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Divorce Checklist: How to Prepare for Divorce

Get a Team Together
Gather Personal Information
Identify Your Personal Property
Organize Your Legal Documents
Get Your Finances in Order
Find a Place to Live
Take Care of Yourself

Make no mistake: Divorce is heartbreaking. It is a kind of death—the death of a dream, a marriage, your plans. The picture you had of your life suddenly ends up in ashes. And to make matters worse, you’re left to clean up a legal, emotional, spiritual and financial mess.

If you’re there now, hear me when I say I’m so sorry. This sucks. But you will survive. If you commit to small, daily changes—little wins—and connect with others in vulnerable relationships, you will come out stronger. I’ve put together this divorce checklist to help you care for yourself, your finances and your future.

Let’s be clear: I hate that I had to write this article. I rarely, if ever, encourage divorce. In almost every situation, I want people to save their marriage—to put in the hard work and rebuild a stronger, more beautiful, lasting union.  

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The Dr. John Delony Show helps people through real-life marriage challenges. Listen now!

But if you’re facing the difficult reality of divorce, this checklist will walk you through the steps of preparing for divorce. So grab a cup of coffee or tea and let’s get started.

And remember: Light will come after darkness.  

1. Get a Team Together

Divorce feels lonely and cold. Some days you want to crawl into bed and never come out. Sometimes it’s good to withdraw and feel the dark grief. But it cannot be your chief coping strategy.

You need to take care of yourself (more on that soon). For now, here is the most important thing I’ll say: You cannot do this alone. You need other people. Not your kids and not just your parents. You need a gang. A tribe. A carload of 2 a.m. ride-or-die friends. These people should have good boundaries, thick skin and your best interests in mind.

Do two things when choosing your support team. First, choose people who can support you in different areas—because divorce affects every square inch of your life.

Second, let each person help in appropriate ways. Your attorney is not your therapist. Your therapist is not your friend. Your friend is not your attorney (unless they really are an attorney). Instead of unfairly expecting people to do things they can’t, stick to the expertise they can give in their specific areas.

Build your team to fill these roles:

Emotional

Sometimes, talking to a trusted family member or friend is fine in a moment of need. But I always recommend meeting with a professional counselor or minister. Especially if you’re coping with major trauma—like domestic or substance abuse, or childhood trauma kicked up by the divorce. You may just need one session, or you may need some deep healing. Either way, let your friends be your friends and lean on professionals for the heavy lifting.

Physical

During divorce, your body switches into fight-or-flight mode and makes tons of adrenaline and cortisol. Keeping those stress chemicals in your system for a long time is unhealthy. So take care of your body, and pay attention to your needs even when you don’t feel like it. Hit the gym with a friend. Go for walks with a work buddy at lunch. Eat well. Get a full night’s sleep. Choose less caffeine, less alcohol, less Netflix and less loneliness.

Legal

While you can complete an amicable divorce with a ton of mutual maturity, most people need a divorce lawyer. A good lawyer will help you understand your rights, responsibilities and all the legal talk so you can make educated choices about your future. Just make sure your attorney has the heart of a teacher, not the heart of a nuclear demolition expert.

Hear me on this: You will not win if you use your attorney as a weapon to wage war against your ex. You might get the house, the dresser or the dog. But you will lose your dignity and hurt your kids. You win when you let your lawyer help you legally close the relationship, then move on. Besides, every exchange with a lawyer costs money. You’ll save major time and money if you keep your emotions in check and make a list ahead of time of what you want to discuss with your lawyer.

Financial

Financial changes will be some of your biggest stressors, so talk to a financial planner. They’ve walked other clients through divorce and can help you make good financial decisions.

You’ll also need to take a long, hard look at all your insurance policies (more on that later). For now, find a trustworthy local broker who can get you the best rates and the most coverage. 

Spiritual

Divorce causes deep pain in your soul. You may question your worth or judgment: How could this person leave you? How could you pick someone who would hurt you so badly? What is wrong with you? What was wrong with them?  

If you’re a person of faith, you may question your place in your religious community, your relationship with God or even your salvation. People will come out of the woodwork saying stupid, misguided things about you, God and your future.

But the truth is—no matter your faith—you are worth love and respect. God has not left you. You are valuable. Find compassionate people who will walk with you and say, “Man, this sucks. I don’t know the answer. But we’ll do this together.” 

Kids

Divorce hurts kids. Relational tension, drawn-out court battles, trashing your spouse, using your kids as bargaining chips and hiding things from them all create lasting trauma.

