The papers have been signed. The judgment has been entered. Your divorce is final. The thought of asking your divorce lawyer for a post-divorce checklist never even entered your mind. As far as you’re concerned, you’re done, right?
… not exactly.
Your Divorce May Be Final, But You’re Not Done!
Going through a divorce is exhausting on every level. Once your divorce is finally over, it’s natural to want to put it behind you.
But you can’t truly close the door on your divorce until you’ve tied up all the loose ends that go with it. (… and there are A LOT of loose ends!)
If you’re like most people you still have to divide up all your assets, separate some of your stuff, deal with your debts and start re-establishing your own credit. You have to make sure that everything that your divorce judgment says is supposed to happen actually does happen.
You also need to separate everything related to your kids.
What’s more, you have to set up two separate homes, complete with clothes, toys and personal items for your kids. You also need to establish a new way of communicating with your ex about the kids. (Keeping a family calendar of activities on your refrigerator simply isn’t going to cut it when your kids are going back and forth between two households!)
If you’re lucky, you at least started to separate your stuff and build your own life while your divorce was going on. But, even if you did, there are still a lot of things you couldn’t do until after your divorce was final.
The bottom line is that just because the judge divorced you, that doesn’t mean you are done! Far from it.
So, even though doing more paperwork or continuing to deal with your ex is the last thing you probably want to do, it’s exactly what you have to do. What’s more, just like in your divorce, you need to make sure that you don’t miss anything important AFTER your divorce.
That’s where a good post-Post-Divorce can come in handy.
But, Won’t My Divorce Lawyer Take Care of Everything?
Many people assume that their divorce lawyer will separate everything for them. Or they assume that their assets and debts will somehow just automatically become separate when their divorce is final.
Neither one of those assumptions is true.
Traditional divorce lawyers are focused on getting you divorced. They are usually pretty good at that. They’re good at fighting for you and negotiating for you. But once your divorce is over, they’re pretty much done.
The one thing divorce lawyers will do for you after your divorce is to get the special Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs) orders entered that will allow you to divide your retirement accounts.
What your divorce lawyer WON’T do (unless you pay him/her a LOT of money!) is go to your banks, mortgage companies, credit card companies, etc. and fill out all the paperwork that needs to be completed in order to separate what’s yours from what belongs to your ex.
Doing all that is up to you.
That means that you are the one who has to change titles, separate bank accounts, cancel credit cards, and attend to the thousand other picky little details of dividing up your finances. You are the one (if you are a woman and you choose to do so) who has to change your name everywhere.
You are the one who needs to make sure that the entire world knows you are divorced and treats you like a single person from this point forward.
In other words, with or without a post-divorce checklist, you are the one who has to figure all this stuff out. If you’re not sure how to do that, here are the top ten steps you need to follow.
Top 10 Steps in Your Post Divorce Checklist
1. Make Your Personal Post-Divorce Checklist So You Don’t Miss Anything.
Because there are SO MANY picky little things you have to do after your divorce, having a good post-divorce checklist can be the key to making sure you don’t miss anything important. Yet getting that checklist is only step #1. After you’ve got it, you need to customize it so that it covers everything that YOU need to do in your specific situation.
Once you’ve got a basic post-divorce checklist to start with, you’re ready to start customizing.
Go through your divorce judgment and make a detailed list of every deadline. Write them all in your calendar now!
Make a list of everything you are supposed to divide: bank accounts, retirement accounts, personal property, real estate, cars, cash, credit cards, etc. Also, note exactly how much you are supposed to get from every account. (Making a spreadsheet of all this works really well!)
Next, make sure your checklist covers the things you have to change that no one usually thinks about: Wills, powers of attorney, life insurance beneficiaries, health insurance coverage, etc.
If you didn’t have a good post-divorce checklist to start with, you’re going to have to make your own. Here are the categories of things your checklist should cover:
Assets to split;
Debt to divide and credit to separate;
Estate planning (wills, trust, powers of attorney, etc.);
Other Stuff to Remember.
2. Tackle the Most Important Stuff First
After you’ve made your checklist, you’re going to need to prioritize it. To do that, you’re going to want to put the most time-critical items first.
For example, if your divorce judgment says “the parties must do X in 7 days” you better make doing “X” a top priority!
