Not many people enter marriage thinking it will lead to divorce. While accurate divorce rates are difficult to calculate and often unreliable, many social scientists conclude that up to 40% of marriages are terminated. The chances are fairly high that you or someone you know will get divorced.
"It can be the worst thing you've ever gone though in your life," says Brette Sember, a former divorce lawyer and author of a series of divorce books, including The Complete Divorce Handbook (Sterling, 2009). "You're hurt, sad, frustrated, scared and can't think clearly."
Regrettably, it is also one of the most important times to keep your wits about you, as the decisions you make during this time can affect you for the rest of your life. While divorce laws vary from state to state, here are some basic, but vitally important, guidelines to keep in mind.
Keep Your Business Head
A divorce can be an emotionally wrenching time. The first thing you might want to do is burn your husband's belongings, slash his tires, grab the kids and the stock portfolio and make a run for it. Don't do any of it! Remember that everything you do from here on out will be taken into account by a judge ready to decide your fate.
"Setting the lawn mower on fire is destroying marital assets," says Sember. "The judge will not be happy with you. Don't burn his baseball cards, don't e-mail threats to the new girlfriend."
Sember recommends doing everything you can to think rationally during this time: See a therapist, join a divorce support group and rely on close friends. She adds: "When you are angry, you can make impulsive decisions that are not good for you in the long run, like saying, 'Fine, keep the house!' Divorce is a business negotiation, and you've got to get your business head on." As long as you are not in danger, it's better to stay in the house so you can continue to gather financial and other information.
Grow Up and Take Control
Unfortunately, many women, even powerful professionals, are still in the dark about household finances. "Even the women who could be in charge of lots of money at work just step away from being financially responsible in their personal lives," says Margery Rubin, divorce coach and author of What Your Divorce Lawyer May Not Tell You (Simon & Schuster, 2009). "It's that 'Daddy will take care of me,' type of thing. I call it the 'Little Girl' syndrome."
But when you are divorcing 'Daddy,' it's time to grow up. You need to dig deep into the finances -- copy your husband's tax return or your shared tax returns. Many women, say lawyers, still just sign on the dotted line, or have their husband sign, without taking a good look at the information. Compile all the credit card statements, banks accounts, bills and a list of out-of-pocket expenses so you can make a budget and know what you're entitled to ask for financially.
"Literally, take the whole filing cabinet to Kinko's and photocopy everything," says Chicago divorce lawyer Beth Fawver McCormack, who also recommends "dumpster diving" for information that was thrown in the trash and putting keyboard sweeping software on shared home computers to find out about hidden bank accounts, businesses or other information. (If it is not a shared computer, but one used solely by your husband, seek counsel first.)