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The Smart Woman’s Guide to Divorce

5 Important Steps for Mothers

No parent of young children wants to think her marriage could end in divorce. Yet, the statistics are there, and everybody knows that for a variety of reasons, many families are faced with separation and divorce.

If you have any uneasiness about your own situation, or if a separation is imminent, you should take immediate steps to protect yourself and your children. There is a lot to know and understand if you want to go about things the right way, and your attitude and approach can make a big difference. Don’t rely exclusively on feedback from well-meaning friends and family. Every situation is different, and this is where you need good professional advice, knowledge, and a common-sense approach. Don’t let yourself get caught up in hurt and anger or in unrealistic expectations. Your focus needs to be on how to get yourself and your children through a difficult time in the least damaging way, and how to create the best situation and brightest future for your family under the circumstances.

Here are five critical initial steps a woman with children who is facing divorce should take:

1. Consult an established and respected family law attorney early on. Make sure the attorney you consult specializes in custody and divorce matters and can guide you through the process, helping you understand how to go about things in the most productive and affordable way. Find someone who believes that litigation should only be a last resort, and who believes there are a multitude of ways to work things out before going to court.

2. Gather information and documentation to develop an understanding of your family’s finances. A large part of the legal divorce process is the division of assets and debts and the determination of child and/or spousal support. It is necessary to understand and have documents that show what each person’s income is, what the expenses are, what debts there are, and what assets and liabilities there are to be divided. The financial decisions are either made by the court or by the parties if they can agree, but financial information and documentation is necessary regardless of whether the parties make an agreement or go to court for a decision. It is important to develop a financial plan and a budget to see what your needs are and what is going to be affordable.

3. Learn about the divorce process and how it works. There are certain temporary matters that have to be resolved when a couple with children first separates, and then there are longer-term matters to be decided. At first, this can be as basic as who lives in the house, how do the bills and expenses get paid, what happens about health insurance, or how and when do the children spend time with each parent? The long-term matters include a division of assets and liabilities, development of parenting plans, and determination of any child and/or spousal support. Try to keep lines of communication open with your spouse. Take a close look at how agreements can be made through communications using agreement checklists, and, if necessary, through mediation or negotiations.

4. Recognize that children need both parents and that it only hurts the children when parents criticize each other or fight over the children. Your children’s needs must continue to come first. No matter how much you and your spouse may have ill feelings toward each other, it is important not to bad-mouth the other parent or put the children in the middle of your issues. Let adult issues stay between the adults, and don’t ask the children to take sides. Do what is best for your children. Don’t talk about the adult issues in front of the children, as it only hurts them, but give them age-appropriate answers to their questions and encourage the children to talk about their feelings and fears. Stay on the highest plane you can, and let small things go. Even when you have differences, treat each other with dignity and try to engage in a respectful, business-like process of working out the matters that have to be arranged.

5. Be realistic about the need for two homes when parents with children separate. The old saying that “two cannot live as cheaply as one” is true. Recognize that it will cost more to have two households, and it may not be possible to maintain the same lifestyle for yourself and the children when you separate. If you have been a stay-at-home mom, you may need to go back to work. If you need additional skills, you may need to go back to school or seek other training to acquire them. Even if it was agreed that you would be a stay-at-home mom, few families can afford to continue this arrangement when a divorce occurs. Try to figure out a plan that will work for all of you.

When you are going through a divorce or separation, sometimes it is hard to realize you can still have a bright future. If you let your vision of a successful future for yourself and your children guide you and try to make solid decisions rather than feud with your spouse, you will create a better long-term outcome for your family. Don’t let a contested divorce consume your life if you can find a way to engage in a cooperative process to resolve matters.

Phoebe Hall
Phoebe P. Hall is an elder law, estate planning, and family law attorney who has been practicing law since 1969. She is CEO of Hall & Hall, PLC and sits on the board of visitors for Virginia Commonwealth University. A Richmond resident, she has two children and three granddaughters.
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