The Complete Divorce Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms

A thorough guide that walks stay-at-home moms and dads through six steps to prepare for the divorce process.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Stay-at-home moms and dads dedicate much of their daily lives to their families. Many have given up careers to make sure that the kids have healthy meals, wear clean clothes, and get to important events. They also provide their spouses critical support for career growth.

Although these sacrifices used to apply mostly to moms, more couples are structuring their families around a stay-at-home-parent model, meaning that plenty of dads are staying home, too.

For any stay-at-home mom or dad, divorce brings a particular set of challenges. But being prepared for possible outcomes—both financial and personal—is a way to take control of your future.

Step 1: Consider the Options for Ending Your Marriage

Step 2: Assess Household Financial Information

Step 3: Gather Your Financial and Other Documents

Step 4: Inventory Personal and Family Possessions

Step 5: Begin Planning Your Financial Future

Step 6: Begin Planning Your Personal Future

Step 1: Consider the Options for Ending Your Marriage

It's natural to worry about battling out your divorce in court to the tune of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees. Many stay-at-home parents are tempted to avoid court and save money by accepting a bad divorce settlement simply because they can't afford to hire a lawyer. It doesn't have to be this way, though.

There are several alternatives to taking on the costs of an expensive litigated divorce, though, including:

Do-It-Yourself Divorce

Divorce self-help resources have become widely available throughout the country. Parents who want to DIY their divorce can turn to their court's self-help center, find and submit court forms online, or use an online divorce service.

DIY divorces work best when you and your spouse can file an uncontested divorce—meaning you agree on all the issues in your divorce, such as property division, child custody, and spousal support. Although you can represent yourself in a contested divorce, doing so is extremely challenging and a bad idea if your spouse has an attorney. Many spouses who are going through the traditional court process opt to hire an attorney to help them navigate the court system and fight for the best outcome.

Divorce Mediation

When spouses don't agree on the issues in their divorce but think they can work together to reach a resolution, divorce mediation can be an excellent option. In mediation, a neutral third party helps the couple create a divorce settlement agreement, which will allow them to then go with an uncontested divorce. Mediation can be in person in a mediator's office or online. Most mediators discourage spouses from bringing lawyers to mediation, in an effort to maintain a non-confrontational environment (but you are free to consult with one outside of the mediation).

In some states, courts require couples to participate in mediation before the judge can hear the case. Court-ordered mediation is usually free; private mediation usually costs about $3,000 to $8,000, with the spouses splitting the fees. Either way, mediation typically is far less expensive and results in a faster final divorce decree than a litigated divorce.

If your mediation session doesn't result in a settlement, you can go to court, which means that you'll be on the track for an eventual trial unless you settle before that point.

Collaborative Divorce

Collaborative divorce is an alternative to divorce court that provides you with the security of having your own attorney while committing to work with your spouse to reach an agreement.

In a collaborative divorce, you and your spouse each hire specially trained collaborative attorneys who advise and assist you in negotiating a settlement that covers property division, spousal and child support, and parenting responsibilities. If the collaborative process is unsuccessful, the spouses must hire new attorneys and head to court.

Spouse-Funded Litigation

Divorce trials can be expensive and time-consuming. No one wants to air their dirty laundry in court, and most spouses would like to maintain control of their final divorce settlement. However, in divorces where there's domestic violence or when the spouses simply can't communicate, heading to court might be necessary.

Stay-at-home moms and dads often worry about how they will represent themselves during a divorce trial, especially when their spouse has an attorney. Most courts allow a financially strapped spouse to request that the other spouse pay for their attorneys' fees or court costs. While there's no guarantee that the judge will order your spouse to pay, if the court grants your request, the judge will put the repayment terms into your final divorce decree.

Step 2: Assess Household Financial Information

When divorce is coming, it's time to take stock of your household financial situation. If you haven't been handling or involved in the family finances, this step is especially important—you need to become familiar with the ins and outs of the family budget so that you can get a picture of what your post-divorce finances will look like.

You need to determine your family's:

  • bank accounts
  • credit cards
  • loans and debt
  • sources of income
  • retirement accounts
  • recurring bills, such as mortgage payments, utility bills, and subscriptions, and
  • any other financial assets and debts.

Start making lists of all these items, noting information such as which banks hold your accounts. Try to get ahold of the usernames and passwords for any accounts you access online.

Once you've completed this step, you're ready to start collecting documents related to these accounts, assets, and debts.

Step 3: Gather Your Financial and Other Documents

Now that you know where to look, you'll need to begin gathering documents about your finances. You'll also want to gather documents that relate to your marriage, your children, and your household in general.

For example, begin collecting and copying documents such as:

  • your marriage license
  • identifying documentation for your spouse and your children, such as drivers' licenses and social security cards
  • retirement account statements
  • bank account statements
  • mortgage and other loan statements
  • credit card statements
  • tax records for the last five to ten years
  • statements for ongoing major expenses, such as car and tuition payments
  • health insurance cards and records
  • life insurance records
  • paystubs, and
  • any other documents that might help explain your family's finances and circumstances to a court.

