Family Law

Top 10 Tips When Gathering Information for Your Divorce

By Aaron Thomas, Attorney
Find out what documents and information you should gather if you're planning for divorce.

When determining how to divide a couple’s marital estate during a divorce, the devil is the in details. Also, the details are in the documents. Figuring out what assets and debts comprise your marital estate is no small feat for most couples. You’ll need a lot of information and documents from different sources to have an accurate financial picture. The more information you can gather at the beginning of your divorce, the easier—and cheaper—it will be for you and your attorney to navigate this difficult time.

This article will lay out 10 categories of documents or information that you’ll want to gather when preparing for a divorce. If you have additional questions after reading this article, contact local family law attorney for help.

Bank Documents

When preparing for divorce, you’ll need to gather at least your last three years of statements for your financial accounts. To divide your marital estate, you need to know your current balances of your bank accounts, but obtaining years of statements is what will give your lawyer the full financial picture.

Determining alimony or child support requires putting together a budget of what you and your spouse normally spend. It can also be important to see whether money has been inappropriately moved from an account, or whether spending has been increasing or decreasing. Bank account statements also often lead to the discovery of affairs or other secret actions and misconduct. If you’re going to make a claim that certain items should be your separate property, it may be necessary to go further back than three years.

Retirement Account Statements

You’ll also want to locate your retirement account statements. Just like bank statements, the most recent statement may show what you’re going to ultimately divide. However, it’s just as important to know whether a spouse has removed money from a retirement account during the marriage. If you had money in your retirement account prior to the marriage starting, you may be able to argue that you keep that money separate and apart from the property division.

Real Property

Often, the largest asset that a couple owns is their home. Gathering information about the property's value and related debts will help your attorney properly weigh that asset against the other assets and debts that you own.

Find your most recent mortgage statement and any home equity lines of credit, so you can know how much debt is still owed against the house. If you have liens on the home, you should gather any documentation about the lien to provide to your attorney as well.

While the purchase price may be a good starting point for determining the value of the home, it’s not the only or best indicator. An offer from an interested buyer is the most accurate assessment of what your home is worth, but a recent appraisal from a reputable appraisal company will be the best valuation method for most couples. You can get an appraisal of most homes completed for less than $1,000. Given that in the current housing market, home values can easily fluctuate by tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a year, a professional home appraisal is often well worth the expense for most individuals.

If you don't get an appraisal, you may use “comps,” or comparable prices of what similar houses in your neighborhood have sold for. In a pinch, you can even use sites like Zillow or Trulia, although those values can vary wildly and may not have enough accuracy for the purposes of your divorce.

Email and Text Messages

While often overlooked in favor of gathering financial documents, it can be important to go through your emails and text messages for evidence that could potentially be relevant in your divorce case. Each case is different, so speak with a family law attorney for advice, but if your spouse has admitted to bad conduct during the marriage, such as adultery, via text message or email, saving those messages can make a big difference in your case.

Social Media

In this day and age, people often live their lives in public, on social media. A skilled family law attorney can glean lots of useful information from a Facebook page. For example, if a spouse is fighting for primary custody of their children, but their social media page is full of drinking, partying, and profanity, it can be helpful to save some of that information for potential use in court. Similarly, it might not be a bad idea to take a look at what your social media presence says about you and the goals you have for your case. If you are presenting an image of a doting parent, you want to make sure your social media doesn’t present a different image that could be used against you in court.

Photos and Videos

Photographic and videographic evidence plays an increasing role in divorce cases over the past 10 years. Most adults now have a videocamera in their pocket at all times, and many people’s instincts when a dramatic event is happening is to press record.

In the event of abuse, photos or videos of the abuse or injuries can be dramatic and compelling in court. Similarly, you can use visual evidence of an affair or other bad behavior to great effect before a judge.

But there are many other uses for photos and videos. If you are leaving the marital residence, rather than document the contents of the home before leaving, it can be much more efficient to take photos of everything that’s in the house so that there’s no dispute later.

If there are documents you’d like to copy, but you don’t have a scanner handy, a quick photo can suffice.

Tax Returns

Many jurisdictions require spouses to produce the last three to five years of tax returns during a divorce. Divorce attorneys use tax returns to get an overall picture of a couple’s finances: a couple’s income, business interests, and relevant deductions can all be seen on a tax return.

Credit Card Statements

Similar to bank statements, it’s customary to gather the last three years of credit card statements when going through a divorce. One might assume that only the balances of credit cards are relevant, but there’s a wealth of additional information contained in credit card statements. Since it’s common for a spouse to have a card in his or her name only, credit card statements often reveal affairs, rampant spending, locations, and other data that your attorney will want to review. Because of the detail contained on these statements, you can usually tell where a person is, their spending habits, their eating habits, and certainly whether they’ve got a mistress or paramour on the side.

Insurance Policies

Some life insurance policies have cash value, while term policies typically don’t. If one spouse is going to pay the other alimony or child support, it’s also common to require that spouse to maintain life insurance in an amount sufficient to pay the total amount of those obligations.

Loan Applications/Personal Financial Statements

Personal financial statements can be the holy grail of financial documents to gather in preparation for a divorce, for a number of reasons. First, these documents are typically signed by one or both spouses and used in an official purpose. Therefore, they’re seen as a reliable source of data regarding a spouse’s income, assets, and debts.

During a divorce, a spouse may try to minimize the value of the assets they possess, and maximize the value of the other spouse's assets. This makes sense, as each spouse is trying to avoid paying out huge sums to the other.

On the other hand, individuals preparing a personal financial statement to obtain a loan will admit to the full value of their assets, as the loan they’re applying for usually depends on it. Since the bank can ask for verification of the assets and debts listed on a personal financial statement connected to a loan application, spouses are less likely to fabricate the numbers. If you have concerns about your spouse hiding assets, a recent personal financial statement or loan application are great places to look.

Each divorce case is different, and some of these categories may not apply to you. You may also have different types of assets or debts that require you to gather additional types of documents and information. If you’re going through a divorce with complex assets, debts, or other interests, you’ll want to seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney.

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