The key to getting a Judgment of Divorce from the court is for both you and your spouse to first sign a divorce agreement, commonly called a Marital Settlement Agreement.
The Marital Settlement Agreement resolves all issues relating to your marriage. These typically include child custody, parenting time, child support, college costs for children, alimony, and division of the marital assets and debts.
If you and your spouse are both committed to settling your divorce between yourselves (preferably with legal advice for each of you), here’s a general 8-step divorce plan that can save you big on divorce lawyer fees.
1. Agree about the Kids.
Draft up a written custody and parenting time agreement for your children. You can use this form as a guide.
2. Inventory the Marital Assets and Debts
Make a joint list or spreadsheet of all marital assets and debts owned in either or both your names. For the assets, include real property, bank accounts, investment accounts, and all pension or retirement accounts (IRAs, 401ks, pension and/or profit-sharing plans, annuities). For any accounts in one spouse’s name, it’s generally a good idea to exchange account statements for the last three years or so to identify additional sources of income and any large withdrawals. Also include personal property, such as furniture, art, and jewelry.
Significantly, if there are any businesses, or premarital, partially premarital, inherited, or other more complex assets, you should consult with an experienced divorce and family lawyer about how such assets are treated under New Jersey law and to protect your interests.
For the marital debts, it’s generally a good idea for each of you to obtain a current credit report that will list the outstanding debts in each of your names. These typically include mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and outstanding credit card balances. Include the current approximate values and balances for each asset and debt.
3. Gather Insurance Policies
Make a joint list of all health insurance policies, health savings accounts, life insurance policies, and safe deposit box contents.
4. Calculate the Marital Income.
Make a separate list or spreadsheet for joint marital income. Separate the list into two columns, one for each spouse. Identify all sources and amounts of income for each of you. Have each column totaled.
If there is any employment compensation involving bonuses, commissions, stock options or other incentive compensation, be sure and consult with an experienced divorce and family lawyer as to how such compensation is valued and divided under New Jersey law.
5. Calculate Your Expenses.
On the income spreadsheet above, list and total each type and amount of all current expenses for each of you. Include expenses for the children and college costs, if being paid. Make sure all expenses are accurate.
6. What Does the Future Hold?
Identify what you would each like your post-divorce financial life to look like. For example, does one of you want to keep the marital home? Do you want to sell the home and/or other real property and each purchase separate residences? How much do each of you want to have saved in retirement? Use your goals to list anticipated post-divorce expenses, including future college costs, if any.
7. What Will You Need?
Ideally, have a financial or tax advisor for each of you run a cash flow analysis for each spouse. The cash flow analysis will incorporate your income, assets, debts, and expenses so that you can each get an idea as to which settlement scenarios would work best to achieve what you each want after the divorce. The cash flow analysis would also account for tax consequences with respect to income and assets.
8. Your Lawyer’s Role
Many separated or divorcing couples approach lawyers without any prior planning. As a result, they leave it up to the divorce lawyers to do all work, which they’re more than happy to do, charging you big fees along the way.
By doing the legwork yourself and sharing your divorce plan with each lawyer, you use your lawyer strategically and cost-effectively. For instance, you and your spouse should each consult with separate attorneys to make sure you don’t overlook anything significant and to advise you on alimony and other applicable New Jersey laws.
Your lawyers can also help generate settlement options and conduct strategic negotiations on your behalf. Ultimately, the lawyers will draft the formal Marital Settlement Agreement and file the legal documents with the court required to obtain your Judgment of Divorce.
Not only can you save big on divorce lawyer fees, but you will also be in charge of your own future and the future of your kids.
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