Quick-and-Dirty Divorce Checklist: 7 Tasks to Get You off on the Right Foot

Overwhelmed? Look here for a clear list of to-dos for your divorce, covering everything from docs to gather to long-term plans to make.

When you're facing divorce and trying to figure out what you need to do, it can be really hard to know where to even start. That's why we created this quick-hit divorce checklist, to help you stay organized and ensure you don't overlook something important. And we've also got guidance for you on the legal options for divorce, including how to get help if there's been abuse.

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Your Divorce Checklist

1. If You Have Kids, Prepare for the New Parenting Arrangement

If you have minor children, you'll want to:

  • Sketch out a proposed custody plan after learning about your state's custody process. Think about things like visitation, holiday and school vacation schedules, and other special occasions. It doesn't have to be perfect—think of it as a way to start organizing your thoughts and ideas.
  • Create a calendar where you can keep track of the children's time with each parent. You can use it to document things like canceled visits and visit expenses, too.
  • Learn about child support. Read up on child support and think about whether you will need it or need to pay it, in both the short- and long-term.

2. Collect Marriage Documents

Start a file for paperwork relating to your marriage and estate planning. Include:

  • binding documents like pre- and post-nuptial agreements, wills, trusts, healthcare directives, and the like
  • your marriage license, and
  • life insurance policies.

3. Compile Financial Documents

Brainstorm about the financial paperwork you have and take notes before trying to find everything. Include:

  • Assets. Begin making a list of joint assets—vehicles, bank accounts, credit card debts, medical bills, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, and anything else you think the court will want to see. Err on the side of including rather than leaving anything out.
  • Debts. Joint debts, mortgages, and loans (vehicle, student, or retirement plan) are relevant here.
  • Retirement plans. Gather all information you can on any retirement or pension accounts (for both spouses).
  • Pay information. Make copies of your spouse's W-2s or other paycheck information if you can.
  • Tax returns. Find copies for joint returns for the last 5-10 years.
  • Security deposit boxes. If you have one of these, create a list of its contents, including the value and the box's location.

4. Collect Other Essential Documents

These too should go in your file:

  • your credit report
  • log-in credentials for joint accounts*
  • deeds for property you own together or separately, and
  • vehicle titles for jointly and separately owned cars.

*An extra thought about log-in credentials: If you're not the spouse who typically manages family finances, get access to the joint accounts before telling your spouse you want a divorce.

5. Start Separating Financially

Here's a bunch more to do. Again, though, take it one step at a time, knowing it can't all happen at once.

  • Protect your credit. Consider opening a new credit card in your name. But check state laws first, as a card opened during the marriage could be considered a joint or "community" card.
  • Open up a bank account in your name only. (Again, though, check your state's laws first.) But don't put your earnings (whether through direct deposit or paycheck) in your new account until the court or your lawyer tells you it's okay. (Redirecting or removing funds from a joint account can impact your divorce.)
  • Protect your information. Get a new email address and change any old passwords. Same goes for social media.
  • Set up a P.O. box in your name. If you can't afford one, ask a family member or friend to use their address (particularly if receiving mail from a lawyer).
  • Find health insurance. If you depend on your spouse for health insurance, you'll want to begin exploring options. If unemployed, start with the Affordable Care Act website or your local Health and Human Services Department to see if you qualify for state assistance.
  • Itemize your belongings. Make a list of personal belongings like family heirlooms or gifts. If necessary, leave them with a family member but be sure to include them in financial (or other) disclosures when asked. Don't forget any inheritances from before and during the marriage.
  • Update insurance documents. As soon as you're allowed (which may be after the divorce is final), you should update insurance plans and estate planning documents, including documents like a power of attorney.

6. Figure out Who Will Live Where

Some couples stay in the same home throughout a divorce, unable to pay for any alternative. But if this isn't a good idea or even an option, you'll need to decide who stays in the marital home while the divorce is pending. (Click here for issues to consider.) If you can't agree, you might need to ask the court to allow you exclusive use of the home until division of property is finalized.

The primary caretaker of minor children is often the one who will remain in the home to ensure stability. If you won't be staying in the marital home throughout the process, you should begin looking for a place to stay as soon as you can. But you might want to speak with an attorney first to make sure you're not giving up your right to the property.

7. Consider Employment

Life on a single income is rarely easy these days. If you're unemployed but have the skills to find work, you should start looking ASAP. If you're unable, maybe due to health reasons or caring for a young child, you may need to ask for temporary spousal support or temporary child support while the divorce is pending. The court can order it if your spouse won't agree.

If the cost of child care exceeds any income you might make, consider asking for ongoing alimony. If you and your spouse can't agree on support, a judge will make the determination.

Moving Forward With Divorce

As you work your way through the tasks above (see here if you'd like to see the full version of the checklist), think about the process you'll want to use for your divorce. Your options include:

For guidance and information, take our quiz.

Lastly, one situation where you should definitely get outside help is if you've been subjected to abuse. If there has been domestic violence in your marriage, consider asking the court for a restraining order to prevent any further harm. And create a detailed list or keep a journal of each incident of domestic violence or child abuse throughout the marriage and the actions you took (if any). Also, get copies of any police records.

Don't forget about computer privacy (same for phones and tablets) when seeking help. Abusers can look at browsing history, call logs, or locations via GPS tracking. If you're concerned about your privacy or safety, several organizations provide assistance and resources, including National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN. You can also check out Nolo's Resources for Victims of Crime.