The Essential Divorce Checklist: 10 Steps to Prepare for Your Divorce

The divorce process can be stressful and confusing, so use this checklist to stay organized and ensure that you don’t overlook something important.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Undoubtedly, going through a divorce can be one of the most disruptive and emotional events in your life. The process can be confusing and lengthy, and it's normal to feel overwhelmed.

Getting and staying organized is a great way to stay grounded while increasing your chances of a fair outcome. Use this easy-to-follow divorce checklist to get and stay on track.

Divorce Checklist

Use the sections below for your checklist. Each step has detailed information that you can refer back to whenever you'd like.

1. Consider Whether You Can Resolve Your Divorce Without Court

Think about whether you can work with your spouse to resolve all of your important divorce-related issues. These issues typically include:

  • alimony (called "spousal support" or "spousal maintenance" in some states)
  • property and debt division, and
  • child support and custody (if you and your spouse have children together).

If you and your spouse can agree on all of the issues in your case, you can probably handle your divorce without a lawyer. You might consider using a DIY divorce service that provides the necessary forms for your state and helps you create a marital settlement agreement (MSA). Once you've put all the issues you've agreed on into a marital settlement agreement template, you can both sign it and submit it to the court.

If you can't agree on all the issues but are close to an agreement, a private mediator might be able to help you across the finish line. Mediators can often assist couples in finalizing their divorce judgment together.

If you can't agree on all of the issues and you're not even close, you might need to pursue a divorce trial. Also, you should get outside help if you've experienced domestic violence (more on that topic below).

2. Consider Whether You Need to Hire a Lawyer

No state requires you to hire a lawyer for your divorce, but it can make sense for the spouses to consult separate lawyers before beginning the divorce process or before signing off on the MSA. Hiring attorneys will certainly increase your divorce cost, but in the end, it can also save you stress and protect your rights. If you're undecided, take our quiz for feedback on whether DIY divorce, private mediation, or hiring an attorney might make the most sense.

If you do decide to hire a lawyer, you'll have to find your own attorney—you can't use your spouse's lawyer in your divorce. Family law attorneys can't represent both spouses in a divorce case because of what would be a conflict of interest. (Each spouse has separate interests to protect.)

3. If You Have Minor Children, Prepare for the New Parenting Arrangement

Divorcing parents have a lot to think about, but here's a good way to start.

  • Sketch out a plan. Learn about your state's custody process and begin creating a proposed custody plan, including each parent's visitation with the children, holiday and school break schedules, and other special occasions.
  • Create a calendar. Create a calendar where you can keep track of the children's time with each parent. Include issues with communication, transportation (if applicable), canceled visits, or expenses you've paid.
  • Learn about child support. Begin considering whether you will need to pay or receive child support after the divorce. If you need child support while the divorce is pending, and your spouse won't agree to pay it, you can ask the court for a temporary support order when you file your petition or response.

4. Collect Marriage Documents

Start a documents file by gathering paperwork related to your marriage and estate planning.

  • Agreements. Find copies of any prenuptial or postnuptial agreements and all estate planning documents. For example, locate copies of wills, living wills, trust documents, powers of attorney, and advance healthcare directives.
  • Marriage license. Find your marriage license and place it in a secure location.
  • Life insurance policies. Gather copies of life insurance policies for either spouse.

5. Compile Important Financial Documents

Identify all the important financial paperwork you'll need.

  • Assets. Begin compiling a list of your joint assets, including vehicles, bank accounts, credit card debts, medical bills, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, and anything else you believe the court will want to see. Even though courts require both spouses to provide full financial disclosures, not all spouses make the process easy, so gathering as much information as possible now will help you in the process later. Be sure to be as detailed and accurate as you can be, and don't exclude anything, even if you're not sure it's relevant. Look for all types of account statements, such as brokerage, checking, and savings accounts.
  • Debts. Look for documentation on your joint debts, including mortgages, vehicle loans, retirement plan loans, and student loans.
  • Retirement plans. Gather all the information you can on any retirement or pension accounts that either spouse accrued during the marriage.
  • Pay information. If you have access to your spouse's W-2s or other paycheck information, make copies to provide that information to your attorney.
  • Tax returns. Find copies of your joint tax returns for the last five to ten years.
  • Remember security deposit boxes. Create a list of any contents secured in security deposit boxes, including the value and ownership and the box's location.

6. Gather Other Essential Documents

Add these additional important documents to your file.

  • Credit report. Pull your credit report so you have a complete view of your finances before the divorce.
  • Log-in credentials. Write down and access log-in information for your joint accounts. It's not uncommon for one spouse to have control over the family's finances, so if you're the "out spouse," make sure to get access to your joint accounts before you tell your spouse you want a divorce.
  • Deeds. Locate any documents showing the property you own together or separately.
  • Vehicle titles. Make copies of the pink slips to jointly and separately owned cars and trucks.

