Divorce advice: what are the first steps you need to take?

Couple divorcing

Even the best of relationships come under pressure during the festive season. According to the Co-operative, 57% of all couples argue or have issues with one another at this time of year. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the first day back at work in the New Year is known in the business as divorce day.

However, even in the heat of the moment, it's vital that you think carefully abut the steps you are taking.
Christina Blacklaws, Director of Family Law at The Co-operative Legal Services, said: "The festive period can be tough, both financially and emotionally, and in some cases it's the final nail in the relationship coffin."

Take advice

The Law Society recommends that the first step, before even speaking to your partner, should be to visit a divorce lawyer. They will be able to talk through how the divorce process works, and the steps you will need to take. They may explain about mediation - which is how most lawyers recommend you approach reaching agreement on things like division of assets and access to children.

Mediation is often a much cheaper and less complicated way to reach an agreement than the process of going to court - which could easily cost £10,000 per person or more. It also gives you more control over the decisions that are made, rather than putting everything in the hands of a judge. If you can reach an agreement it is far preferable, although it is not always workable, and requires both parties to actively want to sort things out.

They will also be able to assess your personal circumstances, and any assets or debts you hold together. They can get a clear picture of the situation with any children, and your needs. Before you see the lawyer, it's important that you know where you stand financially, so dig out any documents and make any calls you need to. It's a waste of your time and money if you go to a lawyer without the full picture.

They will not be able to give you any definitive answers, because your settlement will either be a compromise between spouses or a decision by a judge. They will follow certain protocols but there are no guarantees as to what a particular judge will decide on a particular day. However, they will be able to tell you the risks you face and the likely outcomes.

The process of seeing a lawyer could take an hour or more, and cost £150 or more, so if this is beyond your budget, you will need to find an alternative source of advice, such as a Citizens Advice Bureau who will help you understand the legal aspects, and the Money Advice Service who can talk you through the financial considerations.

If you are worried that your partner will try to move or hide assets during the divorce process, then you may need to get an injunction to prevent this. It's a complex area of law and not cheap, so is only worthwhile if you are concerned that significant sums could disappear. This step should be taken before you speak to your partner.

Protect yourself

As soon as possible you will need to speak to your bank, credit card provider, and any business where you have joint accounts or loans. You can instruct them to stop your partner running up any new debts or withdrawing funds. Freezing the accounts will mean that neither of you can get at the money, so you need to think about the implications, and whether you will both have enough money to live in the short-term.

If you are married and your home is in your spouse's name, you will need to register your interest at the Land Registry using a matrimonial notice. This will stop your partner being able to sell the property without your knowledge.

You also need to make plans for paying the mortgage. Ideally you should reach agreement with your spouse about the short term, but if this isn't possible, speak to your mortgage lender.

If you are renting together, speak to your landlord about transferring the tenancy to yourself or your partner alone. If you need to move somewhere more affordable you will have to discuss ending the tenancy, but your landlord is not obligated to agree. If you are having problems it is worth contacting the charity Shelter, who should be able to help.

Big decisions

The Co-operative has a checklist of considerations which runs through the big decisions you have to make, and will flag up additional areas you need to consider. This includes things such being assessed for benefits, making a will, and agreeing financial payments to look after the children.

Many of these are complicated areas, and most people would benefit from some advice from a lawyer if they can afford it. Alternatively charities such as Citizen's Advice, or Maypole (for women) should be able to help.

The vital lessons of celebrity divorce
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Divorce advice: what are the first steps you need to take?

Rupert and Anna Murdoch: $1.7billion (£901m)

Australian Murdoch and his former wife were married for 32 years and had three children together, before splitting in 1999. Around $1.7 billion of Murdoch's fortune went to Anna.

"The divorce rate is rising rapidly among the over-60s - up 58% in 2012 compared with 2011," explains Stowe. "According to reports at the time, Anna wanted her media tycoon husband to slow down – but like many people these days, Rupert didn't want to approach his sunset years sitting in an armchair. Over 60s want to enjoy themselves, making the most of what time they have left by doing what they love best."

Mel and Robyn Gibson: $425million (£273m)

Mel Gibson's 31-year marriage to Robyn felt apart when his mistress and soon-to-be second wife Oksana Grigorieva's pregnancy was made public. Robyn was entitled to half of his assets under California state law and the Lethal Weapon actor reportedly handed her half of his estimated $850 million fortune.

"Robyn's sizeable settlement included 50% of her movie star husband's pension rights," explains Stowe. "My male clients are often displeased to discover that financial negotiations extend to their pensions. They are also shocked to discover that, if the wife is younger than the husband, her claim to a share of the pension can potentially be greater than his because her life expectancy may be greater than his."

Roman and Irina Abramovich: $300 million (£193m)

Roman Abramovich reportedly finally agreed to divorce wife Irina when she could no longer put up with his roguish ways and he refused to give up his mistress. The £150 million payout could have been a lot more painful for the Chelsea FC owner - Irina sought 50% of his $12.1 billion fortune, which if successful would have been the largest divorce settlement of all time by a count of six.

