How to Protect Yourself During Divorce

Learn what you should never do during a divorce, and some tips to help you present your best case.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
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When you first learn that your spouse has filed for divorce, it might come as a complete surprise, or be a long-expected event. Either way, there are steps you should take to protect yourself, your children, and your finances. First, it's important to know what can be used against you in a divorce. Then, you'll want to use this knowledge to take steps to protect your interests during the divorce.

Many of the following suggestions are intended for situations where a separation or divorce is likely to become adversarial. If you and your spouse are divorcing amicably, though, some of these concerns might not apply to your situation. Alternatively, you might be able to work through some of these issues on your own or with the help of a divorce mediator.

What Can Be Used Against You in a Divorce

In the interest of presenting the best case possible in court or in mediation, there are a few things to avoid doing during the course of your divorce.

Discussing the Divorce on Social Media

The big warning here is to be careful what you say. Think before you post anything about the divorce online—in a contentious divorce especially, your spouse might try to twist your words against you. It's often best to set a rule for yourself to simply not post online about the divorce at all. If you need to share that you're getting divorced, contact friends and family directly.

If you must post about the divorce online, before you hit submit, ask yourself if you'd be comfortable with the judge reading the post out loud in a courtroom.

Bad-Mouthing Your Spouse

Even in an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse likely won't see eye-to-eye on every issue. You're bound to get frustrated, and might have an urge to bad-mouth your spouse during the process. Keep in mind that your words will only add fuel to any fire. Be careful especially about what you say around your children. A judge could find that your belittling your spouse is harmful to the overall family relationship, and perhaps even harmful to the children. This could have a direct (and negative) effect on your ability to secure custody of or visitation with your children.

Moving in With Someone Else

You might be ready to enter into a new relationship even before your divorce is final. Before you jump all in and move in with someone, though, weigh the possible pros and cons of such a big step first. For example, in some states, moving in with someone could be considered marital fault (essentially adultery), and provide the court with grounds to deny you any alimony award. Similarly, starting a serious new relationship before the divorce is final could not only deepen the divide between you and your spouse—dashing hopes of settlement—but it could also affect a judge's decisions regarding property division and child custody.

Wasting or Hiding Marital Assets

If you're tempted to try to squirrel away assets so they're not included in the final property distribution, think again. During divorce, you'll be required to provide a sworn statement regarding the extent of your assets. If you don't provide full disclosure, you can be held in contempt of court, which could mean jail time. And judges in most states have discretion to shift marital assets away from spouses who've been less than forthcoming.

Similarly, avoid going on a spending spree or treating a new significant other to an expensive vacation. A judge could view this as misuse of marital assets, and make sure that your spouse is paid back—perhaps with interest—all amounts when the divorce is final.

Overall, any use of marital property or funds in bad faith (such as hiding assets or wasteful spending) during divorce ultimately hurts your chances at getting the most equitable division of marital assets in the final divorce decree.

Tips to Protect Yourself in a Divorce

Along with avoiding the actions mentioned above, there are proactive steps you can take to protect your interests—both financial and emotional—during a divorce.

· If you have children, consider staying in the family home.

Moving out during the divorce could impact custody later. That's because a judge might decide that it is in the best interests of the child to maintain the status quo—so if you move out without the kids, you're setting up a living arrangement that a judge might be hesitant to alter. In some situations, however, staying can increase the tension between you and your spouse, leading to more fights and creating an unhappy environment for the kids. You'll need to make a call about what will work best for you and your children. As an alternative, consider entering into a temporary agreement with your spouse about sharing the family home until the custody and divorce issues are worked out.

· Don't allow your spouse to take the children and leave.

Your spouse has no more right to take the children from their family home than you do. Make sure that your spouse knows that if they want to leave, they're free to go, but the children stay. Again, as an alternative, consider entering into a temporary agreement with your spouse about sharing the family home until the custody and divorce issues are settled.

· Learn everything you can about the divorce process.

Every state has different divorce laws and processes. Even though every case is different, most divorces progress in a relatively uniform manner, starting with the filing of a divorce complaint. If you know what to expect during the divorce process, you'll feel less anxious and be able to devote your mental energy to working out all the issues in the divorce—and plan for your future as a single person. Reading articles from reliable online sources (such as DivorceNet and Nolo) on divorce can be helpful. Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce is also a great resource: It guides you through all stages of separation and divorce.

· Establish a support system.

Share the news of your divorce with close people you know you can depend on. Your support system can consist of everyone from professional therapists to friends and family. This is especially important if you have kids—you might need to call on others to help with childcare during a court hearing or even to help you entertain the kids while you sort through divorce and financial paperwork.

· Try to settle.

