We are living in challenging times right now. And stressful situations like illness, job loss and stay-at-home orders have put people in a position to confront some painful realities. For some married couples, this includes the breakdown of their marriage.

If you are considering divorce but cannot or do not want to move forward just yet, know that there are some valuable steps you can take before the divorce even begins when it comes to protecting yourself financially.

Get organized

A married couple’s financial details can be complicated and disorganized, particularly if you and your spouse have complex assets and accounts with various different financial institutions. In preparation for your dissolution or divorce, you can begin to gather and organize this financial information so that you have the documents necessary to review with your attorney.  These documents will help you and your attorney develop a clear, accurate picture of the assets at stake.

It is very common for spouses to have a division of labor in their marriage, where only one spouse manages the finances. This may mean that you do not have online log-in information or passwords to all of your financial accounts.  Don’t fret.  Instead, gather what information you are able to, and know that your attorney will help you to gather the rest of your financial information as part of your dissolution or divorce process.

If you are able to access your and your spouse’s financial documents from the filing cabinet in your house, you should do so.  If you are able to preserve any financial documents saved on your family computer, you should do that as well.  If your name is listed on an account, you should be able to ask the financial institution to mail, email, or fax statements to you. Note that if the account is a joint account with your spouse, the financial institution may automatically notify your spouse that account statements or information have been requested. This is generally not a problem unless you do not want your spouse to be privy to your information gathering.

You may want to consider contacting your financial planner to request copies of net worth statements or other financial planning statements they have prepared for you and your husband.  You may also want to contact your accountant to request copies previous years’ tax returns.

Track your expenses

When your dissolution or divorce process begins, your attorney will need to understand your monthly budget.  If you are the person who manages your family finances, you may be able to easily list your monthly expenses, both fixed (such as mortgage or rent) and variable (such as utilities and vacations). If you are not the person who manages your family finances, not to worry.  You can review your family’s monthly bank account and credit card statements to re-create your family’s average monthly budget.

Eventually, you and your attorney will work together to come up with an average monthly post-divorce budget.  This exercise helps to ensure that you will have the financial support you need in order to meet your budget.  Understanding how much money you spend – as well as what you spend it on – can shape expectations and negotiations for child support and spousal support.

The exercise of creating a monthly budget will also guide you as you make important financial decisions about your post-divorce finances, such as whether to buy or rent a house.

A preliminary monthly budget should include everything from housing expenses – rent/ mortgage, utilities, homeowners’ insurance, property taxes, and HOA fees – to lifestyle expenses – entertainment, restaurants, vacations, memberships, etc.  Make sure to also track child-related expenses, such as their healthcare costs and sports and activity fees.

Watch for suspicious activity

Finally, watch for unusual financial activity initiated by your spouse.  Keep an eye on your family’s spending, and be on the lookout for unusually large purchases.  Be wary of signing any financial documents related to the moving of finances between accounts or taking distributions from retirement assets.

Take private notes for yourself when your spouse mentions financial accounts, financial institutions, or financial advisors.  Save these notes in a safe place.  This can be important information once you start your dissolution or divorce process. For example, if you know your spouse receives a lot of mail from a particular financial institution, you can share that with your attorney. Your attorney can make a specific request for your spouse’s accounts at that financial institution.

Even if you are not prepared to jump into a divorce or dissolution process, you can begin preparing by familiarizing yourself with your family’s finances.  Know that you can set up a consultation with an attorney to advise you through these early stages, even if your dissolution or divorce is still a ways down the road.