You’re also going to want to divide your bank accounts as soon as possible – even on the same day as your divorce. Since your account balance changes every day, dividing these accounts sooner rather than later can save you from a lot of arguments and headaches down the road.
PRACTICAL TIP: Make sure you also change all of the automatic debits and credits that are currently associated with any bank account you change or close.
After you’ve done everything that’s time-sensitive, your next step is going to be to streamline and prioritize your remaining tasks. To do that, you need to start gathering information.
3. Organize Your Paperwork
A big part of separating your finances from your ex’s finances involves doing paperwork. For example, there are specific forms you need to complete to transfer the title to vehicles, change beneficiaries on life insurance policies, etc.
If you do that paperwork a little bit at a time, you’re going to have to deal with your ex over and over again as you receive each individual piece of paper. If you and your ex get along, that may be fine. But if you don’t get along, you’re going to need to be a bit more organized.
Make a list of every document and form you’re going to need in order to divide everything that you’re supposed to divide. Then, get copies of all of those documents and forms. After you’ve gotten them all, you’ll be able to meet with your ex ONCE and get everything signed at the same time.
NOTE: Getting everything done at once is just a GOAL! It may not be possible. The idea is to be prepared with as much paperwork as possible so that you limit the number of times you and your ex have to interact.
PRACTICAL TIP: If you want to be really efficient, you can start gathering these forms even before you’re divorced. That way you’ll be ready to get them signed and filed right after your divorce is final.
4. Make Dividing Your Home and Your Retirement Accounts a Top Priority
If you’re like most people, your biggest assets are your home and your retirement accounts. Yet, transferring those assets, in particular, can be a pain in the behind. That makes it easy to put off making the transfer for way too long. Yet doing that has serious potential risks.
The longer you put off making these transfers, the bigger the chances are that something will go wrong. If it does, you may not get the money you thought you were going to get out of either one of these assets.
a. Transferring Home Ownership.
The way that your home ownership gets transferred depends on exactly how you and your ex divided your home in your divorce. It also depends on what your divorce judgment says.
In most cases, if you or your spouse is keeping the house, one of you will have to sign a “Quit Claim Deed” giving the house to the other person. That deed officially gets the signing spouse’s name off the title to the house. It does NOT, however, take anyone’s name off the mortgage!
The only way to get off a mortgage is to have someone else (i.e. your ex) refinance the loan in his/her own name.
If you or your ex is refinancing the house, the new mortgage company will generally draft a Quit Claim Deed as part of the refinance documents. On the other hand, if no refinance is involved, then you and your ex are going to have to prepare the Quit Claim Deed yourselves AND file it with the Recorder of Deeds Office yourself.
PRACTICAL TIP: Do yourself a huge favor and pay an attorney to draft a Quit Claim Deed for you. While you may be able to use a form you get online, if you do that, and you screw it up, you can jeopardize your interest in probably the most expensive thing you own!
b. Dividing Retirement Accounts.
Dividing retirement accounts can be complicated! What’s more, not only can you screw up the amount that gets transferred from your ex’s account to yours (or vice versa) but you can also screw up the tax consequences of the transfer. That’s something you definitely DON’T want to do!
To avoid that, the wisest thing that you can do is to have a divorce attorney explain the transfer process to you BEFORE you do anything! S/he can help you make sure that you do the transfer right.
A divorce lawyer can also get a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) entered if you need one. (That’s a special court order that is used to divide certain retirement accounts.)
QDROs can be very complicated. If they are not done properly, the administrator of the retirement plan will reject them. That’s why hiring an attorney to do them makes a whole lot of sense.
One last thing to remember is that you don’t want to wait before transferring money from a retirement account after divorce. If (God forbid!) your ex gets hit by a bus before your money gets transferred out, then getting the money that was supposed to be transferred to you will be infinitely more difficult!
PRACTICAL TIP: Getting a QDRO entered in court and processed by a retirement plan administrator can take months to complete. That’s another reason why you don’t want to let this go for a long period of time.
5. Don’t Forget to Take Care of Your Credit (and Debt)!
Dividing assets is only one part of separating yourself financially from your ex. The other part involves dividing your debts and credit.
If you haven’t pulled a credit report in the last six months, you’re going to want to do that now. Take stock of all of the credit cards that you have.
