Untying the knot: Where to start

It’s the decision no one wants to make — that it’s time to move towards getting a divorce. But once you’ve come to that point it can be hard to figure out what to do next. Here are some basic steps to get started, and where to look next.

You will need two support networks: an emotional support network to help you deal with the huge changes in your life and all the feelings that ending a relationship will bring, and a practical support network to deal with all the details — legal, financial, and material.

Emotional Support

First consider telling your friends and family. Many people put this step off out of embarrassment or concern that their friends and family will not be supportive. But in most cases those close to you will step up to the plate.

Many people find keeping a journal helpful. Not only does this give you a place to express a full range of emotions, it can also become a way to track the steps that you will have to follow — who you have talked to, verbal agreements, and issues to discuss at later dates.

Next, you may want to look for a divorce support group. These groups offer thebenefit of experience of people going through similar steps in their life, and some bring in experts to discuss specific topics. One place to start is a site like Divorce Care which provides some online information and listings of local support groups in Canada and the US. There are also online email support groups — try a search through your favourite search engine to turn some up.

You can also ask your doctor, spiritual counselor, or a social worker for their recommendations.

Things to consider in choosing a group include:
• Is the group geared towards the kind of support you want? (Access to information, listening ears, or spiritual advice?)
• Is there a contact person for the group and how is the group facilitated?

And finally you may find this is a time you need professional support from a therapist or counsellor, either alone or “divorce counselling” with your soon to be ex-spouse. Ask for referrals from your family doctor, friends and family, or your lawyer.

Questions to ask a therapist include:
• How much experience do you have in counselling? In dealing with issues around divorce?
• What formal training and education have you completed? What professional associations do you belong to?
• How in general would you approach the issues I’m concerned with?

Practical Support

Good information is vital. For an overview of the federal divorce process, visit the Department of Justice’s website. This site also includes a list of provincial websites. This is important because although divorce falls under Federal law, provinces have laws around issues related to divorce such as support and child custody.

Particularly important for people over 50 is information about credit splitting for CPP credits. The Human Resources and Social Development Canada website has an overview here.

One thing to keep in mind about divorce settlement — support payments and property and debt division in particular — is that courts will often uphold a separation agreement even when a divorce formula might award spousal support differently. So consider getting legal advice as early in your separation and divorce process as possible.

Things to consider in a separation agreement include:
• Date of separation
• Issues around children, if there are any left at home
• Spousal support
• Property issues – not just division of property but who will be responsible for things like mortgage payments in the meantime
• Debt issues
• Retirement savings issues

When looking for a lawyer, several factors come into play. If you and your spouse are able to work out most major issues and intend to file an uncontested or joint divorce, you may not need to pay top dollar for the best lawyer. However, if you anticipate a prolonged argument you will want to be more careful about your choice of lawyer. Look for referrals from lawyers you retain in other areas, your accountant or financial advisor, or your counsellor, as well as family and friends.

Things to ask a potential lawyer include:
• How many matrimonial cases they have handled
• What they consider their style to be — aggressive or conciliatory. Ask what percentage of their clients end up going to court and what percentage is able to resolve issues through mediation. (Some lawyers specialize in mediation or alternative dispute resolution.)
• Who will be assisting on the case; if an associate will be involved, who will be doing the actual negotiating?
• What other professionals are a part of the team (counsellors, etc.)
• How will I be kept informed of developments in my case?
• What is the fee structure; what percentages of fees will be paid in advance, etc. Get the billing details in writing including things like fees for copying, etc.
• Based on your experience how much do you think my case will cost?

If you think you cannot afford a lawyer, check the provincial sites available from the Federal site above — many provinces offer legal aid.

Another professional you may want to hire is a financial advisor or accountant to go over your finances with you. Divorce can be financially devastating and it can help to have good advice from the start.