Divorce often rings in new year
Experts say couples start the process of gathering information in January and February.

SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) - Call it the stealth New Year's resolution, the last-resort plan few people are willing to discuss during the year-end focus on holiday cheer and family.

But after the seasonal festivities wind down and the relatives return home, couples on the brink of divorce often find their way to attorneys' offices in January and February to start the process, legal experts say.

"A lot of people try to stick it out through the holidays," said Kathleen Miller, a certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst in Kirkland, Wash. "They don't want to disrupt the family at that time. It's not unusual that come January you start to see a lot of filings."

Some couples may be prompted by introspection that's common around the end of the calendar year, said Sharyn Sooho, a divorce attorney and co-founder of DivorceNet.com, an online resource based in Newton, Mass.

"We want to start the new year with a fresh start, and for some people that means getting out of what they think of as a bad marriage," she said.

Others may be more calculating in their timing. Employment and tax information begins to arrive at the end of January, making it easier to find out about earnings and any bonuses, commissions, investment dividends or interest the couple may share, she said. "It's financially a good time to start the process."

Sooho, who's specialized in divorce law for 28 years, estimates about a third of new divorce proceedings are initiated in the first two months of the year, with the other big spike coming in September at the beginning of the new school year.

All of which can leave a hole in the pocketbook, not to mention the heart. A relatively straightforward divorce can run each party $2,000 on the low end and easily reach five times as much if it's drawn out, contested or requires valuation of complex assets such as a business or stock options, said Sheryl Garrett, editor of the new book "Surviving Divorce" and a certified financial planner in Shawnee Mission, Kan.

"When people start getting nasty, it gets expensive," she said.

As painful as it is, once they've settled on the decision to divorce, couples need to gather information and take steps to secure their immediate futures first, Miller said. The choices a spouse makes in the first 60 days can set the tone for how easy or difficult it becomes to arrive at a settlement.

"There are stages to the divorce process and it's important to do them one step at a time," she said. "The first thing is to determine how you're going to share income during the time of separation and who's going to live where."

Among the first steps divorcing couples should take:

Create a structure for the initial separation period. Decide who's going to move out, devise a temporary parenting plan and make a request for child support and maintenance if needed. If money is tight, you may want to adjust your 401(k) or other retirement-plan contributions to boost your cash flow. If there's reason to suspect your soon-to-be ex is misusing joint credit cards, write to your credit-card issuers to take your name off the cards for future purchases or borrowing. "Some people can work it out so that one person moves out but still uses the credit cards and the paycheck goes to the same account and nothing changes for a time," said Miller, author of "Fair Share Divorce for Women." " Others are very abrupt, adversarial, get the lawyers involved right away." She cautioned against moving too quickly in the initial stages. "Remember, there's a division of income first and then a division of assets."

Gather financial records, research what state and local divorce laws hold and get a copy of your credit report and credit score to figure out your joint assets and liabilities. Consumers can get a free copy of their credit report from each of the three national reporting agencies once every 12 months at. It's also a good idea to do a net-worth statement for each spouse individually and one jointly, take inventory of any safe deposit boxes you may have and think about updating your will, Garrett said. If spouses can work together, these activities don't have to be kept secret. "The more secretive we are about it, the more tainted the whole thing automatically becomes," she said. Still, if one spouse suspects the other is diverting funds from the family coffers into a business or personal account to hide something, quick action is needed. "If you have a strong feeling there's an affair going on or some shuffling of assets, you do have to work in stealth mode and you have to work extremely fast because a lot has probably already occurred. But put on a detective hat and you can probably track down where it all went." A copy of the credit report and tax returns kept outside the home should help. Such detective work can yield important information for the person with less power in the relationship, Miller said. Typically, one person has been thinking about divorce and may be better organized while the spouse being left may be taken off guard and feel overwhelmed.

Assemble a team of advisers to aid in finding a reasonable compromise. Financial and legal pros can help you determine whether it's worth fighting for the house, for example, or if you'd be better served by a share of proceeds from its sale, along with some retirement-account assets. "A good family-law attorney or a good certified divorce financial analyst or certified financial planner is going to help you measure the value of the asset you think you want to keep," Garrett said.

Keep a cool head and pick your battles wisely. If communicating with the other spouse proves difficult, try e-mail. "I'll discuss it with my attorney, get back to you and you'll see my proposal," Miller suggested as an approach. Beware of grinding in your heels over smaller things such as whether kids can receive a daily call from their noncustodial parent, Sooho said. "You can use up a lot of legal fees fighting over things a year or two later you wonder why you did." Also, try to shield children from any ugliness that emerges. "The kids are not the item you use to negotiate," Garrett said. "They are not a weapon to use against the other party."

Consider alternative approaches to litigation such as mediation or using a collaborative divorce model. Some people also are tempted by the do-it-yourself option, though that may be best suited for couples who don't have children, substantial assets or disputes, Sooho said. For couples who want help but aren't out for blood, mediation can be a more cost-effective strategy than pursuing a traditional adversarial divorce, said Mark Portman, a divorce attorney and mediator in the San Francisco area. "If people can work it through together and let the lawyers be in the background as advisers, then the cost is significantly less and it becomes less stressful." Another option is for each spouse to hire a collaborative divorce lawyer who promises in writing to manage the case toward settlement without sending it to trial, he said. (END) Dow Jones Newswires 01-05-06 0142ET Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Top of page

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