If you haven’t already done so during your divorce, you need to cancel all of your joint credit cards. Also, make sure to remove your spouse’s name as an authorized user of all of your credit cards.
If you aren’t sure whether your spouse is an authorized user on any of your credit cards – check! It’s better to check now than it will be to pay a bill that your spouse has run up later and then try to chase him/her for reimbursement.
You’re also going to want to make sure that your spouse removes you as an authorized user of any of his/her credit cards as well. Although it may be tempting to remain a co-signor on your spouse’s credit cards, doing that continues to keep you tied to your spouse’s credit. That may be great if your spouse always pays the bills on time. But if not, your credit could potentially take a hit too. That’s not what you want.
(Also, if you think that you’re going to be able to charge something on your spouse’s credit card six months from now and s/he just “won’t notice” or call you out on it, think again!)
Finally, if your spouse is supposed to pay off any bills that are in your name – make sure it happens! Log into your accounts online every month. Check to see whether the proper payments are being made. Don’t take anything for granted!
6. Secure Your Financial Future.
Making a Will, preparing an estate plan, and changing all of your beneficiaries isn’t something anyone looks forward to doing. But as a “newly single” person, doing all of those things is absolutely critical – especially if you have kids!
If you had died while you were married, your ex would probably have inherited everything you had. But now that you’re single, that won’t necessarily happen. What’s more, you probably don’t WANT it to happen! That’s why making a Will and an estate plan is so important for you.
If you already have a Will, you need to make a new one after you’re divorced. If you don’t have a Will, now is the perfect time to get one. The same thing is true if you have a trust. After your divorce, you’re probably going to want to change some of the trust provisions based upon your new situation.
You’re also going to want to re-do your powers of attorney for healthcare and for property, too. (…unless you want to have your ex making life and death decisions for you if you’re in a coma someday!)
Finally, you need to change your beneficiary designations on anything that has a named beneficiary. That includes all of your life insurance policies and 401(k)s. It may include some bank accounts and investment accounts.
Make sure to check with each and every financial institution you have. Ask them for copies of your current beneficiary designations as well as change of beneficiary forms.
7. Start Your Co-Parenting Off Right
Keeping track of what is going on with your kids is challenging enough when you are living together as a family. Once you and your ex have separate lives, knowing what your kids are doing, and when you are responsible for getting them somewhere, becomes even harder.
If you and your ex get along, setting up a joint Google calendar is probably the cheapest, easiest way for each of you to keep track of your kids’ school events, extracurricular activities, sports practices, and social schedule.
If you and your ex don’t get along, there are a lot of inexpensive or free co-parenting apps that you can use to keep track of your kids’ calendar and expenses. These tools will also track all of the emails between you and your ex. That tends to make your email exchanges much less ugly. (When everyone knows that their emails will be seen later, the emails become way more civilized.)
8. Definitely Sweat the “Small” Stuff!
When it comes to getting your post-divorce life off on the right foot, the devil is in the details. “Small” things that you might think don’t matter can make a HUGE difference down the road.
For example, if you don’t have your own health insurance after your divorce, you need to fix that as soon as possible! There are strict time limits involved in applying for health insurance after divorce. Those time limits apply to COBRA coverage AND to most other types of health insurance.
If you blow the time limits for getting health insurance, you may be forced to live without it until the next open enrollment period. Meanwhile, if any health issues arise while you’re not covered, that can result in a significant medical bill!
Another “detail” many people forget about is income taxes.
When your status changes from “married” to “single,” the amount of income tax you have to pay may change too. That means that you may now be withholding too much, or not enough, from your paychecks. To avoid a huge surprise next April 15, have your accountant look at your tax situation now. Then you can make any necessary adjustments sooner rather than later.
Finally, if you haven’t already changed all of your passwords for everything – do it now!
PRACTICAL TIP: When changing your passwords after divorce, try to use passwords that your ex wouldn’t be able to guess. If remembering a bunch of new passwords is too overwhelming, get LastPass. It will remember all of your passwords for you (and it will help you generate strong passwords to boot!)
Your Own Post-Divorce Checklist
Getting divorced is a process.
Contrary to what most people think, that process doesn’t end when your divorce judgment is entered. Yet, managing that process doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The key is to get organized and then to systematically work your way through everything you need to do.
Having a good post-divorce checklist can help.