"Most couples, whether or not they are in the public eye, prefer to avoid court and maintain their privacy," says Stowe. "Moreover court proceedings, which pit one party against the other in an adversarial environment, can be unpleasant and stressful. Although $300 million sounds like a lot, Irina Abramovich could have fought for a far greater share of the couple's fortune. By agreeing to settle for less, she was able to avoid an acrimonious court case – and all the public scrutiny that would have come with it."

Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren: $110million (£70m)

Shamed by the sex scandal that wrecked their marriage, Swedish Nordgren got a reported $110 million settlement from her cheating ex, golf star Tiger Woods. When Nordegren finally ended nine months of silence over her heartbreak in August 2010, she said she "felt stupid" that Woods cheated on her with a parade of party girls and porn stars, and noted: "Money can't buy happiness. Or put my family back together."

"When the rich and famous divorce, the public want details: the juicier, the better," says Stowe. "However it is easy to get carried away by the sums and forget that, even for the most privileged among us, money is no balm for heartbreak."

Steven Spielberg and Amy Irving: $100million (£60m)

The couple, who first met when Irving tried out for the lead role in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, went onto marry in 1985. According to Celebritynetworth.com, when they divorced in 1989, Irving claimed their prenup was invalid because it was written on a napkin without any lawyers present. She successfully won a $100 million settlement.

"Don't assume that a prenuptial agreement isn't worth the paper it is written on: in England and Wales, pre-nups will certainly be considered by the court but are not yet automatically binding, " explains Stowe. "However a prenup is more likely to be upheld if it is consensual and voluntary, not signed in haste, not clearly out of date (providing for future children, for example), preferably including a review after a period of time, and properly drafted with full disclosure."

Madonna and Guy Ritchie: $76m-$92million (£48m-£59m)

When Madonna divorced director Guy Ritchie in 2008 after eight years of marriage, Ritchie was said to have walked away with between $76 to $92 million - almost a fifth of the singer's estimated $500 million net worth, plus a country house and a London pub.

"The settlement rumoured to have been received by Ritchie is thought to have been the largest divorce settlement ever paid to a man, showing that in 2013, it isn't always the wives who get the divorce settlements," explains Stowe. "In recent years I have encountered a number of successful female breadwinners who were bewildered to discover what they faced to lose if they divorced."

Sir Paul McCartney's and Heather Mills: estimated at $48.6million (£28million)

Following their divorce in 2006 Heather Mills was awarded £24.3m in the settlement decided by a court judge. According to the BBC, McCartney paid his estranged wife a £16.5m lump sum, including £2.5m to buy a London property, in addition to £7.8m assets and £35,000 a year for their daughter Beatrice. The settlement was blow for Mills who had sought some £125m of the former Beatle's £400m fortune.

"The demolition of family law legal aid, which provided help with legal costs, has led to a boom in people representing themselves in court," explains Stowe. "Heather Mills represented herself in the High Court – and discovered for herself the disadvantages of doing so.

"In the courtroom, there are no prisoners taken. You may think you are saving money by representing yourself or opting for a cheap DIY divorce online – but such decisions can turn out to be expensive in the long run if you settle for less than you are worth. "

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump; $25 million (£16m)

The Trumps 15-year marriage came to an end in 1992, with Ivana taking $25million in an out-of-court settlement, plus several properties. The couple's old Mercedes proved a major sticking point, which Ivana – who claimed Donald had given it to her as a gift – eventually won.

"I have often observed that clients who are knowledgeable and well-prepared, with a realistic outlook, are better equipped to cope with proceedings and move on with their lives afterwards," explains Stowe. "Ivana Trump has a refreshing attitude and since divorcing has gone on to enjoy considerable success of her own as a real estate developer and as the founder of Ivana Haute Couture, which sells her signature products, fragrances and accessories."

Lionel Richie and Diane Richie; estimated at $20 million (£12m)

Richie married Diane in 1995 and the couple had two children, before their marriage broke down in 2004. The Richie's became tabloid favourites, reports Forbes magazine, as Diane detailed their lavish lifestyle in her alimony petition. Among her claims: a monthly clothing allowance of $15,000; $50,000 a month for manicures, massages and other personal services; and a plastic surgery budget of $20,000 a year.

"Richie rubbished Diane's demand as "a lawyer giving some advice that's completely absurd", and insisted that despite the headlines, the couple still had a "great time" together," explains Stowe. "Perhaps he was right: the couple have remained on good terms and were spotted shoe-shopping together in 2011. It is difficult for a divorcing couple to stay friends, irrespective of the settlement size, but it can be done."

Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall; estimated between $15 and $25 million (£9.6m-£16m)

After nine years of marriage, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall divorced with a $25 million settlement. According to Celebritynetworth.com, Jagger attempted to get out of any payment by claiming they had never really been married because their Balinese Hindu wedding ceremony was not legally binding.

"Their ceremony was invalid because under Balinese law, only Muslim marriages can be validly conducted," explains Stowe. "When a couple's marriage is not valid according to English law, it is still possible for one spouse to obtain a financial settlement – but only if the Petitioner spouse thought he or she had actually gone through a lawful marriage ceremony and acted as married thereafter. If you plan to marry overseas, however, do avoid Jerry Hall's plight by double-checking the law before you leave."

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