If you’re a parent, remember that your kids are not on your emotional support team! You’re on theirs. It’s your job to love, protect, support and connect with your kids. It doesn’t matter if they’re two or 22, they will struggle with the fallout from their parents separating. And they’ll probably feel like it’s their fault.

Children—especially young ones—see themselves as half mom, half dad. So even though your soon-to-be ex might be horrible, decide not to talk bad about them in front of your kids. When children hear those poisonous words, they absorb that poison too. They believe half of them is bad. The separation is already painful—don’t hurt them more with unkind words.

Don’t pit them against your spouse either. Your children are not spies to rat out what your spouse says or tools to “win” the divorce. Don’t force them to play that role.

Instead, model what grieving looks like—in age-appropriate doses. Let your kids know you’re in pain. Let them see tears . . . and healing. Let them see you with friends or turning off the TV to take walks. Hold them tightly and say “I love you” every day.

And find people to help you support them—like a youth leader, their favorite coach or a school counselor. Because even if you reassure your kids they can talk to you, they might prefer someone further from the situation. And that’s okay!

During the divorce, you will feel alone, scared and overwhelmed. Some days will be heavy darkness and drawn curtains. Other days, you’ll feel like singing (preferably 80s rock songs). Assemble your team to love and support you and your kids every day.

2. Gather Personal Information

Finding your support team takes time. So while you pull people together, prepare for the divorce by gathering these four types of personal info: 

Individual Info

Some of this information about you and your spouse is for practical or even safety purposes. Things you used to share need to be private now. It may not be that big of a deal if your ex uses your Disney+, but they could do some serious financial and emotional damage if they have access to your mail, email or bank account.

You may need to change passwords, get a new email address, or get a P.O. box where you can safely receive mail from your attorney. These boundaries may be hard to set, but they’re critical.

And some of this info helps with the legal process. Your attorney needs proof of residency to follow your state’s divorce laws. And the judge needs to know how much you and your spouse make so they can award child support and alimony.

You’ll need this information: 

  You Your Spouse
Full legal name ✔️ ✔️
Birthdate ✔️ ✔️
Address where attorneys can send or serve legal papers ✔️ ✔️
Proof of state residency ✔️  
Social security number ✔️ ✔️
Employer’s name and contact info ✔️ ✔️
Length of employment ✔️ ✔️
Salary or hourly wage ✔️ ✔️
Usernames and passwords to all online accounts ✔️  

Marital Info 

Talking about your marital history will be painful. But you must choose to be vulnerable and brave by sharing these details with your attorney:

•    Copies of past marriage and divorce certificates, plus why you got divorced
•    When and where you and your spouse were married
•    Names of the people who signed your marriage license
•    Every date and time you and your spouse visited a marriage counselor together—or when you went alone if your spouse refused to go
•    Reason(s) for the divorce, like infidelity, substance or spousal abuse, incompatibility, etc.

Lean on your support team as you collect this info. And remember: This list is for your attorney, so be professional and precise. Don’t write, “Because that stupid, lying idiot cheated on me for 10 years.” Save that rant for your counselor. For the attorney, write, “Infidelity throughout the marriage.” 

Divorce Info

If you’re further along in the process, you or your spouse may already have some temporary orders in place. If so, keep these documents handy: 

•    Restraining order
•    Child custody order
•    Visitation order
•    Prenuptial or postnuptial agreement
•    Separation agreement

Kids’ Info 

This sounds weird, but you may not need info for all your kids. So let’s define which kids we mean.

Kids who are: Under 18 Over 18 Over 18 with a long-term disability
Yours and your spouse’s biologically Yes No Yes
Adopted Yes No Yes
From your past marriage     Yes No Yes
From your spouse’s past marriage Yes No Yes

 

You may have to hunt for each child’s information, which is no fun even if your spouse helps. Hang in there. You can do this. You’ll need:

  • Full name and birthdate
  • Social Security card and birth certificate
  • Medical history, medications, special care instructions and allergy information
  • Contact info for your child’s . . .
    • Family doctor, dentist, eye doctor or specialists
    • School
    • Daycare or caretaker
  • A description of current childcare arrangements
  • A description of current custody arrangements and addresses for places where visitation takes place
  • Amounts of child support you already receive or pay
  • An accurate list of expenses, like school tuition, medical bills, clothes, sports, music lessons and so on
  • The policyholder’s name and policy number for your child’s health insurance
  • Adoption records
  • An actual calendar where you write visitation times and custody handoffs (this way, you won’t miss anything, and your kids will know you care)

Sometimes, spiteful spouses hide documents about themselves, the kids or even their ex. If this happens, don’t roll in the mud with a pig! Meaning, don’t get even with more childish behavior. Instead, ask your lawyer how to file formal motions to get these documents.

