In any circumstances, divorce can be a stressful and unsettling experience. But amid the challenges of COVID-19, these feelings may have become intensified for many couples. In some cases, the tensions of being in lockdown may have initiated or accelerated their decision to part ways. While for others, especially those forced to survive on a reduced income due to one or both of them being laid off or furloughed, any plans to separate could have been momentarily derailed.
Either way, with so much uncertainty right now, it is inevitable that the question of how to divide up assets is likely to be more unpredictable than normal. Yet if you and your spouse are planning to divorce, but need to wait until the current situation becomes more manageable, there are things you can do now to get your ducks in a row and make the process as straightforward as possible — financially and emotionally.
Start by talking
An open and honest conversation about your financial situation is the best way to start any divorce negotiation. This is known as financial disclosure and includes sharing up-to-date information about your assets, liabilities, pensions and income. To make that conversation as detailed and accurate as possible, you should thoroughly assess your current finances, including pay stubs, tax returns, retirement accounts, business interests, pensions, real estate and liabilities, such as mortgages, loans, car loans and credit cards. You can do this mostly online and keep it in a secure portal for future use.
Be sure to pay attention to any recent changes due to the coronavirus, too, particularly if you hold shares, investments or property that are likely to have decreased in value. For example, right now agreeing on the value of the family home is likely to be more difficult than usual. That’s because many valuations are still not being carried out in person while the party(ies) who need to buy a new home may find their mortgage capacity has changed. Many banks are increasing the amount of deposit required for a new mortgage application and this, therefore, should be factored into to any financial negotiation, too.
Even if you’re not in a position to move things forward at the moment, you can still use this time to learn about different ways to divorce so you know exactly how you want to proceed when the time comes. These include litigation, mediation, arbitration or collaborative divorce.
You can also start to develop a personal budget, starting with your current lifestyle, but also looking at your likely expenditure post-divorce. Be sure to consider expenses that may be new or go up, such as childcare costs, household maintenance that your partner previously did or paid for, bills that were shared or that your partner also paid for, etc. Try to research what your future living arrangement might be too, exploring real estate or rental options that might fit the budget you develop.
Involving an independent financial advisor in the process from the start can help reduce the inevitable strains of divorce negotiation. This includes laying out different settlement scenarios and then clearly and impartially explaining what each one would mean to both parties involved.
Along with a CPA or tax professional, a financial professional can also help you understand the tax implications of splitting complex assets like trusts, business valuations and anticipated inheritances, helping you develop an accurate picture of you and your spouse’s true net worth.
Given the uncertainty being caused by the pandemic, a financial professional can help you stay on top of the changing economic climate and provide guidance on any expected impact — both short and long term — on your finances. If you or your spouse have been laid off or furloughed, a mediator or divorce attorney can explain how your return to work in the future should be dealt with during any current settlement. This is particularly important when agreeing on alimony or child support payments.
Consider a separation agreement
If you and/or your partner has experienced significant changes in financial or personal circumstances due to COVID-19, you might also consider talking to an attorney about a separation agreement. This sets out which party will issue formal divorce proceedings and when, and tends to include details like who will pay the bills, what will happen with the family home, how bank accounts and investments will be divided, and any arrangements for childcare. When the time is right, this could help form the basis of your formal financial settlement in a consent order.
Separation agreements can be an effective way for you and your spouse to set the ball rolling now while still allowing you the necessary time and room to negotiate further should your situation change. They aren’t legally binding, but they often carry a lot of weight in any future court proceedings. You should therefore seek legal advice before negotiating and signing one.
Whether or not your divorce has been brought on by the stress of living together through the last several months under lockdown, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to navigate this process alone. Nor do you need to put all your plans on hold indefinitely.
By doing as much as you can to prepare and educate yourself now and by surrounding yourself with a team of professionals who can help you deal with the financial, emotional and logistical elements of divorce, you will give yourself the best possible chance of moving forward with clarity, strength and confidence when the time comes.