Divorce Defense: 10 Steps to Take Before You Separate

--An excerpt from Surviving Separation and Divorce

If you have an inkling that separation is headed your way, peruse this list. Call it looking out for number one, but if you don't-trust me-no one else will. Don't feel guilty about taking these measures if you must. And if you are dealing with domestic violence, turn to Chapter 5 for additional strategies.

1. Knowledge is power. Know where you and your husband have bank accounts, life insurance policies, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, all other instruments of finance, and important documents such as social security cards, passports, birth and stock certificates, and the details of his pension, 401 (k), and other employee benefits. Know the location of and have access to safe deposit boxes. Your county recorder of deeds can help you track down real estate and deeds.

If your marriage is just short of the ten-year mark, you may want to wait it out, if you can and if it's safe. You'll have more bargaining power in matters such as alimony, social security, pension benefits, and more. This is because courts tend to view marriages lasting at least ten years or more as longer term. Therefore, you may be eligible for a portion of your husband's pension and social security benefits (when you reach the age to claim these), and you may qualify for alimony. It's all good reason to speak with an attorney before moving out, or asking him to.

2. Become a financial sleuth. Obtain statements and balances for bank accounts, plus copies of wills and trusts. Make duplicate copies of computer files with financial data. The Social Security office can give you a current report of earning for both of you. Collect as many of your husband's pay stubs as possible. In some professions there are multiple paychecks. For instance, a police officer might receive separate payment for his court appearances. Or there could be bonuses or commissions accounted for on separate pay stubs. Most of this shows up on a W-2, but this doesn't help if it's July.

3. Safeguard heirlooms and liquid assets. Seek appraisals for artwork, antiques, and other collectibles. Take any sentimental or important objects to a friend's house for safekeeping. Be certain that your name is recorded on the house deed or apartment lease. Do not stash cash in a safe deposit box; for pending litigation, boxes are sometimes sealed. Make sure you revoke any powers of attorney your spouse may have and ask brokerage firms to check for identification before your name is signed to anything.

4. Open a bank account in your name. It only takes one party to raid an account, and you don't want to be left without any money. Certainly do not deposit any more of your own money into a joint account, even if you transfer that into your own name. Establish a new account for future deposits, preferably at another bank. This is where you can keep an emergency fund to live on and pay legal bills, at least until support is established. Don't be surprised if a spouse petitions for joint accounts to be frozen, pending equitable distribution in a divorce. This is another reason to have your own access to funds.

5. Establish credit in your own name. As soon as separation takes place, cancel or report missing jointly held credit cards. Then, go out and set up new accounts in your name only.

6. Pay as many bills as possible. Do this prior to separation so that you are not stuck with the obligations, risk having utilities shut off, or fight off a bad credit rap.

7. Take care of household or car repairs. If you've been putting these off, make that upgrade, such as air conditioning, a driveway, or a patio, particularly if you are fairly certain you will maintain and live in the residence at settlement. If you currently have an old vehicle and can afford to upgrade your set of wheels, do so. You'll need transportation, and as long as the expenditure is modest, you won't be faulted for a new (or slightly used) car. Indeed, if there is a manufacturer's warranty, you'll save money in years to come.

8. Look after your health-care needs. Visit your doctor for a routine checkup, annual OB/GYN exam, vision testing, or dental cleaning and x-rays. Chances are good your health-care coverage will remain in force for at least several months longer, but you might be responsible for any co-pays or procedures that aren't covered. So see to these visits now, and order any dental work or new glasses or contacts if they would be covered on your health plans.

9. Invest in a better work wardrobe. I'm not suggesting that you buy out Saks Fifth Avenue, only that you purchase some basics to see you through job interviews and career commitments. Focus on a few good suits and the appropriate accessories. But hey, a new bathing suit could do wonders for the self-esteem as well!

10. Stock the pantry. This might sound silly, but if funds get tight (and if you're dealing with a belligerent husband, they just might), you won't need to spend as much on groceries if you've stocked the pantry and filled the freezer.

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