the smoother the divorce process will go for you.

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