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.

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