As the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic continues to plague the world, and the phrases “social distancing” and “self-quarantining” become household terms across the epicenter of the Coronavirus, namely New York City and its surrounding boroughs, anger and emotions will undoubtably boil over which will inevitably lead to a surge in filings for divorce in the coming months. If you or a loved one are contemplating the commencement of an action for divorce following the release of the Federal and New York State COVID-19 restrictions, I strongly suggest that you take this self-imposed pause in our lives to read the following article to prepare for your divorce intelligently. The following are ten (10) steps you can take to prepare for your upcoming divorce while waiting for the Coronavirus restrictions to end:
- Gathering Financial Documentation: Arguably the most important document that you will complete in the process of a divorce is your Statement of Net Worth. This is a sworn document which both you and your spouse will prepare that details your income, expenses, assets and liabilities. The Statement of Net Worth must be accurately and meticulously prepared whether or not your matter reaches the steps of a Courthouse. Towards that end, while you practice “social distancing” from your spouse, it is important to compile the documents that you will need to complete this essential form. Specifically, to start, I recommend that you organize and gather at least one (1) full year of checking account statements (including cancelled checks, check ledgers), and credit card statements to enable you to determine your monthly expenses. Regarding income, I would recommend putting together your last three (3) paystubs, W-2 and tax returns for the past three (3) years; or if you are self-employed, copies of your business checking account statements, general ledgers, balance sheets, profit and loss statements and any other indicia of income. You should also organize all savings account, certificate of deposit, brokerage account, life insurance cash surrender, retirement account statements for the past year along with proof of purchase of any vehicles or real property.
- Inventory, Inventory, Inventory: While you are “self-quarantined,” it would be extremely helpful to walk from room to room and prepare a written inventory of the items of personal property that are contained in each room. This advice is crucial especially if you decide to voluntarily remove yourself from the marital residence or are involuntarily removed. In fact, taking pictures of the rooms with furniture, furnishings and housewares, including the basement and garage will be helpful when you are trying to decide what items of personal property you want to retrieve at the conclusion of your case. If your spouse maintains a cash business, it would be a good idea to take pictures of the “wads” of cash that exist in the shoebox in the closet or other location of the house where these funds are stored. If you and your spouse own a safe deposit box, it would also be a good practice to travel to your bank and make an inventory list of the contents in the box and take a picture of the sign in “log” of visits made to the box.
- Change your Passwords and Maintain Social Media Isolation: During your “social distancing,” take the time and log in to each and every account that you maintain and change the password to avoid your spouse snooping around your personal matters. I have also recommended to my clients that they open a new e-mail account with a never before used password for the purposes of communicating with your matrimonial attorney during the pendency of an action for divorce. I also recommend removing yourself from all Social Media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn and any other web page that will reveal personal information about yourself.
- A Picture says a Thousand Words: Once an action for divorce is commenced, your spouse will need to be personally served by someone over the age of eighteen (18) (other than you) with the summons and complaint. As a result, it is important that you have a recent picture of your spouse to enable the process server to properly identify him or her.
If any physical violence has occurred, it is extremely important that you take a picture of any bruises or other distinguishing marks on your body to illustrate the abuse that was inflicted upon you by your spouse. I would recommend that you immediately contact the police and obtain a police report of the incident and if you are forced to seek medical attention, gather any medical reports and letters from your doctor concerning your injuries.
Finally, in contested custody matters, it is helpful to start retrieving pictures and videos containing you and your child(ren) to demonstrate your close and loving relationship with them in the event that this issue is litigated at trial.
- Reading is Fundamental: Although I am sure it is not on your top 10 list of reading materials, you should skim through your medical insurance plan booklet to see what internists, specialists and/or mental health professionals are covered under your plan if you need to meet with him/her. In addition, if you or your spouse maintain a pension plan, it would be helpful to read the plan booklet to see what pre and post-retirement survivorship rights are available to each of you. At a minimum, you should at least keep a copy of these booklets handy or copy the relevant pages.
- Dear Diary: In contested custody and family offense matters, maintaining a diary or journal which details specific events on specific days is vital. While there is no need to write a book of daily activities, a simple blurb of specific detailed events will be helpful in recounting something you did or your spouse didn’t do, or if you were the victim of domestic violence, or if custody becomes contested.
- Research Expenditures: You need to start planning your life after divorce now while you are self-quarantined. For example, if you are thinking about moving out of the marital residence at the conclusion of your matter, begin searching for comparable residences that meet the needs of yourself and your children while staying within your overall budget. If you desire to have your child attend a private school or sleep away camp, start researching the cost to see if it can fit in your budget. Do the legwork now.
- Research Attorneys: Once you have made the decision to go forward with the divorce process or even if you have preliminary questions, you are going to need to research an attorney. While this task can be the focus of an article in and of itself, you should at least begin your search by thinking about how you want to have your mattered handled. For example, do you want to mediate, proceed through collaborate law or litigate. At Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein, LLP, we have skilled professional attorneys that are trained in each of these methods of dispute resolution. Most importantly, you need to find someone who you are comfortable in discussing sensitive matters and meets your budget in terms of cost.
- Building a Fund: Divorce can be an expensive proposition. While applications for counsel fees can be made, it takes time to obtain a decision from the Court. Since you have the time during this COVID-19 pandemic to ponder your options, it may be helpful for you to confide in your family (Mother, Father, Sibling, Aunt/Uncle) as to your plan and find out if they can assist you financially in commencing the action for divorce. Building a “fund” in which you can quickly retain counsel to start your action for divorce is crucial. If you cannot get the financial assistance of family, this is something that you will need to discuss with your attorney and alternate arrangements will need to be made.
- Help me help you: In my experience, the best clients are those that are mentally strong, are organized and have done preparation ahead of time. Divorce can be a difficult and overwhelming process especially when there are children involved. There is no need to do this alone. Do not be shy about seeking out a mental health professional to speak with you prior to commencing the action for divorce. Some people have turned to “Divorce coaches” to help them cope with this process.
It is my hope that the information I have imparted will assist you in your journey once you have decided to “wash your hands” of your spouse.
Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP represents clients in a wide array of matrimonial matters. To schedule a consultation with an NYC divorce attorney, please calls us at 212-867-9123, or reach out to us through our contact form today. We maintain offices on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, in White Plains, and in Hackensack, NJ.
Michael is a partner at Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP. An experienced litigator and trial attorney practicing exclusively in the field of Matrimonial and Family Law since 1997, Michael has assisted high net worth individuals in navigating difficult matters relating to equitable distribution, child support, spousal maintenance, and contested custody matters with patience, skill, and sensitivity. Read more about Michael L. Fried.