The most important thing you can do before you separate from your spouse is consult an attorney to help you work through the potential pitfalls and consequences of various tactics. We understand, however, that not everyone has the opportunity or financial ability to meet with a lawyer prior to separating. Regardless of whether you’re able to consult an attorney, a successful separation requires you to plan ahead. Each family situation is unique, but there are certain common issues that every plan will need to address:
Credit Cards. If possible, cancel any joint credit cards you and your spouse might share. This prevents your spouse from running up additional debts in your name, and protects you from allegations of doing the same to them.
Bank Accounts. If you and your spouse have joint checking or savings accounts, it’s often prudent to move some of those funds into a newly created account in your own name. This will help ensure that you don’t end up penniless if your spouse decides to empty your accounts in retaliation for the separation. But remember not to take more than half of any shared account.
Direct Deposit & Automatic Bill Pay. If you’re paid by direct deposit, make sure that you contact your employer to ensure that your post-separation payments are deposited into your new account. By the same token, make sure any bills that were paid automatically from your old accounts are adjusted accordingly.
Housing. If you’re the one moving out of the marital home, make sure you’ve got a plan in place for where you’ll be living. Make sure that you’ve submitted apartment applications in advance, and have enough money set aside for a rental deposit, at least one month’s rent, and any deposits necessary to get utilities turned on in your new home.
Transportation. Make sure that you choose a place that has access to public transportation, or that you’ve made arrangements with friends or family members to provide transportation if you’re unable to take a vehicle with you when you separate. You’ll need to ensure you can get to work or other appointments, and that your children will be able to get to school.
Car Payments & Auto Insurance. Check the expiration date on your auto insurance, and make sure you’ve made arrangements for premiums and car payments to be made. Don’t rely on your spouse.
Make copies of all important documents, including:
- Financial account and mortgage statements
- Retirement or pension account statements
- Credit card statements
- Stock or bond ownership certificates
- Trust documents
- Wills, powers of attorney, and health care proxies
- Marital or prenuptial contracts
- Deeds to any real property you might own
- Lease agreements
- Car or other vehicle titles
- Your birth certificate and social security card
- Your children’s birth certificates and social security cards
- Your passport and your children’s passports
- Life and health insurance policies and cards
- Family pictures or letters that have sentimental value
Powers of Attorney & Healthcare Proxies. If you’ve given your spouse power of attorney or named him or her as the person who can make healthcare and end-of-life decisions on your behalf, you should consult a lawyer about changing those documents as soon as possible.
Inheritance Documents. If you’ve inherited money or property during the course of the marriage, make sure to keep or obtain documents proving the inheritance. Inherited property can be treated differently in the division of property, and your lawyer will need documentation.
Devices in Your Spouse’s Control. Before you separate, make sure that you’ve logged out of any financial, email, social networking, or file sharing accounts on every device that will remain in your spouse’s control following the separation. Many web browsers (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, etc.) now store passwords and usernames for easy access, so you may need to remove stored passwords from each browser on each device. Instructions for doing so can be found at the following links: Internet Explorer; Safari; Firefox; Chrome. Remember that even devices like smart phones and ebook readers often have web browsers built in.
Online Passwords. Even after you’ve removed saved passwords from devices that will be staying with your spouse, it’s a good idea to change your passwords for any financial, email, social networking, or file sharing accounts you might have. Don’t pick passwords that have to do with birthdays, children’s names, pets’ names or childhood nicknames, as those are the easiest for your spouse to guess. Internet security professionals have developed best practices for creating passwords, which you should consult.
Social Networking and Dating Web Sites. In recent years, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become goldmines for digging up dirt in family law cases. Before you separate, make sure that you’ve removed objectionable posts and pictures, and untagged yourself from objectionable pictures on other people’s profiles. Make sure that you understand the privacy settings for your accounts, and that you’re using them correctly and effectively. Facebook and Twitter each have websites detailing how to use their privacy settings properly. As a general rule, if your grandmother would think a post or picture was inappropriate, remove it. If you have any dating site profiles set up, take them down.