Money you spend on your divorce is money you can't use later on your children or yourself. If you and your spouse can't agree on the issues in your divorce, you'll end up in court, and will most likely need an experienced family law attorney to represent you. Consider trying divorce mediation—a mediator might be able to help you and your spouse reach agreement on at least some of the issues in your divorce, meaning you'll spend less time (and money) fighting in court. If you can work out all of the issues in your divorce, you might be able to file an uncontested divorce, which will ultimately save you considerable time and money.

· Get organized.

Have a file—paper or electronic—of all the documents relating to your divorce. For example, you'll want to have an easy-to-reference file for all the court filings in the case. Create a calendar dedicated to your divorce, in which you record all deadlines, hearings, meetings, and to-dos.

· Run a credit report on yourself.

During divorce, you'll be required to produce detailed records of your financial accounts, assets, and debts. A credit report will display many of these, and might remind you of some accounts you'd forgotten about. Knowing your current credit score and overall financial situation will also help you decide if you need to do any financial housekeeping before you're on your own. You can get one free credit report each year from

· Safeguard personal papers and make copies of important records.

You should locate and gather all of your personal records, such as your birth certificate, diplomas, and all other personal documents. For jointly-owned records (such as bank statements, real estate records, titles, deeds, tax returns, and W-2 statements), make two copies of everything, and give one copy to your spouse. Store your copies in a safe location outside the family home.

· Get a P.O. box or separate mailing address.

If you have any concerns about your spouse having access to your mail during the divorce—especially if you've decided to open your own, separate bank accounts—consider getting a P.O. box to ensure only you are receiving your mail. Another option to make sure that you're receiving all the mail that arrives is to sign up for Informed Delivery from the U.S. Postal Service. When you sign up for this service, you'll receive morning emails previewing the mail that's due to arrive later that day.

· Cancel all jointly owned credit cards.

It only takes five or ten minutes to cancel your credit cards, and in that same five or ten minutes, your spouse could charge $5,000 on them. If the card is still jointly owned, and you are not yet separated or divorced, it's likely that you and your spouse will share responsibility for that $5,000 credit card debt. Be sure to give your spouse a heads-up that you intend to cancel the cards. Otherwise, your spouse could be left trying to make a purchase with a declined credit card, which will lead to further discord (and maybe a desire to get even with you for the inconvenience).

· Make a record of all personal property.

Inventory your entire home and its contents—this will make it easier for you and your spouse (or the court) to divide your marital property. It will also give you a solid record if objects "disappear" from the family home during the divorce. The best way to do this is with a video recording: Pull items out to a location where you can record a clear view, and open drawers so the contents are visible. Make sure the date function is turned on, so the date is visible when the video is viewed. If possible, do this together with your spouse; if that isn't possible, provide them with a copy. Store the recording somewhere safe.

· Secure your more valuable personal property.

If you have valuable personal items, such as jewelry or a coin collection, find a safe place away from the home to store them. Personal mementos and other irreplaceable items should also be stored somewhere safe. This applies only to your personal (separate) property, not common possessions or community property. If at all possible, let your spouse know what you plan to remove and when you anticipate doing it.

· Reduce unnecessary expenses immediately.

Going through a divorce can put a squeeze on each person's finances—especially when you're trying to figure out how to make ends meet once you're on your own. Meet with your spouse and decide if there are expenses such as cable TV, food deliveries, or magazine subscriptions that you can cancel. Consider whether there are services that only one of you uses—such as a streaming subscription that only one of you watches—and put it in the name of only the spouse who wants the service.

· Don't sign anything.

Many people have made the mistake of signing papers or preliminary agreements, which later caused property and custody battles to be decided against them. Don't do it! You might be signing something that no attorney can modify (change) later. If your spouse wants you to sign something, politely say you'll be glad to, but your attorney has "ordered you not to sign anything" before they have a look at it.

· If any domestic violence occurs, call the police.

Don't allow your spouse to get away with any domestic violence against you or your children. If your spouse is abusive, or if you feel like you or your children are in danger, call the police immediately, insist that an officer come to your residence, and file a report. Contact your attorney's office and inform them as soon as possible. You might also want to consider seeking a restraining order if you fear that your spouse will continue to engage in acts of violence. You can reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Next Steps

Even when you follow all these tips, divorce can get messy. Although many people choose to DIY their divorce, it's not for everyone. An attorney can provide you with advice on how to implement these tips in your situation to ensure the best outcome possible. And, it can be very helpful to have the help and guidance of an attorney when your divorce is contentious or when you don't have the time or resources to research intricate divorce laws and procedures on your own. Furthermore, when there's been domestic violence or your spouse has threatened you, it's a good idea to hire an attorney so you can avoid personal contact with your soon-to-be-ex.

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