3. Identify Your Personal Property

Part of divorce is deciding who gets what. It’s tempting to take personal property to punish your spouse. But don’t. Everyone loses that way, even you. So be fair and have integrity.

The first step is to inventory the stuff you own individually or jointly with your spouse. List each item and its value, gather any relevant paperwork, then top it off with a photo so you have proof of what you own.

Personal property Examples Paperwork
Houses and land
  • Primary home and acreage
  • Vacation homes
  • Rental properties
  • Condos
  • Vacant land
  • Outbuildings (barns, workshops, etc.)
  • Deed
  • Insurance policy
  • Property tax info
  • Current mortgage or line of credit loan statement
  • Mortgage or line of credit loan statement from the time of the separation
Vehicles
  • Daily drivers (cars, SUVs, trucks)
  • Sports, show or race cars
  • Motorcycles
  • RVs, campers, motor homes
  • Boats, jet skis, watercraft
  • Snow mobiles
  • All-terrain vehicles
  • Aircraft
  • Trailers for hauling vehicles, equipment or livestock
  • Work vehicles (dump trucks, tractor trailers, etc.)
  • Registration
  • Title
  • VIN number
  • Insurance policy
  • Current loan statement
  • Loan statement from the time of the separation
  • Warranty
Machinery
  • Lawn mowers
  • Tractors
  • Implements (grader boxes, front-end loaders, posthole diggers, etc.)
  • Excavators
  • Bulldozers
  • Snowblowers, snowplows
  • Any other light or heavy machinery you own
  • Bill of sale
  • Serial or VIN number
  • Insurance policy
  • Current loan statement
  • Loan statement from the time of the separation
  • Warranty
Household items
  • Indoor and outdoor furniture
  • Bedding and linens
  • Electronics
  • Cookware
  • Grills
  • Décor
  • Receipt 
  • Current loan statement
  • Loan statement from the time of the separation
  • Warranty 
Personal items
  • Antiques
  • Jewelry 
  • Tools 
  • Collections of alcohol, figurines, etc.
  • Recreational equipment (camping or sports gear)
  • Anything in your safety deposit box at the bank
  • Family photos or other items of significant sentimental value
  • Receipt
  • Warranty
Pets and livestock
  • Cats 
  • Dogs
  • Birds
  • Reptiles
  • Horses
  • Cattle
  • Pigs
  • Chickens
  • Animal care products and equipment (food, bedding, leashes, toys, crates, saddles, wheelbarrows, etc.)
  • Bill of sale or adoption records
  • Registration papers
  • Contact info for the vet and (for horses) farrier
  • Vaccination records and medical history
  • A list of medications, allergies and care instructions for each animal or group of animals
  • Receipts or warranties for supplies 

 

You can have these items appraised by professionals or do it yourself with some online research. You can also group small items to save time. You might say, “Various cooking utensils. Value unknown.” Then, focus your inventory on specific, valuable items you want to protect. 

And don’t sweat it if you lost a receipt or two. Just gather the paperwork you have and get accurate appraisals.

Okay—now it’s time to collect all your legal documents. This may feel boring, but trust me: It’s important. If you don’t know where the papers are or your spouse is acting like a brat, your lawyer can help you get these important documents: 

End-of-life plans Insurance policies Tax returns Businesses (owned by you and/or your spouse)
  • Will
  • Powers of attorney
  • Advance health care directives
  • Homeowner’s or renter’s
  • Auto
  • Life
  • Long-term disability
  • Long-term care
  • Umbrella
  • Identity theft
  • Three years’ worth of W-2s 
  • OR three years’ worth of 1099s
  • Registrations, patents or trademarks
  • Receipts
  • Tax returns
  • Payroll information

 

Basically, make a copy of any legal document that proves your personal information or relates to insurance or end-of-life plans.

Update Your Insurance

You need insurance policies only in your name so you’re no longer financially responsible for your ex or their stuff. Otherwise, if your ex wrecks their car after the divorce, you could be liable if your name is still on the policy.

Health insurance is a little different, since the policyholder can’t drop their spouse or kids until the divorce is final. But it may be easier to go ahead and get your own insurance. The key is to learn how to compare health plans so you can get the right one for you. 

Another reason to update your insurance is to name a new beneficiary. Life insurance and disability payouts should go to loved ones who depend on your income—not your ex. And while you’re at it, be sure you have a term life policy worth 10–12 times your annual income.

