How to prepare for and manage a divorce

No matter how long you and your spouse have been together, a divorce can be draining—both emotionally and financially. It can be especially difficult if you're unprepared or disorganized. To make the transition as smooth as possible, we've put together a divorce planning checklist to help you navigate the process.


  • The average cost of getting a divorce in 2019 was $12,780, which included $11,300 in attorney's fees and about $1,480 in other expenses.
  • On average, it takes 12 months to complete a divorce, from filing a petition to getting a final court judgment. If the case goes to trial, the average time is about 18 months.
  • Divorce is never easy but being prepared can help make the transition as smooth as possible. 
  • An experienced family law attorney can explain your rights and responsibilities and help you navigate the divorce process.

Discuss the Divorce

If you haven't talked with your spouse about divorce yet, decide when, where, and how to broach the subject. Try to pick a date that doesn't coincide with a major holiday, an anniversary, a child's birthday, or an important event. Then choose a time that will give both of you a chance to talk, think, reflect, and rest before work or other obligations arise. If possible, plan to have the conversation in a neutral place—out of the home and away from domestic triggers and distractions. Keep it simple, try to remain calm, and avoid saying more than you need to. 

Get Support 

Any divorce—even the amicable ones—can get messy and complicated. Put together a group of trusted friends and family members who will be there to listen and lend a hand. It's also a good idea to meet with a therapist, especially if you're coping with any trauma, such as domestic or substance abuse. And if you feel like you could use help making financial decisions, set up an appointment to speak with a financial planner or a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) to advise you.

Hire an Attorney

Even if your divorce will be amicable, it's best to hire an attorney who will help you understand your rights and responsibilities—and ensure you follow the appropriate steps. That way, you can make educated decisions about your (and your children's, if you have them) future. Seek out recommendations from family and friends and research several family law attorneys in your area to find a good lawyer. Be sure to interview a few candidates so you can find the one with whom you will be most comfortable.

Sort out the Separation Details

Some couples live together until the divorce is final, but usually, one spouse or the other moves out before that time. Decide where you, your partner, and your children will live. Keep in mind that maintaining two separate homes is expensive. Both you and your soon-to-be-ex should aim to spend no more than 25% of your respective take-home pay on rent or mortgage costs. Be sure to create a realistic budget that reflects the new living arrangements and ensures both households are safe. 

Make Plans for the Children

All divorces follow the same general process, but extra steps and considerations apply when children are involved. If you have kids, plan to meet with a local family law attorney to discuss where the kids will live (physical custody), visitation schedules, child support, and who will be involved in significant decisions related to the children (legal custody). You will also have to sort out who the kids will spend holidays, birthdays, and vacations with, as well as how you'll handle visits with extended family and friends.

Itemize Your Belongings

Part of divorce is figuring out who gets what. A good place to start is to make a list (and take photos) of personal items that belong only to you, such as artwork, jewelry, family heirlooms, or photos and papers that have special meaning to you. If necessary, give these items to a trusted family member or friend for safekeeping.

You should also make a list of properties you own jointly with your spouse. Try to include each item's value and gather relevant paperwork (such as your vehicle's registration and title). Be sure to include real estate, vehicles, machinery, household items, personal items, and pets. 

Compile Your Legal Documents

It's essential to have your financial paperwork organized and in one place, such as a file or binder. Start by collecting and making copies of your legal documents, including:

  • Marriage documents: agreements (e.g., prenuptial or postnuptial) and marriage license
  • Tax returns: federal and state tax returns for the past five years
  • Real estate: deeds, appraisals, cost basis of home, mortgages, rental property records
  • Business documents: receipts, tax returns, payroll information, and any registrations, patents, or trademarks
  • End-of-life plans: will, power of attorney, advance healthcare directive

If you have trouble finding any documents (or your spouse is making it difficult), your attorney can help. You will also need to update your insurance policies (so you aren't financially responsible for your ex), will, and powers of attorney.

Organize Your Financial Paperwork

Next, make copies of your financial statements (e.g., bank, investment, retirement accounts, health savings accounts (HSAs), and credit cards), insurance documents (homeowners, auto, life, personal liability), and loans (mortgage, car, home equity, and personal loans). Have your paperwork available in paper and digital format so it's easy to access wherever you are—and be sure to keep it all in a secure place.

Rent a P.O. Box 

Many bills and documents are sent electronically these days. However, if you plan to change your house after the divorce, set up a post office box now to ensure you don't miss any important paperwork (remember to forward your mail to the new address).

Change Your Passwords

Change your passwords on all your accounts, including email, banking, and credit cards. Since your spouse may know your passwords (or be able to guess), this helps ensure your privacy and that you will continue to have access to your personal accounts. 

Protect Your Credit

Filing for divorce won't impact your credit score directly, but your score could take a hit if you have late or missed payments because of the divorce. Keep in mind that if you live in a community property state, you and your spouse are equally responsible for any debts acquired while you were married.   

Even if a divorce decree gives your former spouse responsibility for a joint account, lenders and creditors can still come after you. To protect your credit, open new accounts in your name once you are separated. It's also a good idea to buy identity theft protection—a divorce makes you susceptible to scams by fraudsters or even your ex. 

The Bottom Line

Divorce is never easy, but you can help ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible if you stay organized, hire a competent attorney, and assemble a support team of friends and family. 

Divorce laws vary by state for matters such as process-serving requirements, waiting periods, and grounds for getting a no-fault divorce. Be mindful that even though your friend in a neighboring state had a quick and easy divorce, you may have a different experience due to your state's laws. Finally, keep in mind that every divorce is different and this checklist serves as a reference only—not a definitive guide. 

How Long Does a Divorce Take?

According to a survey conducted by legal website, the average time it takes to complete a divorce, from filing a petition to getting a final court judgment, is about 12 months. For cases that go to trial, the average time is closer to 18 months.

What Are the Legal Reasons for Divorce?

The reasons vary by state and whether it's an at-fault or a no-fault divorce. The legal grounds to file for an at-fault divorce include adultery, abandonment, impotence, infertility, criminal conviction, emotional or physical abuse, substance abuse, and mental illness. The reasons for a no-fault divorce include irreconcilable differences, incompatibility, and irretrievable breakdowns.

How Much Does a Divorce Cost?

According to a survey conducted by legal website Nolo, the average cost of divorce in 2019 was $12,780, including $11,300 in attorney's fees and about $1,480 in court costs, as well as fees for real estate appraisers, tax advisors, and other experts. However, the survey median of $7,000 is a more typical cost, given that expensive divorces can skew the average costs higher.

Article Sources
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  1. Nolo. "How Much Will My Divorce Cost?"

  2. "How Long Does Divorce Take?"

  3. Institute for Certified Divorce Financial Analysts. "What Is a CDFA?"

  4. Equifax. "Divorce, Debt and Credit."

  5. Halt Law Directory. "10 Legally Valid Reasons for Divorce."

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