January has often been called “divorce month” in and out of legal circles. In my experience as a family lawyer, January and February have always been the months I receive the most first-time inquiries regarding separation and divorce. Many other family lawyers have told me their experience is the same.
What are some reasons for this “divorce season”? Some people may have realized prior to the holidays that they no longer wish to stay in their relationship but decided to wait until after the festivities to either enjoy one last Christmas as a family or to avoid the awkwardness of announcing a separation during the holiday season.
For others, especially for those whose finances or extended family have been a source of conflict, the holiday season exposes or magnifies the strains in their relationship. The new year also seems to have an effect on motivating people to make a significant change in their life.
A study from the University of Washington, Department of Sociology, analyzed divorce filings in Washington state between 2001 and 2012 and found that they peaked in March and August. This makes sense and is consistent with my experience, as many people make their initial inquiries shortly after the holidays, in January and February, and will have decided by March which lawyer to hire and organized the information their lawyers requested to commence their divorce proceedings.
If you are preparing to separate or have just recently separated, below are some tips you may want to make note of:
Gather financial information and documents
You should try your best to gain a clear understanding of you and your spouse’s financial situation. If you have access to your spouse’s financial documents, make copies or take pictures of documents such as bank statements, investment statements, debt statements (including credit card statements), income-tax returns, pension documents, insurance documents, receipts for significant expenses, and receipts for valuable items such as jewellery, precious metals, or artwork. Obtain statements as far back as possible, including statements from just before the relationship started, throughout the relationship, and current.
Secure funds for your living and legal expenses
In most cases, your expenses will increase significantly after you and your spouse separate. If you do not continue to live in the same home, which is usually the case, you will have to each financially maintain your own home. You may be in a situation where your spouse is the primary income earner and you will no longer have access to that financial support. It is therefore important that you secure funds for your living costs and legal expenses, at the very least for a few months. You may have to borrow from family or friends or obtain a loan. Making these arrangements prior to separating will significantly reduce your stress.
Also, if all your bank accounts are accessible by your partner, promptly open your own account and arrange to have any pay from your employer deposited into your sole account.
Beware of what can become evidence
Assume that almost anything could be brought before a court as evidence. This includes social-media posts, emails, texts, chat history, voicemails, and pictures. So be careful that you do not create evidence that will be damaging to your case.
Ensure you have a support network
Separations are difficult. Even the most amicable separations will have stressful moments. It is a tremendous benefit to have friends and family around you to support you through this process. Counselling or support groups can be another critical source of support. Many people neglect to pay attention to their mental and emotional health through this process, which can cause long-term health issues as well as hinder your ability to think clearly and efficiently to reach a resolution.
Children are smarter than you think
If you have children, do not denigrate your partner to them or around them and do not share with them the details of any legal proceedings. Children, no matter how young, very quickly learn and feel the negativity between their parents. Even if you do not intend to, children can easily feel that they are put in the middle of the conflict. Judges will look very unfavorably upon a parent who involves their children in the conflict.
Another tip relevant to separations involving children is to stay in the home, unless there are family-violence concerns. It may be difficult to move back into the home once you have moved out and allowed your partner to stay there. Children need stability. Keeping them in the same home and in the room that they are used to is often a factor judges will consider in making decisions about parenting time that is in the children’s best interests.
Get legal advice from a family lawyer
Family law is very fact-specific. Do not think that a story you heard about your coworker’s brother’s friend’s cousin—who went through a divorce and got sole custody of his child and all the property—will apply to your situation. A lawyer practising family law can provide a detailed analysis of the facts and law that apply to your situation and guide you through the process. It is crucial that you have realistic expectations about your rights and obligations in order to resolve your situation in an amicable, cost-effective, and fair manner.
Lastly (and perhaps I say this because I have eaten too many Valentine’s chocolates), if there is any—even the tiniest—possibility that you and your spouse would be willing to give your relationship another try, do it. Try to think back to why you fell in love in the first place and find a good marriage counsellor.
A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is for general informational purposes only and is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, seek legal advice from a lawyer.