Finally, you need identity theft protection. In 2019, Americans reported over 3.2 million cases of fraud and identity theft.1 And divorce makes you extra vulnerable to fraud by scammers or even your ex. With identity theft protection, an expert team will help recover your info—and money—if anyone tries to scam you.

Update Your Will and Powers of Attorney

Like life insurance, your will should benefit your kids and other loved ones. You’ll need to update it so your stuff and money goes to them, not your ex. Just make sure to wait until the divorce is final so you know what assets to include. 

Your ex should be the kids’ guardian, so they can live with their other parent if something happens to you. Unless the kids aren’t safe with your ex. In that case, choose someone trustworthy and responsible.

When you create an online will after the divorce, you should update your powers of attorney too. After all, do you really want your ex making your financial or medical decisions for you?

5. Get Your Finances in Order

Money fights are a major contributor to divorce, and finding your financial footing afterwards can be scary. For now, focus on what you can control and don’t go down rabbit holes about what might happen. Start with these steps: 

Gather Financial Documents

You already gathered some financial documents with your personal info. But now it’s time to take a deep dive into every category of your money. Here’s what you need for both you and your spouse:

Category What you need from both parties
Bank Account numbers
Current statement
Cash A list of amounts of any cash you store in your home
Credit report A copy of your free, current credit report from Equifax, Experian or TransUnion
Health savings account Account number
Current statement
Inheritance Amount of any inheritance you received before or after marrying your spouse
Description of how (or if) you spent the inheritance
Mortgage debt and home equity lines of credit A current loan statement
A loan statement from the time of the separation
Evidence of any mortgage payments you’ve made since moving out of the house
Non-mortgage debt (cars, student loans, credit cards, etc.) A current loan statement
A loan statement from the time of the separation
Personal loans A list of anyone who owes you money
How much they owe you
When they’re supposed to pay you back
Retirement account(s) Account numbers
Current statement
Qualified Domestic Relations Order (only if the judge orders your spouse to transfer money into your retirement account)

 

While you’re at it, gather your login information for all your accounts. Then change your passwords immediately so your spouse can’t access them.

Separate Your Finances

When you get married, “his” and “hers” becomes “ours,” which is why we’re big on joint bank accounts here at Ramsey. But during a divorce, you have to draw new boundaries to protect yourself and your money. 

Get your own checking and savings accounts and reroute your paychecks there immediately. If you’re ready for Baby Step 4 (investing 15% of your income), set up your own retirement account. And if you stay in the house, get the utilities, digital subscriptions and other bills in your name. 

Those changes are usually pretty easy. But ditching your spouse’s debt? Not so much. Many people think they’re off the hook if the divorce court orders their spouse to pay a debt. But the truth is, you’re still responsible for debt your name is on—even if your spouse is told to pay it.

If they don’t, it’s usually best to settle the debt for pennies on the dollar. Yes, it sucks to get stuck with the bill. But settling will be worth it to get out of debt and rebuild your finances without your irresponsible ex. 

Put an Emergency Fund in Place

You’ve heard the saying, “When it rains, it pours.” Well, your emergency fund is your umbrella. Because even during this divorce crap-storm, other disasters will still happen. Your emergency fund saves you when your water heater leaks, your kid breaks an arm or your car spews oil all over the driveway. Stockpile as much cash as you can, as quick as you can. Even if you’re paying off non-mortgage debt on Baby Step 2, pause your debt snowball and only make minimum payments so you can pay your bills and attorney.   

Make a Monthly Budget

Right now, you might feel discouraged—or even terrified—about money. Divorce is expensive, and it’s normal to feel lost at sea financially. Expect to feel vulnerable. That’s why you have your support team. They’re your anchor, so hold onto them. 

Although it may seem hard, I want you to think of a positive financial future. Now’s the time to take control of your money. Then, once the divorce is final, you can become debt-free and live your financial dreams. 

Write down those dreams and a monthly budget. The dreams will motivate you to stick to the budget. The budget will help you set healthy spending limits so you can reach the dreams. And they’ll both help you keep your head above water during the divorce. 

Raise Your Income 

Divorce changes your finances—losing your spouse’s income, going back to work, paying child support or moving (more on that in a minute). The economic losses can be especially tough for single parents with sole custody. So it’s important to be realistic about your finances.

If you can’t pay your bills on what you make and you cut out everything extra, you have to put other plans on hold and make more money. This sucks and it hurts. 

You may need to take on a new career, extra shifts or a side hustle like delivering pizzas. Get creative or ask for help with childcare. And remember, this difficult season is not forever. Be proud of yourself for taking control of your life. 