Even if you and your spouse are on civil terms, take steps to protect your interests now just in case the situation changes. It's important to make copies—either digital or paper—of these documents as soon as you can. Keep the copies in a safe location. If you and your spouse have joint email, document storage, or social media accounts, consider creating new, individual accounts that are password protected.

Step 4: Inventory Personal and Family Possessions

Make a list of items that that have value to you and that you might want to keep after the divorce, such as jewelry or hobby-related items. You'll also want to make an inventory of major items that belong to the family, such as cars, appliances, furniture, and artwork. Don't forget to account for items in places other than your home, such as storage sheds or safe deposit boxes.

Although there's no guarantee that you'll be able to keep exactly what you want after the divorce, carefully inventorying items of monetary or sentimental value now will help you remember to address them in any settlement agreement or court proceeding. Also, listing the items out now will help you in the future if you suspect your spouse is attempting to hide assets.

Step 5: Begin Planning Your Financial Future

In addition to gathering important marital and financial documents, stay-at-home spouses should:

  • create a budget based on their expected income after the divorce
  • prepare information about their job history, education, and prospects in the workforce after the divorce
  • review their credit report and credit score
  • open a new credit card in their name only (to build credit and act as a safety net for emergencies), and
  • examine possible sources of post-divorce income and begin exploring employment prospects if necessary.

Will You Qualify for Alimony?

Alimony (sometimes also called "maintenance" or "spousal support") is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other during the divorce process and for a period after. Payments are usually monthly, but sometimes the court will order a lump-sum payment.

In most states, judges award alimony when one spouse can't support themselves or when the spouses have a significant discrepancy in income. Also, judges in some states can award alimony to spouses who need financial support while attending college or obtaining necessary job skills to reenter the job market.

Judges sometimes order long-term alimony, especially when a stay-at-home spouse's job prospects are limited. Judges usually reserve long-term alimony for spouses who have been in long-term marriages and can't become self-supporting.

Getting Temporary Financial Support

Because the divorce process can be long, each state allows judges to award temporary alimony to a needy spouse until the divorce is over. An award of temporary alimony doesn't guarantee you'll get continuing support—dependent spouses still must prove to the court that they qualify for support under state law.

Step 6: Begin Planning Your Personal Future

Obviously, figuring out how you'll get to see your children will be one of your top concerns as a divorcing stay-at-home mom or dad. Custody and visitation make for one of a few non-financial—but very important—topics to think about as you prepare for divorce.

Child Custody and Visitation

There are generally two types of custody: legal and physical. The court can award either type to both parents (joint custody) or to one parent (sole custody). If the parents agree to a custody arrangement, the court will typically approve it as long as it's in the best interest of the child.

When parents can't agree, the judge will create a custody order based on an evaluation of factors set by state law. If the court awards one parent sole custody (usually physical), the judge will create a parenting time (visitation) schedule for the child and the parent who doesn't have custody.

Begin thinking about what sort of custody arrangement would work best for you and your children. If you and your spouse can't work it out on your own, many courts will order you to participate in child custody mediation. Even if the court doesn't order mediation, you always have the option of hiring a mediator to help you and your spouse come to a child custody agreement.

Also, give some thought to how you'll share parenting time with your spouse during the divorce. A temporary custody arrangement or order can provide some short-term stability for the children by setting a plan that both parents must follow while waiting for the court to finalize the divorce. After the divorce, the court will either keep the temporary order in place or create a new order.

Your Living Situation

Many spouses want to physically separate while the divorce is pending if their financial situation allows it. And, depending on where you live, state law might require you and your spouse to live "separate and apart" for a specific period of time before you can file for divorce or before a judge can finalize your divorce. Most states, though—especially no-fault divorce states, such as California, Texas, and Florida— don't require you to move out before getting a divorce.

As a stay-at-home parent, you'll want to think about whether it's feasible for you to keep and stay in the family home during and after the divorce. Often, courts will allow the parent with physical custody of the children to remain in the family home to ensure the least amount of disruption to the children's lives. But if you think that keeping or remaining in the family home might not be your best option—perhaps you want to move closer to extended family for support or relocate in order to get a job—write down why you might want to move. That will help you be prepared to present your reasons to a judge or discuss them with your spouse or in mediation.

If you plan to continue living with your spouse during the divorce, consider finding a way to receive your own mail. For example, you could:

  • open a post office box
  • get a virtual mailbox (make sure you have your own email address that your spouse can't access), or
  • arrange to have personal mail sent to a neighbor's or other family member's house.

Your Physical and Emotional Well-Being

Divorce is a major upheaval in anyone's life. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when you're a stay-at-home parent trying to make the process as bearable as possible for your children. But you won't be able to provide for your children's needs if you lose sight of your own.

It's pretty much guaranteed that you'll need a helping hand during your divorce—anyone from a friend to watch the kids during a mediation session to a therapist to help you with your worries and frustrations. Reach out to family and friends, and let them know what's going on. You'll probably find that many offer to help you.

Finally, a divorce is a good time to make a "bucket list" of things you've wanted to do or accomplish. Even though it might seem impossible right now, divorce can result in new opportunities to check these boxes. And when times feel particularly hard, having some written goals and aspirations might provide you with some inspiration as you power through.