7. Take Steps to Separate Your Life

Starting a life of your own comes with a bunch of to-dos. Here are some of the most important.

  • Protect your credit. Divorces have the potential to harm your credit, so you might want to consider opening a new credit card in your name. However, check your state laws first, because if you open a credit card while you're still married, a court may consider this to be a community or joint credit card. Once you are separated, though, opening a new account in your own name will help you maintain your credit after the divorce.
  • Line up a bank account. If you and your spouse have joint checking and savings accounts, go to your bank and open a new account in your name only. Again, check your state laws to figure out if you should wait until you are formally separated before opening a bank account in your name only. Establishing a new bank account will help you keep track of your finances and the account will be readily available for you to use once the judge finalizes the divorce. It's important that you do not move your direct deposit to your new account until your lawyer (if you hire one) or the court tells you to. In many states, both spouses' earnings are joint property, and removing those funds from joint accounts could later impact your divorce.
  • Protect your information. Get a secure email address and change any passwords you've used in the past. It would be best to change passwords to any social media accounts in your name, especially if you think your spouse might access this information to use against you in the divorce.
  • Set up a P.O. box. If you have a lawyer or expect to get other mail related to your divorce or the process of separating from your spouse, get a P.O. box in your name so you can receive important documents without your spouse gaining access. If you can't afford a P.O. box, consider asking a family member or friend to allow you to have your lawyer send mail to their addresses.
  • Find health insurance. Begin exploring your options for health care if you depend on your spouse's employer for insurance. If you are unemployed, you can start the process of looking for health care on the Affordable Care Act website or contact your local Health and Human Services Department to determine if you qualify for state assistance.
  • Itemize your belongings. Create a list of personal items that belong only to you, like family heirlooms or gifts. If necessary, secure these items with a family member, but be sure to disclose them in the financial or other disclosures when the court or opposing attorney asks. Make sure you include any inheritances from before and during the marriage.
  • Update insurance documents. Most if not all states don't allow divorcing spouses to modify estate planning documents and insurance plans until after the judge finalizes the divorce. You should update your documents as soon as allowed, though. Additionally, if you have powers of attorney that grant your spouse the right to make medical or financial decisions for you if you're incapacitated, but you no longer want your spouse to have that authority, you will need to update your paperwork. Speak with an attorney if you're unsure how to change these important legal documents.

8. Decide Your Living Arrangements

Many divorcing couples can't afford to pay two mortgages or double rent and instead decide to stay in the same home throughout the divorce. If living together isn't an option, you will need to decide which spouse will remain in the marital home while the divorce is pending in court. (Here are some issues to consider.) If you can't agree, you might need to ask the court to allow you exclusive use of the home until the judge decides how to divide the property later.

In many cases, if there are minor children, the primary caretaker of the children will remain in the home to ensure stability for the children. If you believe your spouse will stay in the marital home throughout the divorce process, you should begin looking for a place to stay as quickly as possible. But you might want to speak with your attorney before leaving the marital home to make sure you're not giving up your right to the property.

9. Think About Employment

It's not unusual for one spouse to work while the other stays home to care for minor children. However, a divorce is the fastest way to realize that living on a single income is difficult, especially in today's world. If you're unemployed and have the skills to find employment and begin earning an income, you should start the search immediately.

If you have special circumstances that prevent you from working, like your health or caring for a young or special needs child, you may need to ask your spouse for temporary spousal support or temporary child support while the divorce is pending—or ask the court to order it if your spouse won't agree.

If your child is very young and finding child care is going to be more expensive than any income you might possibly make, you might want to ask for ongoing alimony. For example, if you have a newborn and no job skills, going out to get a job earning minimum wage and paying top dollar for infant care doesn't make financial sense and is probably not in the child's best interests. If you and your spouse can't agree on support, a judge will determine this on a case-by-case basis.

10. If You Have Experienced Domestic Violence, Get Help

Abuse can take many forms. If you've been subjected to violence or bullying, take these steps.

  • Get help. If your marriage has a history of domestic violence, you should first consider asking the court for a restraining order to prevent your spouse from harming you. (See the resources in the paragraph below on seeking help.) It would help if you also gathered the support you need from professionals, family, and friends.
  • Gather information. Create a detailed list or keep a journal of each incidence of domestic violence or child abuse throughout the marriage and the actions you took (if any), and get copies of any police records.

Getting Through the Process

Simply gathering all the necessary information for a divorce—let alone navigating the actual divorce process—might seem impossible. You can do it, though, just like so many others have. Know that it all won't happen at once, and take just one step at a time.

Regardless of the path you choose—handling your own divorce, getting online help, or working with professionals like mediators or lawyers—use your checklist and your support network. You can get through the process and come out better on the other side of it.