Preparing for Your Family Law Matter

Preparing for Your Family Law Matter


Family law covers a broad range of issues, from separation and divorce to custody and adoption. Whether you’re a spouse, a parent, a child or part of a same-sex or unmarried couple, it’s important to consider a few financial and emotional factors before you embark upon a family law matter.

Taking a few simple steps before you file a petition can make a big difference later. In fact, certain actions are prohibited after filling, so you’ll want to be sure and take care of these ahead of time.

Steps to consider include :

• Keeping documents organized and secure
• Tracking expenses and keep receipts
• Checking your credit report
• Creating an inventory of your household
• Changing wills or living trusts
• Opening a personal checking account
• Establishing credit in your name
• Changing life insurance beneficiaries
• Severing joint tenancy or right of survivorship on property deeds

When you’re engaged in a family law matter, it’s essential to keep important papers organized and safe. You never know when you might need to find something in a hurry, and an organized filing system will reduce your stress level. Keep originals — and make copies — of documents, such as:

• Tax returns
• Bank statements
• Employee benefit handbooks
• Salary records
• Medical and life insurance policies
• Social Security statements
• Automobile titles
• Wills
• Credit card statements
• Check registers
• Mortgage documents

Track all of your expenses in one location, such as a journal, ledger, spreadsheet or budgeting software. Keep receipts to back up your accounting. This is especially important if your family law case involves children’s expenses, so create an organized system to track your finances.

Request your credit report from one – or all three – of the major credit bureaus. This is one of the easiest ways to determine how many accounts are out there with your name on them, whether closed or open. Make a list of all credit, loan and bank accounts and determine:

• How many accounts are joint or have other authorized users
• Account numbers
• Current balances
• Creditor contact information

Inventory your household. While you don’t need to include every single item, make a list of anything that’s worth more than $300, such as furniture, electronics, artwork, appliances, jewelry and automobiles. Don’t forget to include items in storage or in safe deposit boxes.

You may need to change your will or living trust. For instance, if you’ve gotten a divorce and you die without changing your will, the California court system invalidates bequests to your former spouse. However, if you die during a divorce proceeding, your soon-to-be-ex spouse is entitled to whatever the will bequests them. The same doesn’t always hold true for living trusts — in California, not all gifts to ex-spouses are automatically revoked upon divorce — so if you want to change the terms, you should do so before you file a petition. The good news is that living trusts are completely revocable; you can change them at any time.

If you’re considering filing a petition in a family law matter, you should open a personal checking account with no other authorized users. Choose a financial institution where no other family members bank and start putting as much money aside as you can afford, in case you need it later.

If you have joint accounts, you may not be able to close them while a family law case is proceeding. You may, however, request that the financial institution “freeze” joint accounts — or not let any money in or out unless all parties authorize the transaction.

While it’s never a good idea to run up credit cards, it is important to establish credit in your name. Consider opening credit accounts with a national credit card company, such as MasterCard or Visa, or getting a gas credit card to build your own credit history.

Certain actions cannot be taken after you file petitions, such as changing life insurance beneficiaries. Call your insurance agent and determine who you’ve listed as beneficiaries on your policy. In most cases, you’ll just have to sign a form to make the changes.

Another action that can’t be taken after filing is that of severing joint tenancy with right of survivorship on property deeds. When a property is owned by joint tenants – as deeded by the property’s title — the right of survivorship means that if one co-owner dies, the other automatically receives their share of the property. If you’re considering filing a petition, sever the joint tenancy first.

Though it’s important to put your financial house in order, you should also take the time to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally.

Before you file any papers, sit down and take a minute to consider outcomes you wish to achieve in the case, both for yourself and for your family. You may want to create a written list that details and prioritizes your specific life goals, your children’s interests and your financial security.

Strong support systems are essential when you’re engaged in a family law matter. You may want to turn to trusted friends or relatives, spiritual advisors or a therapists to help you deal with stressful situations.

Keep in mind that the best time to make life-altering change is not necessarily while you’re in the middle of a family law case. Postpone major decisions, such as employment changes or relocations, until the matter is settled.

Finally, take time for yourself. Don’t neglect your physical or mental health during trying times; instead, pay attention to the messages your body is sending and give yourself a break every now and then.

Though no one likes to imagine that they’ll be involved in a contentious family law matter, taking these simple preparatory steps can make all the difference down the road – helping you achieve positive results and move forward with your life.