6. Find a Place to Live

Some couples live together until the divorce is final. But usually, someone needs to move out. If living with your spouse is too painful, start looking at your options. And if you or your kids are unsafe at home, get out immediately! 

Moving out is painful in many ways. Emotionally, it makes the separation more real. Financially, it can be a burden—especially if you rent and still pay for your marital home. So it’s important to choose the right housing.

If You Stay in the Home

You may feel like you won if you get to keep the house. But now you have to be able to afford it. “Affordable” means your rent or mortgage costs less than 25% of your take-home pay. Any more and you need to consider other options.

Is your spouse willing or required to make payments? Is there another way to stay afloat? If not, you may have to sell the home and relocate. (Talk to your spouse first if the house is still in their name, though!)

Don’t keep a home you can’t afford to feel victorious or keep up appearances. Be realistic and humble—your divorce is not like the ones in movies. If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. 

If You Move Out

The same rule still applies: Your new place should cost 25% or less of your take-home pay.

You may think, “That’s impossible! This area is expensive” or “I don’t have any credit—my spouse made the money.” Even people with a high income think they can’t find new housing after divorce for these reasons. But you can find an apartment or even buy a house without a credit score. In fact, no credit score can actually be good. 

Most apartment complexes will rent to you if you have proof of income. And some mortgage companies do manual underwriting: They look at the big picture of your finances and what you can really afford, instead of denying you based on a stupid credit score. 

So you can find housing. Even if you have to move, downsize or make some lifestyle changes. Connect with a great real estate agent to help you find a safe, affordable place. Or get with friends and find a short-term apartment while you figure out your next steps. 

7. Take Care of Yourself

Divorce is horrible, even if you and your soon-to-be ex are on good terms. If not, it’s even worse. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take care of yourself—and to grieve. 

Give Yourself Permission to Grieve

You must let yourself hurt over the loss of your marriage. You need to grieve the Thanksgiving meals you won’t have, the front porch you’ll never build, the friend and parenting partner you lost, and the broken heart you didn’t expect. Don’t skip this important step.

Grief is natural, messy and different for everyone. Keep your team close as you work through these feelings. 

Keep It Civil

I’ve said this several times, but it’s important enough to say again: Do not go to war against your ex. You may need to double down to do what’s best for your children, but do not seek to punish your spouse. The only people who win divorce wars are the lawyers.  

Acrimonious divorce is a legal phrase you may hear if you and your spouse are on bad terms. It means you—or your spouse—are making the legal process worse by unleashing your hurt, anger or resentment on the other person. 

Don’t get me wrong: It’s tempting to try to get your spouse back for the pain they inflicted. But spite won’t heal you. It won’t give you back the time and energy you poured into this marriage. It won’t make the other person act how you want. In fact, going to war during divorce is like drinking poison and hoping your ex dies. They won’t. It’ll just make you—and your kids—sick. 

And it can ruin your chances in court, your family relationships and your finances. If you act hostile, pit your kids against the other parent, party or date before the divorce is final, the judge could award your spouse more money, property or time with the kids. 

So keep the divorce (and your feelings about it) off social media. Don’t send any rude, ugly or relationship-related texts or emails. Don’t talk bad about your spouse in public. It will feel good for a minute, but it’ll do far more damage than it’s worth. When you need to cry and hurt, do that with your team behind closed doors. 

Create a New Picture for Your Life 

Now’s the time to start caring for yourself in ways maybe you never have. So sit with a journal, a cup of coffee and a good friend, and have a dream session. What do you really want? Who do you want to be? What’s something you always wanted to try but were afraid to? 

Maybe now you finally treat your body well. Maybe you paint or weld. Maybe you go back to school, change careers or travel. Whatever inspiring, healthy things spark your interest, pursue them.

Because one day you’ll wake up and the divorce you took all these steps to prepare for will be over. And your life will be full of people and things that bring you joy—because you chose that. 

Get More Support

Once you have a dream session and set clear goals, do one more thing: Connect with a financial coach who can help you achieve those dreams by teaching you how to win with money. 

And even on the hard days, remember there is hope. You’ll be amazed at where you go and what you do when you complete this divorce checklist. 

So acknowledge this hard time. Grieve it. Then go be brave, because you’re worthy of love, joy and a full life. 

Be well. 

Dr. John Delony

About the author

Dr. John Delony

Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with two PhDs in counselor education and supervision, and higher education administration from Texas Tech University. Before joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now as a Ramsey Personality, he teaches on relationships, mental health and wellness. Learn More.

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